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Posted by on Dec 7, 2007 in faith schools, going nuclear, Ibrahim Lawson, Is religion dangerous | 30 comments

Letter to Ibrahim: Going Nuclear

Hello Ibrahim

Lots of interesting points being made here (especially in your comments on last three posts) – I won’t try to address them all.

Seems to me one of the biggest issues you raise concerns the use of reason. Here’s a popular argument for general scepticism:

Why suppose reason is a reliable route to the truth? Any justification of reason we offer will itself rely on reason, and so be unacceptably circular. So, that reason is a reliable route to truth cannot be justified. But if reliance on reason cannot be justified, then, because every justification relies on reason, nothing can be justified.

So, all beliefs are equally irrational!

Moreoever, if, to qualify as knowledge, a belief must be justified, knowledge is impossible too.

Suppose I am involved in a debate – and I’m struggling to make my case. In fact, my opponent seems to have shown I’m wrong. Oh dear. What do I do?

I might be tempted to make just this sceptical move. It offers a wonderful “get out of jail” card. I give the sceptical argument outlined above and conclude: “So you see? – both our positions are, in the last analysis, equally (ir)rational!”

Once I play the sceptical card, all my opponent’s hard work in constructing arguments against my position counts for nothing. At one stroke, they are all demolished.

I can now walk away with my head held high, having “established” that my position is no less reasonable than my opponent’s!

Now Ibrahim, when people criticise Islam, and also your approach to religious education, you do, it seems to me, sometimes play this sort of sceptical card.

That’s OK. But bare in mind that in such discussions, playing the sceptical card really is “the nuclear option”. You avoid defeat, yes, but only by utterly annihilating the rationality of every position. All positions, no matter how sensible or nuts, come out as equally (ir)rational!

You must now say: “Hey, that the Earth is flat, that the earth is round, that milk makes people fly, that it doesn’t, that astrology is true, that is isn’t, that Mohammed is God’s prophet, that he isn’t – all these beliefs are equally (un)reasonable!

Now, is that what you really want to say? I guess not, but I am not sure.

In fact, once you take the nuclear option, you have to give up supposing reason is any sort of route to truth. You can’t take the nuclear option, but then, when you think maybe you can muster a cogent argument for not allowing children to think critically about religion, slip that argument back into the fray.

But that seems to be exactly what you have just done, in fact (you just suggested if you don’t fill kids heads with Islam, they’ll get filled with something far more pernicious – that’s an argument).

When I offer arguments against encouraging mindless, uncritical acceptance of Islam, you go nuclear. But then, five minutes later, I find you offering an argument in support of your own position. There’s a lack of consistency here, surely? You’re not playing fair!

Indeed, the fact that you do continue to use reason wherever you think it supports your case – and also in everyday life, when you rely on it almost every minute (indeed, you constantly trust your life to it) – shows that playing the sceptical card is, in truth, merely a rhetorical ploy. You don’t really believe what you’re saying about reason. You are saying it just to raise enough dust and confusion to make quick your escape. Or so it seems to me!

The point of my astrology example needs spelling out. I have two questions:

(i) Given Ted’s attitude to his book, does that show that the truth of astrology cannot be rationally settled? If your answer is “no”, why does the fact that you take a similar attitude to the Koran show that the truth about the Koran cannot be rationally settled? But perhaps your answer is “yes”?

(ii) Is Ted’s attitude to his book foolish? If you say that Ted is a fool, then the question is, why aren’t those who take a similar attitude to the Koran similarly foolish? If you deny Ted is a fool, well, don’t you make yourself look foolish?

I’m particularly keen to get answers to these two questions, Ibrahim, if you’ve got the time.


  1. Incidentally, another way of “going nuclear” is to go all post-modern about truth. Like so:Oh dear, this argument isn’t going well. What can I do? I know! “That may be true for you. But it’s false for me! And all truths are equally valid!”KABOOM!Is this why Heidegger on truth just cropped up?Of course, the fact that few if any of us have much idea as to what Heidegger is going on about would add to the resulting smokescreen very nicely.

