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Posted by on Dec 17, 2007 in faith schools, Ibrahim Lawson | 21 comments

Response to Ibrahim Lawson

I struggled a little bit to understand Ibrahim’s latest post.

In the first part, Ibrahim seems to do exactly what I thought we said we wouldn’t do: go nuclear. I have already pointed out why I consider this an intellectually dishonest strategy. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood. Can Ibrahim explain why he hasn’t yet again, just reached for the nuclear button?

The second part of his response is a direct response to my arguments for being liberal in our approach to moral and religious education. Ibrahim says (his stuff in italics):

Having rehearsed these preliminary ideas, and arrived at the Enlightenment, I would like to turn to your recent postings, and in particular the idea of liberalism.

Much of what you recount strikes me as revealing of the almost naïve utopianism of liberal thought, which is characteristic of much similar ‘technological’ thinking. By this I mean the kind of thinking that sets up an idealised, theoretical description of some human situation which it then finds impossible to justify or to implement in practice.

Ibrahim, surely we could quite easily introduce critical thinking about religion and morality in schools. It has been done, and the results, as I have pointed out, have been very successful. You seem to be suggesting it can’t be done “in practice”. Er, it can, and has.

But perhaps you are making a deeper point – Rawls now makes an appearance:

John Rawls provides an example in his proposal of the ‘veil of ignorance’ in his attempt to justify our intuitions concerning justice and fairness. The bare, rational intellect which he posits as the essence of the human being behind the procedural veil of ignorance – neither male nor female, young nor old, black nor white, straight nor gay, rich nor poor, Muslim nor Christian etc – and therefore able, indeed obliged, to judge impartially and fairly, exists only as a theoretical construct.

Yep. Well-known criticism of Rawls’ “original position” by communitarians and others. But this Rawls-bashing is irrelevant – as I am not recommending that each child adopt a tradition-free Rawls-type “original position”. I am merely recommending children be encouraged to think critically about whatever values, beliefs and traditions they already happen to have. They can do this, and when they do it, it appears to have real social, emotional and other educational benefits. And remember, this kind of thinking can be, and is, even done within a faith school setting.

Ibrahim continues:

Moreover, the perfect society we might imagine such intellects, once embodied, would then go on to form is a lovely idea, but frankly, isn’t going to happen. Most people are never going to be able to be their own authorities, however much we might like that to happen.

I have already explained why we are all our own ultimate moral authorities, like it or not. You haven’t dealt with that argument.

But in any case, I don’t believe a perfect, utopian society is achievable. I believe a better society is achievable. I have provided grounds for supposing a better society can be achieved by encouraging children to think critically about morality and religion. Ibrahim – you have not dealt with those grounds. You’ve just insisted that perfection is not achievable. But again, that’s beside the point.

In short, your response is almost entirely irrelevant. What isn’t irrelevant appears simply to be denial of what has already been established – that thinking critically about morality and religion can be done in schools (to great effect).


  1. Could you please provide a link to Ibrahim’s latest post, as I’m not sure which of the many threads it’s to be found on.”Naive utopianism” seems a much more accurate description of Ibrahim’s own attitude to Islam, and to what he wrongly terms “education” – in fact, blatant and unashamed indoctrination – than it is of any liberal or rationalist approach.And I note that he still hasn’t answered the question I put to him about the compatibility of such a closed-mind authoritarian attitude to ‘truth’ and an open, democratic society.

  2. Yes. A distinction might be useful, between arguing for a neutral point of view from which faith claims might be adjudicated (something which I suspect is incoherent, and which seems to be what Ibrahim is mostly rejecting) and the practice of encouraging critical thought in children which I agree is a) helpful and b) demonstrably possible.For what it’s worth I’m strongly in favour of encouraging critical thought. I only came to faith after studying Philosophy of Religion and Theology as an undergraduate, and realising that what I’d been rejecting wasn’t Christianity. The critical thought cuts both ways, that’s what is so liberating and beneficial about it.

  3. “….realising that what I’d been rejecting wasn’t Christianity.”A nice example of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, or Humpty Dumpty-ism.

