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Posted by on Dec 5, 2007 in faith schools, Ibrahim Lawson, Is religion dangerous | 10 comments

Reply to Ibrahim Lawson

Hello again, Ibrahim (if I may)

I have pointed out that other religious folk are able to tolerate – some even positively encourage – critical thought about religion in school. I ask: why aren’t you?

If I have understood correctly, your answer is that this is simply not permitted according to Islam. In any good Islamic school, “Islam is a given and never challenged”.

Your main response to my arguments for encouraging such critical thought seems to be this: that you and I have different foundational principles. Your foundational principles include certain beliefs about Islam, mine don’t. Neither set of foundational principles can ultimately be “justified” (perhaps because all justifications have to come to an end somewhere, and here is where they come to end).

Procedural reason always takes something for granted – premises. If our first premises – our foundational principles – differ, reason will not, then, be able to settle which are correct.

I guess you think this dispute over how children should be taught is just such a dispute. It is rooted in differences between us that are foundational. So reason cannot arbitrate between us – it cannot settle who is right and who is wrong.

As you put it: we have here a rationally “unresolvable disagreement over specific, first order issues”.

Is that a fair representation of your argument? If so, I’ll start by making one small observation. It might not be a good idea to invoke MacIntyre.

MacIntyre does say that all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought. But he doesn’t think this means that certain traditional ways of thinking must therefore be protected from rational scrutiny. In fact MacIntyre clearly states “nothing can claim exemption from reflective critique” [my italic, After MacIntyre, p298].

I repeat, MacIntyre says “Nothing can claim exemption from reflective critique”. That seems to be exactly what you deny.

I think the muddle here is this – it may be true that certain foundational beliefs or principles cannot be rationally justified in any non-circular way. It maybe that reason cannot settle which of us is correct, when it comes to those beliefs.

However, even if this is true, and even if certain principles of Islam are, for you, in this sense, foundational, it doesn’t follow they should not be subjected to critical scrutiny. Indeed, MacIntyre thinks they should!

In short: It’s one thing to say certain basic principles cannot be justified (because they are foundational). It’s quite another to say they should not be subjected to critical scrutiny. (this line added 6th Dec)

So what, then, is your argument for saying that the foundational principles of Islam should not be subjected to critical scrutiny? Other, of course, than that it says they shouldn’t? It seems you have none. Certainly, MacIntyre does not provide you with any.

Incidentally, I think reason does indeed establish that the basic tenets of Islam are false, and also that the educational method you advocate is dangerous. That’s to say, I don’t think this is a rationally “unresolvable disagreement over specific, first order issues”. But let’s not get distracted by that for the moment.

P.S. I would be very happy to give a talk at the mosque. Do ask the imam to get in touch. Also, please invite him, and any other Muslims you think might be interested, to chip in here, if they wish.


  1. Fascinating dialog going on here, especially from the perspective of “your average joe”, a group of which I am unquestionably a card-carrying member.Truly, it’s discussions like this that have made me a big fan of this blog, Stephen. With regards to the actual subject matter, you phrased my prime question much more gracefully, but it really strikes at the heart of the matter: are there things that truly are above or beyond critical review? To me, that seems to be the vital element underpinning any religious belief: to say that this proclamation, that revered book, or that religious leader is beyond the scope of examination as a matter of definition, at least according to that faith’s dictates. My main problem stems from the fact that most religions place their most guarded tenets in a metaphysical lockbox, which none are permitted to open. It is simply dishonest and disingenuous, to me. A spiritual runaround, if you will. But again, a great discussion that I will continue to follow…!

  2. Of course the foundational principles of Islam should be open to critical scrutiny. But they won’t be critically scrutinised by Muslims, in schools or elsewhere, because it is a foundational principle of Islam that “Islam is a given and never challenged”.That may be fine for Muslims, but where does it leave the rest of us, politically as well as philosophically?

  3. You two prompted me to rephrase my objection more clearly – so thanks.

  4. Although it is somewhat more on the formal side, I’d like to recommend The Retreat To Commitment by William Warrren Bartley. It deals with precisely this issue of the “retreat” to seemingly incommensurable foundational principles, and the religious “tu quoque” argument which attempts, in effect, to say that rationalism must also accept some basic premises with something akin to faith. Although the book is marred by an unnecessary extended case study into the history of protestantism, it is otherwise one of the most overlooked works in philosophy, in my humble opinion.

  5. Bob – thanks for the reference to WWB’s book. Will order it. Just checked a review of it on JSTOR in which it summarized book as saying: just because a belief cannot ultimately be justified (cos foundational) doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be subjected to critical scrutiny. That’s my point. But put more clearly. So I have just added a line to clarify.

  6. “It’s one thing to say certain basic principles cannot be justified (because they are foundational). It’s quite another to say they should not be subjected to critical scrutiny.”Agree with the distinction, but I wonder whether there is embedded in ‘critical scrutiny’ an adherence to the Greek rather than Semitic perspective. (About which I know very little but the reference to it was very suggestive). In other words, is it impossible to teach Islam if you allow for critical scrutiny at the earliest stage? It reminds me of this from On Certainty (317): “This doubt isn’t one of the doubts in our game” – indeed that whole sequence seems relevant to the debate.Do you discuss this in your book on education? I’ll have to purchase it. This is an excellent discussion by the way.

  7. Stephen, I’m glad you’ve taken up my recommendation! :-)Maybe we’ll see a future blog on The Retreat To Commitment, and the blog-enabled, long arm of the Law will finally rescue this book from relative obscurity!

  8. Sam, I agree. I have always appreciated 140 – 144 too. Maybe there could be a thread about this that was ‘off limits’ to the BB and his ilk who seem determined to bully Lawson into silence.

  9. So far as I am concerned, I am not ‘bullying’ anybody. All I am doing, on this and related threads, is to ask Mr Lawson to answer some very pertinent questions about Islam, which so far he hasn’t done.

  10. I’m amused that anyone would think that I have the power to bully anyone — much less a professional, degreed philosopher — into silence by posting comments on a blog. The notion is ludicrous.

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