Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Letter to Ibrahim Lawson, head of Islamia school

While some of us might feel anger at the views expressed by others, can I please ask that we avoid venting it – this is a rare opportunity to discuss things openly, and perhaps even change someone’s mind. You are unlikely to succeed if you sound angry and dismissive.

My response to Mr Lawson's letter

I should begin by explaining to Mr Lawson that I quoted him, not because he is a Muslim, but because he expressed a view about education that I think wrong-headed and, actually, dangerous. It's not just Muslims that hold that view (though many do). To be clear: I am objecting to his educational views, not his religion.

Mr Lawson. You say that your school is a happy one. It may well be that the values you inculcate are values of which I approve. That’s not the problem. The problem is with the way in which those values and associated religious beliefs are communicated – as something that must be accepted entirely without question. That is what I disapprove of, and I would disapprove of it just as strongly if you were running an atheist school (I happen to be an atheist).

You say:

“It is slightly absurd to imagine what approach we should have taken to teaching about Islam to these Muslim children if the objection is to us telling them that Islam is true.”

Just to reiterate: I do not object to you telling children that you believe it is true, and also why you believe it true. You add:

“Are we really supposed to then say, “But you shouldn’t believe that just because we say so; you should make your own minds up”?”

Yes, that’s exactly what you should say. And why not? After all, many religious people manage it. When the IPPR recommended all schools encourage children to think and question, even about the religious beliefs they bring into the classroom, Chris Curtis, director of the Luton Churches Education Trust said,

"Christianity stands head and shoulders above the rest… therefore I’m not afraid. I want young people to understand the different varieties of faith and choose the Christian faith by informed choice, rather than because it’s the only thing they came across."

So, religious people can and do accept the importance of independent critical thinking about religion. Why can’t you? Apparently, because:

"That is not what Islam teaches. In Islam, there is no question about the existence of god, the validity of the Qur’an or the veracity of the prophet. Nor, given that, is there a sensible choice about being Muslim. It would be self-contradictory to teach Islam to children as a matter of choice based on personal opinion."

If there is no sensible choice about being a Muslim, why not let them think and make a sensible judgement? Why not let them recognise its sensibleness for themselves, rather than simply be coerced and manipulated into accepting it?

One problem with encouraging children not to think and question about religion is that you are raising gullible idiots, religiously speaking. You are producing moral sheep. They think and do the right thing not because they recognise it is the right thing, but because they are told to do so. When they leave your school, they may be told, by another religious authority, to think and do something else. They will be vulnerable - lack critical defences. The best defence against brainwashing is not more brainwashing, it's raising children to be immune to brainwashing. That means raising them to be robust critical thinkers, even about religion. Here is the writer Hanif Kureishi talking about the men he knew who went off to train to be jihadists:

"These men believed they had access to the truth, as stated in the Qu’ran. There could be no doubt – or even much dispute about social, moral and political problems – because God had the answers. Therefore, for them, to argue with the Truth was like trying to disagree with the facts of geometry. For them the source of all virtue and vice was the pleasure and displeasure of Allah. To be a responsible human being was to submit to this. As the Muslim writer Shabbir Akhtar put it in his book, A Faith for all Seasons, “Allah is the subject of faith and loving obedience, not of rational inquiry or purely discursive thought. Unaided human reason is inferior in status to the gift of faith. Indeed, reason is useful only in so far as it finds a use in the larger service of faith."

This view of the jihadists seems to be precisely your attitude too. Indeed, precisely the attitude you are fostering in your children. Or am I wrong? You see the problem, don’t you?

Mr Lawson - you believe your educational views are an essential part of your religion, so an attack on one is an attack on the other. I can only hope that’s not true – otherwise we are in big trouble.

I have my doubts that Islam does require mindless, uncritical acceptance and obedience. Do Allah and Mohummud really want mindlessly religious followers? Surely not. That’s a very second-rate bunch of believers. Not the sort I'd want if I was God.

Finally, in your comment, you seem to want to allow some critical thought about religion. But Islam should only be examined critically when the discussion is marshalled/conducted by someone with the necessary skills. You say:

"Anyway, I am all in favour of questioning Islam, as long as it is done responsibly – that is by someone in full possession of the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary; in other words, by someone who has been educated to be able to question Islam, rather than by someone who has neither the knowledge’ skills nor attitudes necessary and can only then make a bad job of it."

I guess you think that, as a matter of fact, only mature Muslims have these skills. There is something to the view that, very often, the person best qualified to defend a view is someone who actually holds it. Otherwise, there’s a tendency for us to dismiss a “straw man”.

But if that’s your logic, then, given that you are teaching children to reject Christianity and atheism, shouldn’t there be representatives of these views in the classroom too? Otherwise their views are also likely to be dismissed as “straw men”?