  4. SamYou mention that what you had believed up to that point about Christianity was not true. Could you direct me to some sources that you feel give a better idea of what Christianity is really about?I always like to know more.

  5. Martin – there are lots and lots of sources I could recommend but good places to start might be: “Finding Sanctuary” by Christopher Jamison; “On Religion” by John Caputo; or “Faith Seeking” (especially the essay ‘How to be an Atheist’) by Denys Turner. They’re very different from each other, but all good.

  6. Like Sam, I was also inclined more toward theism only after studying (and taking courses in) philosophy of religion, epistemology, contemporary analytic metaphysics, etc., all of which provided a highly critical environment within which to examine not only theism, but naturalism as well. Reading philosophy that was sympathetic to theism also shattered stereotypes I had that theists tended to be rather unreflective folks. It came as a surprise to me to find in various academic journals that theists were often the ones thinking more carefully and critically than their atheist interlocutors.One wonders whether Stephen is aware that many of the brightest philosophers alive right now are thoroughgoing theists. Under Stephen’s proposal, perhaps these philosophers would be invited to interact in undergraduate or even high school courses to explain why they aren’t convinced that naturalism is a philosophically adequate worldview. They could leave young students with valuable resources for personal investigation, e.g. reading lists in philosophy of religion. This would give the open minded, “still seeking” type of student a chance to get immersed in some powerful intellectual resources that are unfriendly to atheism. Not only that, but it would strip away any stereotypes that students have built over the years of theists being “gullible fundamentalists”, “unscientific”, or whatever. Just imagine someone like van Inwagen, or Dean Zimmerman, or Hudson, getting to have a spirited dialogue with Stephen in front of Stephen’s undergrad students. I agree with Sam that critical thought tends to cut both ways, and curiously this tendency is something that Stephen appears to be underestimating. Indeed, theists and independent thinkers might be even more cheerful than Stephen is about the prospects of children learning to think critically about worldview issues. From reading his posts, Ibrahim Lawson seems more opposed to the naive idea of “unbiased” professors teaching children how to think critically. It doesn’t seem like he’s opposed to children thinking critically per se.

  7. I am certainly aware that there are bright philosophers that are theists. I am not sure “many” of them are.My guess (pretty subjective) is that, of the philosophers at Oxford and London Universities, probably only 10% believe in God. Maybe more. But quite possibly less.True, many philosophers of religion are theists. But then phil of religion tends to attract theists. Non-believers tend to have interests elsewhere. It may be that most of the best philosophers give Phil. of Religion a wide berth. Which means the theist philosophers of religion get an easy ride.But this is all very speculative. Anyone got some hard figures?I’d certainly be happy for theist philosophers to go into schools. Incidentally, if William’s suggestion is: “If “many” top philosophers (my guess: a small minority) believe in God, then the belief can’t be that silly, can it?” – well, I don’t accept that. We can talk about that if you like…

  8. Stephen,Yes I think your post was quite speculative, sir. To be sure, you are correct that theists tend to be attracted to philosophy of religion. But certainly not all (and perhaps not even most) are. Their AOS’s include logic, philosophy of science, philosophy of language, epistemology, ethics, and other branches besides philosophy of religion. For example, take a look at , John Hawthorne, Michael Bergmann, Macintyre, Tim McGrew, and a host of others. And these thinkers are just a fraction. Quentin Smith estimated all the way back in 2001 that perhaps a third of professional philosophers are now theists. Who knows how much that number has grown in the last 7 years. And we shouldn’t forget about the more well-known philosophers who are theists, like Kripke, Putnam, and .It is unsurprising that atheist apologists would attempt to downplay this. Some ignore it altogether. Smith is correct when he commented on the upsurge of theism since the late 60’s, and the reaction of naturalists:…[T]he great majority of naturalist philosophers react by publicly ignoring the increasing desecularizing of philosophy… and proceeding to work in their own area of specialization as if theism, the view of approximately one-quarter or one-third of their field, did not exist. … Quickly, naturalists found themselves a mere bare majority, with many of the leading thinkers in the various disciplines of philosophy, ranging from philosophy of science (e.g., Van Fraassen) to epistemology (e.g., Moser), being theists. …God is not “dead” in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments. (Emphasis mine.)Of course, whether philosophy is the “last” stronghold is controversial. Philosophy historically has served as a beachhead for other disciplines, so who’s to say what things will look like in a few generations from now, as several of the brigthest analytic philosophers continue to reject atheism. And yes, Stephen, I would argue that the fact that many brilliant thinkers accept theistic propositions is good inductive evidence that theistic commitments are not as “silly” as atheist celebrities like Dawkins would like us to believe. (And I would argue likewise for atheism not being “silly”.) Maybe neither atheism nor theism is silly, but rather one of them is merely mistaken. Is that a live possibility for you? Or would you insist that theism must be “silly”. It’d be interesting to see your reasons for rejecting this argument, if you do.Cheers,Will