  2. Stephen, I’m just off out, but I wanted to say I agree with you and that there is somewhere to go from there. More later, inshallah. However, it gives me the opportunity to share a joke: what do you get if you cross a Mafiosi with a postmodernist? A guy who’ll make you an offer you can’t understand. Might say the same about Muslims.

  3. The self-referentiality of the Argument for General Skepticism is even more severe: You have to use reason to find reason unreasonable!

  4. All our so-called reasoning is to find arguments to go on believing as we already do…

  5. If you can find the time, Ibrahim, it would be great to keep this going a while longer.BB. You are quite right. It’s a self-undermining argument. May have other flaws too (e.g. a commitment to something like evidentialism)

  6. Personally, I don’t think reason needs more of a justification than that without it, everything hurts: Reason allows me to conclude that a likely explanation for the hurt is that I keep running into walls.On the one hand, I’m inclined to take Lawson at his word: He rejects rationality, dipping into it only to communicate his rejection. We are thus entitled to view each other as mutually insane. Unfortunately, the Earth is too small for mutually insane groups of people; it’s inevitable that these groups will come into violent conflict.On the other hand, I think Islam fully accepts reason except where it would interfere with their own authorities’ — Lawson’s included — privilege and power. The emotional payoff of brainwashing small children to unquestioningly and uncritically endorsing your personal power must be intense and compelling.

  7. Since it was through reason that, as an adolescent, I became non-religious, but in my late thirties became religious again, I’m certainly not tempted to go nuclear. On the other hand, I can see no way that I could explain to a child what I believe, and why. And that, I think, is the main issue here. This series of posts started with the question “is religion dangerous” in the context of what we teach children. As I see it, the rationality of Islam (or Christianity or Buddhism…) can be taught, but not to children under the age of about 14, as Ibrahim mentions (and if you don’t like the reference to Rudolf Steiner, one can get the same observation from Piaget). In fact, I doubt that it can be taught to adolescents either. So the question to Stephen is: how can one make critical thinking a safeguard against irrational religion if critical thinking cannot be taught before a certain age? Unless you have an answer to this (and you may — I’m no expert), the question then comes down to: how do we teach virtue to children without invoking what amounts to religious threats (God’ll get you, or you’ll be reborn as an earthworm)? Because I do think that Ibrahim’s point about innoculation is an important one. Yes, teaching religion to children can be dangerous, but I would say that it is an order of magnitude less dangerous to a child than television.In sum, rather than invoking a nuclear option concerning “what it is rational to believe”, I think Ibrahim is raising the issue that children will be indoctrinated uncritically in some way or another, because they lack the capacity for critical thinking. And I doubt that, leaving out extremist cases like teaching that God wants them to kill infidels, teaching Islamic superstitions does much harm, and probably does some good.

  8. Well good, if we all promise to take our fingers off the nuclear button, we can now look at the args for and against critical thought about religion in schools. I have not really begun to make my case as yet. Will do so next…

  9. What is all this about “critical thinking cannot be taught to children below a certain age”, and “children do not have the capacity for critical thought”. Who says so? And below what age?In my opinion this is bunkum. A child’s reasoning and critical capacities depend upon his or her upbringing and environment – by which I mean in the home, even more than in school. I was a very argumentative and critical child from an early age. I was the only child in a household of intelligent grown-ups, and was included in their conversations and arguments on an equal level. This was distasteful to some old-fashioned acquaintances, who use to complain that I was ‘precocious’ and knew more than was good for me! In fact, my brain was simply stretched more than those of most children of my age. No-one is stupid unless they suffer physical brain damage, and children are as capable of reasoning as adults from an early age if they know that is what is expected of them. There are numerous examples of highly educated and articulate children -J.S. Mill, for instance.This canard that children are incapable of rational thought is simply a self-serving excuse for indoctrinating them instead of educating them.

