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Posted by on Dec 10, 2007 in faith schools, Ibrahim Lawson, Is religion dangerous | 9 comments

Building the case against Ibrahim’s position: moral sheep

Here’s another reason why encouraging children to think critically and independently even about moral issues might be a good idea. Again, it’s from my book The War For Children’s minds.

I’ll summarize my case against the Ibrahim’s view that in any good Islamic school “Islam is a given and never challenged” shortly.

Milgram’s Experiment

Here’s another reason why raising Enlightened citizens might be a good idea.

Humans appear to have a disastrously strong in-built tendency to defer to authority. This was demonstrated particularly vividly by the psychologist Stanley Milgram back in the Fifties. Struck by the way in which concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany attempted to excuse themselves by insisting they were “only obeying orders”, Milgram set out to show that the same could never happen in the U.S. He designed an experiment to establish what strength of electric shock an ordinary American citizen would administer to a stranger if asked to do so by a white-coated authority figure.

Subjects were recruited through a newspaper advertisement to take part in a “study of memory” for which they would receive a small payment. Each participant was paired with a stooge who pretended to be another member of the public. The participant was told that one of them would be arbitrarily selected as the “learner” and the other as the “teacher”. In fact the actor always became the “learner”. After seeing their pupil strapped into an electric chair, the “teacher” was then taken to a neighbouring room where they could speak to their pupil via an intercom. They were then asked to teach and test their partner. When the “learner” made a mistake, the participant was asked to administer an electric shock. The shocks were administered from a board of 30 lever switches that ranged from 15 volts up to 400 volts. The board was also labeled descriptively, from “slight shock” up to “Danger: severe shock”. When a shock was administered, a buzzer sounded, a needle on a voltage meter deflected and lights flashed. The shocks the subject was asked to administer were mild at first, but gradually escalated in intensity. As the voltage increased, the actor next door feigned increasing levels of discomfort and alarm. He would beg to be released. At 300 volts he would kick the wall. At the next level, marked “extreme intensity shock”, he became silent (as if dead or unconscious).

Milgram wanted to see how far up the scale Joe Public would be prepared to go if ordered to so by an “authority figure” dressed in a white coat. Just what level of shock would an average U.S. citizen be prepared to administer before they refused to continue with the experiment?

The results were extraordinary. Milgram found that sixty-five percent of his subjects went right to the end of the scale, beyond the point where the participants believed they had killed their “learner”. It appears that around sixty-five percent of ordinary American citizens will electrocute another human being to death if told to do so by a white-coated authority-figure!

True, many participants became agitated and concerned about the fate of their subject. When they expressed their concerns, the authority figure would respond by saying “Please continue”, “The experiment requires that you continue”, “It is absolutely essential that you continue” and “You have no other choice – you must go on”. But no threats were made. And yet astonishingly, despite feeling that what they were doing was very wrong, the participants found the pressure to defer to the authority-figure overwhelming. In fact, not only did the majority proceed to murder the “learner”, not one of them stopped before reaching 300 volts – the point at which when the “learner” began to kick the wall.

It turns out that the soldiers who ran Auschwitz and who said they were “only obeying orders” weren’t weird, inhuman monsters. They were just like the rest of us. And remember that the soldiers at Auschwitz had the excuse that, had they disobeyed orders, they might themselves have been punished or killed. No such threats were made to Milgram’s subjects.

Of course, most of us don’t believe we would electrocute another human being to death if instructed to do so by an authority figure. We believe that in such circumstances we would act differently. We believe we would stand up and denounce the whole procedure as monstrous. Unfortunately, there’s good evidence that we flatter ourselves. It seems that, in similar circumstances, most of us will follow the instructions of authority to the bitter end.

Glover’s and the Oliner’s research

What Milgram demonstrated, in effect, is the extent to which we’re all moral sheep. We tend naturally to lack the inner resources to identify and stand up for what is right when pitted against a malign authority. We tend to go with the flow, follow the flock, do, and even believe, what we’re told to by those we perceive to be in positions of “authority” over us.

So how do we avoid raising moral sheep? Professor Jonathan Glover, Director of the Centre for Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College, London, has conducted research into the backgrounds of both those who were most eager to join in killing in places like Nazi Germany, Rwanda and Bosnia, and also those who worked to save lives, often at great risk to themselves. As Glover explained in an interview in The Guardian,

If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find a number of things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.

Glover adds, “I think that teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies”.