  9. Eye sore! Sorry, one of the html tags wasn’t closed. Stephen, please feel free to delete my last post. I’ve responded to you in my instead.

  10. Just my personal experience: I’ve never read a theistic philosopher who impressed me in any way with his or her perspicacity or intellectual honesty.To be honest, I find few philosophers at all — present company excluded — to be anything more than pompous blowhards… and all the exceptions are atheists.But that’s just me. I didn’t spend twelve month — much less twelve years — in college, so what do I know.

  11. @ sam nortonI must admit I gett a “vita brevis” feeling when seeing your short suggested list(I’m a biologist). Unwilling to look into the “primary literature” it could of course be argued that I should abstain from discussing these matters alltogehter.I did however make a short search on some of the names, and found one (out of many) review on John Caputo: must admit phrases like: ……”With some deft sophistry (heavily influenced by Derrida,…….John D Caputo redefines religion as a love of the unforseeable”. ……………….Endquotestruck me as quite illuminating.After some short reading, it apperas that Caputo position is that there is little difference between reeligion and atheism. To me this apparently seems to be based on a redefinition (or deconstruction(sic)) of both religion and science, emptying the concepts for most of its conventional content.CassandersIn Cod we trust

  12. StephenYou asked for “hard figures” on the disposition of philosophers when it comes to God. I can’t find the actual piece but the Philosophers’ Magazine did a survey on belief in God some years ago, comparing the results of belief/non-belief depending on whether or not someone was an academic philosopher and how long they had been in academia for. It turned out that the more exposure someone had had to academic philosophy the less likely they were to have mytho-religious beliefs, however actual belief in an abstract, deistic, God-of-the-philosophers-type God was (appropriately enough!) much more even.The following, on the more general attitudes of academics versus “philosophiles” versus “philosophobes” was also interesting: and shows belief in an afterlife decreasing with more academic philosophy.

  13. I think this story is relevant to the discussion. I’d especially like to hear Lawson’s thoughts on it.British children targeted with terror sing-along DVD for would-be suicide bombers.One might argue this isn’t the true Islam; to anyone with her critical faculties intact — even a Muslim — the that is is at least “bad” Islam seems obvious. But how is a child who has been explicitly taught to accept Islam uncritically to make the critical distinction between true and false Islam?

  14. Bob,Your recollection of the article you “can’t find” seems a bit sketchy. For one thing, you say that according to the article, belief in an abstract God was much more even among philosophers. But this is at odds with the fact that the overwhelming majority of theistic philosophers believe that God is a concrete entity. For another, you suggest that the God in whom they believe is “deistic” according to the article. This also seems inaccurate, since of the philosophers who believe there is a God, the majority are classical theists, not deists. So, it would be nice to see the actual article, rather than going off your memory.I do know of an article in TPM from 2005 which suggested that belief in God is rarer among academic philosopers than it is among others. But in any case, the results of its survey back then indicated that a little over a third of academic philosophers believed in a divine being — which is consistent with Quentin Smith’s estimate that I provided in my post above. Of course, nobody here has claimed that most philosophers believe in God. The claim is rather that many of the brightest philosophers do — which is quite plausible. Now this fact doesn’t logically mean much when it comes to judging the truth-value of theism. Even if 100% of the brightest philosophers believed in God, theism might still be false. However, the fact should at least give people pause before they join atheist celebrities like Dawkins in dismissing theistic commitments as “silly”. Cheers,Will

  15. But how is a child who has been explicitly taught to accept Islam uncritically to make the critical distinction between true and false Islam?Easy. Teach them to uncritically believe that one sect of Islam is fake and another genuine, and then teach them to uncritically reject the fake one.