  10. Anticant:What is all this about “critical thinking cannot be taught to children below a certain age”, and “children do not have the capacity for critical thought”. Who says so? And below what age?Piaget. At about the age of puberty.Is he right? Well, someone with more experience in childhood development will have to weigh in. If nothing else, this question needs to be settled before one can call for using the teaching of critical thinking as a safeguard against whatever.Yes, there are precocious children. But there are many many more average ones, whose parents may not be capable of critical thinking. Are there even teachers capable of teaching it? So it seems to me that using examples like Mill is, without more study, about as useful as saying that because of Mozart, all children should be able to be taught to compose symphonies.

  11. Agreed, Mill and Mozart had exceptional fathers. But many educationalists contend that most children are capable of far higher levels of intellectual achievement than they are groomed for. Surely it is the expectations of the educators which limits the outcome?I once heard a conversation in which someone said “I was at the Department of Education yesterday and a senior official said to me ‘We don’t WANT too many highly educated people in this country, do we? They cause too much trouble!'” It is this patronising mandarin attitude which characterises the indoctrinators as well. To them, people are sheeple.

  12. It’s worth keeping in mind that Mill had a nervous breakdown at 22 – which he attributed to the intensity of his studies as a child. But that idea that you can’t teach critical thinking to a child is ridiculous. You don’t want to bombard them with propositional logic and the like, but getting them to ask questions and think things through is vital.

  13. Critical thinking by children? Why not? Stephen, what age are your philosophy books aimed at? Yes, referencing Mills and co may be beyond children. But then you don’t reference Hawkins when teaching science. Adolescents may learn calculus in senior school, so because they’re not ready for that until then do we avoid teaching maths until then – no, that would be a catastrophe (some would say this does happen in some schools). With language they start with Janet and John books (showing my age), and Lord of the Flies comes later.And, Mr Lawson does say he teaches some aspects of critical thinking in his schools. Glad to hear it. And clearly, critical thinking is encourage from an early age in schools. Young children don’t need to be subjected to complex reasoning, or complex theological theories. They can, should, be introduced to it gradually.What’s wrong with simply telling them that some things are difficult to understand – including religion? Nothing. What’s wrong with saying to children sometimes that even adults don’t know the answer, or can’t agree? Nothing.What’s wrong with ‘indoctrinating’, ‘conning’, ‘tricking’, ‘lying’ to children that something is absolutely and unquestionably ‘true’, when it very clearly can’t be, or where there is a great deal of disagreement about it? – Plenty.That this is done in some homes is a great pity. That it is done in some schools is criminal. Many humanists think it’s a form of child abuse.

  14. I recently overheard my six-year-old niece being read a children’s version of the fall of Jericho. Upon being told that everybody in the city had to die, she naturally asked “why?” “Because they weren’t nice people”, she was told.She was incredulous. “What, there wasn’t a single nice person in the entire city?”What’s that, if not critical thinking?

  15. Ron Murphy, and all you other Islamosceptics – you just don’t get it, do you? Islam IS true and Muslims parents and teachers would be lying to their children if they said it wasn’t, or even might not be.

  16. Dear “A Muslim”,Islam is only “true” to those of Muslim faith, whereas I hope everone in the world can agree that if I jump off a 20 storey building and land on concrete I will die.

  17. No Skippy, you have already jumped, but perhaps you will have to die before you finally have the evidence you require (I hope not).

  18. Stephen, I have created a blog so that I can monitor my own postings now. I intend to answer your two questions as soon as I get a moment.