Samuel and Pearl Oliner conducted an extensive and detailed study into the backgrounds of both those who went along with the Final Solution and those who rescued victims. In The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe, they report that the most dramatic deference between the parents of those who rescued and those who did not lay in the extent to which parents placed greater emphasis on explaining, rather than on punishment and discipline.

[P]arents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning.

[I]t is in their reliance on reasoning, explanations, suggestions of ways to remedy harm done, persuasion, and advice that the parents of rescuers differed from non-rescuers.

The Oliners add that “reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others.” By contrast, the non-rescuers tended to feel “mere pawns, subject to the power of external authorities”. Incidentally, the Oliners found that while religious belief was also a factor, “religiosity was only weakly related to rescue”.

If Glover’s and the Oliners’ findings and conclusions are correct, then they mesh with Milgram’s. Given that human beings have a disastrous tendency to defer to Authority anyway, surely the last thing we should do is reinforce this tendency. If we seek to produce truly moral individuals, and not just a moral sheep, we should not, as those at the Authoritarian end of the Liberal/Authoritarian scale want, seek to strip away from individuals the responsibility to establish what is right and what is wrong. Rather, we should confront them with that responsibility. We should also equip them with the skills they will need to discharge that responsibility properly.

Of course, there can be advantages to a society within which a powerful moral Authority is at work. If a strict moral code is drilled into all individuals from a very young age, perhaps backed up with threats of divine retribution should they err, and if the questioning of moral Authority is not tolerated, then perhaps a society will emerge in which crime hardly exists and the streets are litter free. You may ask what is wrong with that.

Well, let’s hope that this Authority remains fairly benign. What is terrifying about such societies is what their members might do if so commanded. Once their confidence in their own ability to distinguish right from wrong has been eroded, individuals can be led into committing all sorts of horrors. The 20th Century has shown this to be no idle worry. Just as Milgram initially thought that what happened in Germany could never happen in the U.S., so we all have a rather complacent tendency to suppose “it could never happen here”. As I say, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Of course, even someone raised in the Liberal way recommended here may end up committing some unspeakable atrocity. Perhaps some have. The preceding argument is not that those raised within a Liberal regime – the kind of regime you find at a school like Liberalia High – will never commit such atrocities. It’s that human beings have a demonstrable and clearly dangerous tendency to behave like moral sheep, and that a Liberal approach would seem to be our best defence against this tendency. This gives us a powerful reason for favouring the Liberal approach, a reason not easily outweighed by other factors.

There’s a further, related reason for favouring a Liberal approach. No doubt the risk of atrocities will always exist, but at least those raised in a Liberal way can be reasoned with. They will feel themselves obliged to consider alternative points of view and to take seriously our criticisms. We can still reach them. The more they have been raised to defer to Authority, on the other hand, the harder it will be to get through to them. Those raised to defer blindly to an Authority might as well have cotton wool in their ears so far as our arguments and objections are concerned.


  1. “The arbitrary rule of a just and enlightened prince is always bad. His virtues are the most dangerous and the surest form of seduction: they lull a people imperceptibly into the habit of loving, respecting, and serving his successor, whoever that successor may be, no matter how wicked or stupid.”– Denis Diderot

  2. “If we seek to produce truly moral individuals, and not just a moral sheep…”This is the crux of the biscuit. As Lawson has made clear, the Islamic view of the truly moral individual is a moral sheep, entirely dependent on absolute submission to Muhammad’s^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H Allah’s authority.

  3. Sorry to dominate the comments so far.Under Lawson’s “Allah=good” we would have to conclude that as a thought experiment if we substituted Allah for the experimenter in Milgram’s study, we would have to praise the subject who completed the experiment for his or her discipline and fortitude.There seems to be no escape from the conclusion that, in the Islamic view, the atrocity of Milgram’s experiment is not that the subjects were willing to kill someone by electrocution, but that they did so without proper authority. In much the same way under the Christian view (at least the view that takes the Old Testament as both historical fact and ethical truth) Hitler was not a monster because he killed tens of millions of people in concentration camps, but because he did so without proper authority from Jehovah.The only escape from this conclusion is to assert that Allah (or Jehovah) would never authorize any act contrary to our natural reason and natural moral intuition. But if this assertion were true, it would entail that we can depend on our natural reason to resolve ethical issues — Scripture, revelation and religious authority become subservient to entirely natural, public processes.But this natural reasoning is precisely what Lawson explicitly disclaims. If our ethical beliefs can be justified by natural reason, teaching this reasoning to children cannot even in principle undermine the ethical foundations of any society, and his stated reason for withholding this sort of education from children collapses.There really isn’t anything particularly difficult about the ethical foundations of a secular society: We exhort a child to share with another child because he wants the other child to share as well.We do at times insist on standards or behavior that might presently beyond an individual child’s immediate grasp, but we also teach these children as quickly as possible the cognitive tools necessary to understand these sophisticated standards. There’s never any reason to withhold either the facts or the reasoning necessary to justify, for instance, a painful or needle-scary vaccination.