  16. Will: I hope you’re being flip and ironic. On the off chance you’re not, let me point out the problems with your scheme.Uncriticality has to be established by and therefore associated with a human authority, to actively direct the child’s mind. You can’t teach a child to be uncritical about some issue without also teaching the child to be uncritical of the human authority specifying that issue.One also does not have very much precision in teaching a child, even individually, much less en masse. It seems fundamentally impractical to expect to teach a child to be completely uncritical about some very precise set of statements, and critical about everything else. The more precise the domain, the more you risk criticality of stuff outside that domain leaking in, until the child is critical of everything.There are probably more counterarguments, but these seem decisive. And again, if I’m taking you over-literally, I apologize, but I’ve seen weirder statements spoken in all seriousness.

  17. The claim is rather that many of the brightest philosophers do — which is quite plausible. Now this fact doesn’t logically mean much when it comes to judging the truth-value of theism.I don’t think it means anything at all.However, the fact should at least give people pause before they join atheist celebrities like Dawkins in dismissing theistic commitments as “silly”.Whether theistic commitments are silly depends exclusively on the commitments themselves.And your whole line of reasoning is silly. This is a philosophy blog, written by a professional philosopher and read by people interested in serious philosophy. No one reading this blog is going to be swayed one way or another by an transparently obvious argument from popularity.Having examined these “commitments” directly, every theistic commitment I have seen is either false or vacuous. Now you may talk about many of these “bright philosophers” (a rarity at least, if not an outright oxymoron), but if they exist, theists are doing an excellent job keeping them hidden, and releasing only the mediocre (at best) such as Swinburne, Plantinga, Tillich, or Spong.

  18. I had not throughly read this post and the one earlier concerning your discussion with Ibrahim. I had read your book, War for Children’s Minds, and agree with the importance you placed on liberal approach to eduacation.If I surmise correctly, Ibrahim’s position and disparagement of the Enlightenment, could be linked to an implicit belief that certain values like critical thinking are essentially Western in origin.I believe that if his rejection is based on such a view of liberal Enlightenment ideals, it is not well-supported. I gather this from reading Amartya Sen’s book, The Argumentative Indian, in which he argued strongly for a strong rational tradition and tolerance of heterodoxy found throughout Indian history.Notably, he pointed to the Buddhist Emperor Asoka and Mughal Muslim Emperor Akbar as important pioneers of secularism, in which religious freedom of everyone is respected by the state, while dialogues and debates encouraged.His most important message seems to be that good ideas will be “independently” recognized as such regardless of the cultural and historical backgrounds. The relevant chapters are The Reach of Reason and Secularism and its Discontents.I believe that by not narrowly concieving certain values as Enlightenment values, there would be less resistance to promoting them.