  19. In reply to A Muslim,Please explain your last comment to me clearly as I don’t understand it at all. The only point I was making (perhaps not clearly enough) was that there are facts upon which the vast majority of the population of the world could agree and those that (e.g. that the moon is visible in the night sky) and those that we could not reach consensus on (e.g. there is a god). I didn’t think that this would be particularly controversial so please explain why you say ‘No’.Thanks, Skippy

  20. Dr Johnson once asked a lady who announced that she was a sceptic if she believed in anything?. She said “I believe in the Universe” to which Dr Johnson retorted “By God, Madam, you’d better!”

  21. A Muslim,You – “Islam IS true”Me – “No it ISN’T”So, where does that leave us now. Can’t you see the nonsense of that as a position. You say we don’t get it. Then please enlighten us.

  22. Stephen, I agree that my implied question – why be rational? – is either disingenuous (secretly admitting rationality) or irrational (though does that mean it is also meaningless?).This echoes the argument between the doctors of law (Ulama) and the mystics (Sufis), and Confucians and Taoists; the Zen Buddhists seem to have made the most of this (‘the world is empty and meaningless’). The door seems to be open to some kind of antinomian anarchyBut suppose that there were a ‘third way’; a way in which ‘rationality’ could put in an appearance, but subtly transformed, more feminine perhaps. What happens if we focus, rather, on the concept of ‘truth’; ie the claim not that religious belief is not rational, but that it employs a different kind of truth (that does sound like a cop-out, I admit). Dawkins attacks the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), but I am not sure he is successful.I am just trying, with your help, to unpack my ‘brainwashing’ as some people call it.(Your point about my de facto reliance on ‘rationality’, that doesn’t entail its justification. Isn’t that precisely the problem of induction?)

  23. You’re right: This “third way” does indeed sound like a cop-out.Fundamental to our notion of truth is public, universal and normative: everyone (somehow) ought to believe the truth. We have perfectly good words to express the opposite of this property: “opinion”, “preference”, “taste”, etc.The problem with all religions is that this public, universal normative property is difficult (i.e. impossible) to support: all religions depend on some sort of private communication with the deity. The privacy of this communication is explicit and severe in Islam: Muhammad is the final prophet of Islam. Belief in Islam is thus predicated on opinions about the veracity of the content of Muhammad’s speech. The opinion that Muhammad was not (to put it delicately) speaking in a “Frankfurtian” sense. There is simply no way to differentiate, either on the basis of pure logic or any form of publicly available evidence, between the opinion that Muhammad was speaking truthfully, and the opinion that he was completely mistaken.BTW: Popper “solves” the problem of induction by making it irrelevant.

  24. You say Islam is only “true” to those of Muslim faith. I say, no, Islam is true, whatever anybody thinks. You will find out for sure when you die. So it’s like you have jumped off a building but haven’t hit the ground yet, so you think your OK. You only think Islam isn’t true because Allah has hidden it from you as a test of how sincere you are. Where it leaves us? I am right and you are wrong, but you don’t agree and I can’t convince you because that’s what Allah has decreed.

  25. Dear A Muslim,Oh dear, I did hope you would have more interesting things to say than that. “I am right and you are wrong” isn’t a great argument is it? Is this how you resolve issues with friends and relatives? If you do you can’t be all that popular.Skippy.

  26. A Muslim: “I say, no, Islam is true, whatever anybody thinks. You will find out for sure when you die.”You’re not dead: How did you find out for sure? Why should I take your word for it? Why should I take Muhammad’s word for it? How do I know that Muhammad wasn’t deluded, mistaken and/or just making stuff up?

  27. And seriously: Allah has actively hidden the truth from me, decreed it impossible for me to believe the truth, and will consign me to hell because I did not believe? That’s absurd. All-merciful my ah… left foot. More like all-stupid.

  28. It would be so nice – and reassuring – if ‘a muslim’ [or any other Muslim] could produce an intelligent argument above the school playground “yah boo sucks you’re a stupid stinker” level.Despite all the fascinating erudition on these threads, it’s beginning to get boring. And Ibrahim Lawson appears to have left the classroom.

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