  4. I suggest that most people defer blindly to religious or secular truths.It is surely a forlorn hope that it can be otherwise.Life is a struggle. We aren’t superhuman.

  5. Ibrahim says he wants “dialog” and not “debate”.But does not dialog require a level of sincerety from the two parties? Something that debate does not demand?I have found his writings not very sincere. Like when he keeps on extolling the so-called Islamic “Golden Age” and making questionable claims. Like when he claimed the “Universtiy System” (whatever that means) was invented by Islamic scholars in the 7th and 8th centuries.Everytime Ibrahim takes his blood pressure reduction pill, do I go and rub it into the dialog that western enlightenment invented this pill?No, he is not sincere enough to make a dialog happen (whatever “dialog” is supposed to mean).

  6. One thing that Ibrahim and Stephen both agree is that children are quite malliable and if indoctrinated at the right age with the right message, then they can be inculcated (that is, a certain percentage of them will be indoctrinated to a certain degree).Ibrahim considers this a positive, because Ibrahim without reason, has concluded that Islam is the best ideology on earth, and it should be inculcated onto children, as you can’t go wrong with this approach. Stephen considers this a negative, because he is not convinced Islam is the best ideology, and also thinks that each individual must have the right to be free of ideology and arrive at recognition through inquiry.So there are 2 issues here. 1- Is Islam the best thing. 2- Is indoctrination of a good ideology superior to individual critical inquiry?Ibrahim is positive on both counts, while Stephen is negative on both counts. And there may be others that are positive on once count but negative on the other count.My 2 cents is this – as a Muslim apostate, I have obviously strong feelings about issue 1. I cannot disagree with Ibrahim any more, as I have been raised through his system, and I have felt and seen the tragedies with both my eyes. Aside from this empirical observation, I also know that Ibrahim can neither verify god(s) nor falsify god(s). So Islam is based on a meaningless assumption to begin with. And then there is the problem of how can Prophet Mohammed prove that the voices in his head was from Angel Gabriel (also a meaningless concept) and not some inner psychological condition (such as those found in epileptics, which he was).On issue 2 – if there is any truth to the fact that children can be molded into certain predetermined forms (much empirical evidence backs this assertion) – then in a social system, a certain percentage of children will become beholden to a certain ideology – and when they grow up, they will try to inculcate that to other children, just as with Ibrahim Lawson, thinking they are doing a service to mankind. Therefore, this dynamic will have a “fixed point of its own”, and will be a stable self-supportive and self-justifying dynamic (a meme).The most likely outcome of such a system will be more than one “fixed points” (memes that are self-justifying and feed on themselves) that will coexist and compete together in a liberal society – but in an authoritarian society one such meme will tend to dominate the rest by force. Isn’t this what we see in the realm of ideas in the history of popular thought?So my question to Ibrahim is this – since you can never win the debate on issue #1, then isn’t it just too dangerous for society to embark on what you are doing (indoctrinating innocent minds), becuase of the propensity of such minds to propagate due to issue #2?If so, then Ibrahim must come out against issue #2, against the idea that indoctrination is a noble activity. In this case, issue #1 (Is Islam the next best thing after sliced bread) becomes moot, and is relegated to the private sphere.

  7. @ muslim-apostateWhile I agree with your major views, I will tend to consider different (still neturalistic)explanations for some of Mohammad’s revelations. Especially a number of the later revelations apparently came “very handy” to resolve particular practical or normative problems at hand. In my views they came too handy to be explained by more or less random epilectic seizures. Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to consider them simly to be M’s intentional constructs? CassandersIn Cod we trust

  8. I am really enjoying this debate and your line of reasoning.In this line, “…they report that the most dramatic deference between the parents of those who rescued and …”, do you mean, “difference”?

  9. “In Cod we trust”ha ha ha. lol. :-))

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