  19. Thanks YCK – I have not read Sen, but will do now….

  20. Dear Stephen et al,I have been away on holiday, but in any case thought that this discussion had petered out. However, since you have replied then I will make one last effort to respond.I have been quite disappointed with the way the discussion has turned out, confirming my doubts about the usefulness of this kind of cyber-conversation as an act of genuine communication. This is partly because the issues are extremely complex to unpack so we end up shouting at each other from our respective entrenched positions. The other reason is the regrettable prevalence of the kind of point-scoring mentality which I suggested characterises debate as distinct from dialogue; perhaps I have been as much to blame as anyone else.I have, though, learned from some of the contributions that my view of religion is evidently even more esoteric than I had previously realised; as such, it is not really my business either to represent ‘Muslim’ opinion or to defend it and you may have to look for others to argue with; they will not be hard to find.Briefly to address Stephen’s last points: I have been trying to suggest that the total chaos of his ‘nuclear option’ might be avoided by appeal to some other criteria of justification than those of the ‘techno-rationality’ (or ‘calculative thinking’ or whatever it might be) of the rational-empirical intellectual tradition characteristic particularly of the European enlightenment up to modern times. Within that tradition, I see no room for religion: it becomes absurd. And I think this cannot be stressed enough. From this point of view, training children to believe in God becomes indoctrination – the inculcation of irrational beliefs by non-rational methods of persuasion.But this is not a position I have been defending. My original comment on Radio 4 was more to the effect of ‘I can see that that’s how you would see it’.So it seems to me that while I understand where my various critics are coming from, and even agree with them, they do not grasp what it is I am actually trying to say but rather keep attacking positions that they mistakenly attribute to me instead. I might be wrong. It might also be that I am so confused about what I am trying to say that I consistently fail to explain myself properly, or even at all.What I am nevertheless trying to suggest is that we suffer from an intellectual tradition which has developed a relatively narrow idea of what makes sense and then rejects any other way of thinking about things. The consequences have been disastrous in just about every respect. Of course we now have all the benefits of modern technology, but who can avoid the suspicion that something has not quite turned out right there either and that yet more technology may not be the answer?And if there were indeed another way of thinking about the world, how would we recognise it when we are stuck with one way of seeing which cannot acknowledge any other? To step outside a paradigm is not easy – “ the eye cannot see the limits of vision”, Wittgenstein observes somewhere.But some of the criticism levelled at what I have been saying is not attributable to category errors at the paradigm level, but to rather more mundane failures (deliberate or not) to pay attention. So, for example, I have not said that religion and morality cannot be thought about critically, only that there are limitations in the scope of ‘criticality’, at least as usually understood, especially when it comes to foundational principles. This is the point about Rawls (who states the liberal position as well as it can be, so why beat around the bush?) I am talking ‘ultimately’ here, and perhaps this is the problem: we switch backwards and forwards from highly abstract principles to common sense matters of observation. If you think that Islam is about teaching blind acceptance of a whole worldview, as many of you seem to, then come into any Islamic school in the country and see for yourself that this is not true. On the other hand, if you are looking for imperfectly critical thinkers doing their best to teach to teach critical thinking then you will not be disappointed, either in Islamic or any other kinds of school.The point, though, is that someone has to accept the task of thinking things right through to the end, to the point where critical thinking turns, reflexively, on its own first principles. Very few have the inclination or ability to do this. At this point, thinking starts to throw up some very peculiar results. Perhaps there is an analogy here with nuclear physics, where common sense understanding begins to fail as we are introduced to such concepts as ‘space/time’, multiple dimensions beyond the usual three, the uncertainty principle and so on, in order to explain what is ‘really’ going on. Clearly this is not going to happen in the school classroom, but this is the sort of thing I have been trying to talk about in my contributions to this blog.Next, your point about each of us being our own ‘ultimate moral authority’. What I said was that I did not see that you had actually argued for this belief, only asserted it; I see no argument to deal with here yet. I tried to argue that the concept of total personal moral autonomy breaks down upon examination and I suggested that that was why you had been unable to provide a supporting argument. In fact, I did my best, extremely telegraphically, to explain my belief that morality as we commonly understand it is not rationally defensible and that we therefore need another way of thinking about this issue (another reason for my scepticism about our intellectual tradition). You dismiss these issues as irrelevant.So to repeat (again!), I have no problem with teaching children to think critically, including about religion and morality and critical thinking itself (in fact I insist on it) and I too believe that a better society would be the result. What appears to me to be irrelevant, because non-existent, is your response to the serious questions I have repeatedly raised about the extent of the remit of rational-empirical thinking in determining how we understand our existence and our consequent decisions as to how to lead our lives and organise our societies, including our education system.However, since writing the above I have realised that I have completely been missing the point of this blog. Stephen alerted us to what was really going on, and set the tone, in his original posting, which was not addressed to me: There are nevertheless SPECIAL DANGERS attaching to the use of religion as a tool.[for example] the GOBSMACKING POWER of religion to get even very smart people to believe PALPABLY STUPID things.[in using religion] something probably will GO WRONG, and when it does, you have an EXTREMELY TOXIC situation on your hands. A religious Chernobyl. It [nuclear power] is potentially HUGELY DANGEROUS. The same, I’d suggest, is true of religion. He regularly goes into [faith] schools and is HORRIFIED by what he sees. And he’s a Christian.If you’re not WORRIED about what’s going on in some religious schools, you should be.My own view is schools like Ibrahim Lawson’s should NO LONGER BE TOLERATED. And there was me thinking we would be having a philosophical discussion about the warrantability of religious belief from the perspective of hermeneutic phenomenology.Philoso-babble aside, it is clear in retrospect that what most of the contributors to this discussion have wanted is to share their scorn, dislike, fear or hatred of Islam. This is why the philosophical discussion has gone nowhere and why the blog as a whole (see above excerpts) and many of the contributions have the journalistic flavour of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph (surely not coincidentally the only two media sources referred to, more than once, in these threads).What has been at issue all along is the belief that Islam is an ideology based on incoherent and just plain false assumptions that predisposes its adherents to irrational violence (‘honour’ killings, suicide bombing, mutilation punishments, oppression of women, execution of apostates, jihad against unbelievers etc etc).Now either this is necessarily true of Islam and there is no need or evidence, or it is an empirical claim which depends on some facts to support it.I suspect that this is where things get mixed up in some peoples’ minds. For many, it seems to go without saying that OF COURSE Islam trains its victims to be irrational and violent, it is self-evident, you only have to read the books to see that.But, of course, this won’t do for anyone who has any respect for rationality – which I actually do, in certain contexts (Barefoot Bum – I don’t accept your theory of leakages, either way: allowing a little non-rationality does not necessarily destroy rationality and vice versa).So we need some evidence that Islam inevitably results in all the horrible things people expect. What evidence is there? What research has been done? All I see is anecdotes about the behaviour of very specific categories of people from which particular examples people like to generalise, quite weakly, in my view.To take two examples that have been proposed as proof of the evil of Islam: a man kills his daughter for not wearing a headscarf and a women acts the role of a suicide bomber in a video for children.Is that it? Is there no further need for analysis? QED – Islam is dangerous?Add some more examples, as many as you like, of humans beings’ tendency to inhumanity (though let’s avoid getting too medieval in our search for religious villainy, many ideologies suffer from the foolishness of the past).Now ask the question – what do all these damaged people have in common? And are all of them Muslims?- or even religiously motivated in any way?My point is, and I’m not going to spell it out, that Muslims are not the only people who, having been traumatised themselves, act out that trauma in destructive and violent ways. I feel desperately sorry for the victims and the victimisers, but I refuse to accept that Islam is to blame in those situations that involve ‘Muslims’ – even when they appeal to ‘Islam’ for their justification – because there are always other, more immediate and compelling psychological explanations of why such behaviour occurs. At the same time, there is a lot of evidence, from my own and others’ experience, that Muslims are peace-loving people who would never dream of hurting another human being any more than anyone else and who are just as shocked and horrified as anyone else by the violence that a tiny minority of human beings are capable of inflicting on others, including members of their own family, for whatever espoused reason.I am fairly sure that this will not satisfy some readers as it is not a new argument, and I can already hear Anticant typing the words ‘no true Scotsman’ as he accuses me of defining Islam out of blame. But I have already said far too much in my previous posts, though perhaps more thickly veiled that I imagined at the time, and I am not prepared to be drawn on the kind of contentious issues which might force me to be more explicit than is advisable in a world where many people look at each other with daggers in their eyes.One last word on the nuclear option though: which, in fact, is the only political discourse that has ever actually used nuclear weapons to silence its opponents? And what does that tell you about human nature?

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