Here's an offer. I am very knowledgeable about arguments for and against the existence of God - arguments that are common across the three Abrahamic religions. There's no distinctive Muslim response to, say, the problem of evil. You get the same kind of responses to the problem of evil from all three religions. I am very familiar with the arguments and responses. I write and publish on them. Why not invite me into your school to give a talk on the problem of evil? I am probably better qualified to talk about it than anyone on your staff. I'll do it for free! Really - this is a genuine offer.

28 comments:

anticant said...

There is all the difference in the world between asserting dogmatically that such and such a thing IS true and brooks no argument, and saying "I believe this is true, and here's why".

Religious people seem blind to this distinction. They seem to think that their gut-feeling that there is a God, and that he dictated their sacred books, renders any reasoned discussion of their faith superfluous. When they do use reason, it is usually only to produce and defend irrational arguments.

Reason being, in their terms, presumably God-given, why do they abuse and belittle it?

Bob said...

Well done Stephen Law for presenting a thoughtful and intelligent response on this sensitive topic.

One small point: Lawson makes it quite clear that, for him, his "educational" mandate for inculcation is intrinsically religious, a direct result of the certain verity accorded to his articles of faith, by his articles of faith!

This same level of closure to criticism, revision and possibility of error, may not be a feature of every Muslim's Islam, but it is at least a feature intrinsic to his Islam. And to that extent, it is wrong to say "I am objecting to his educational views, not his religion." You are certainly criticising Lawson's Islam.

(Not that there's anything wrong in so doing.)

Cassanders said...

@ S. Law.
You said:
.....................beginquote
I have my doubts that Islam does require mindless, uncritical acceptance and obedience. Do Allah and Mohummad really want mindlessly religious followers? Surely not. That’s a very second-rate bunch of believers. Not the sort I'd want if I was God.
...........................Endquote

Why do you doubt this?
I would in fact claim that such an interpretation is indeed an "essential" (sic) core in islam.
Firstly, recall that *islam* in fact literally means "submission" (i.e. ....to god's will). Secondly, islam has to my knowledge not normative concepts directly corresponding to "right" and "wrong". Rather it has the dichotomy : "halal" ( permissible" and "haram" (prohibited). Also, the quran (and ahadiths) are believed to be "encylopaedic" on normative matters. Basically then, there exists PRESCRIPTIONS for all conceivable normative actions in sample space (in accordance to the aforementioned dichotomy).
If "new" situations arise, an authorative school may give a fatwa" on that particular issue".

Finally, I would think there also exists an element of "magical" thinking (you also have remnants in christianity) in islam: if you follow a particular set of rules, the god "is obliged" to "keep his promises. (Allthough both religions makes some efforts to avoid the perceived hubris of claiming that god REALLY are bound by sych an "contract", Yet I still think it is there.

Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Ibrahim Lawson said...

A word about the anger some of us may feel inclined to vent: I entered into this discussion in the spirit of dialogue rather than debate (check google or see http://www.nald.ca/clr/study/scdvd.htm) so I am not trying to win this argument or catch anyone out. Rather, I am seeking areas where some new thinking might emerge. In order to do so I am prepared to ‘hold my beliefs lightly’ as some have put it.

My religion: entails some fairly strong assumptions about epistemology. These appear to run contrary to those which have evolved within the western metaphysical tradition since its Socratic origins. As a short hand, perhaps we could call the latter ‘Greek’ and the former ‘Semitic’. In order to see how there might be a conversation between the two, we have to go very deep, to the roots of each, where the sources of later, derived conflicts lie. Alasdair MacIntyre exposes this kind of problem at the beginning of ‘After Virtue’ in a discussion of attitudes towards abortion.

While we continue to hold unexamined, second order commitments to either the Semitic or the Greek paradigms, we can expect unresolvable disagreements over specific, first order issues.

Accepting values and beliefs entirely without question. This is a vast topic, and perhaps the main point of contention. To discuss this properly we need to be clear what this means; just which specific values and beliefs for example?

There has always been a great deal of discussion about Islam within the Muslim communities; some say that the effort to collect and analyse the sayings of the prophet during the 7th-9th centuries CE laid the intellectual foundations for the university system, for example.

However, it was necessary to establish foundational principles for discussion, commentary and resolving disagreements of interpretation. One of the main ones, in my view, appears at the very beginning of the Qur’an where Allah says: there is no doubt about this book (the Qur’an) – it is guidance for … those who believe in what has been revealed to you (Muhammad).

In what follows thereafter, there is no attempt to argue logically that one should believe in the truth of the Qur’an; such belief is assumed as a pre-condition, as the first verses clearly indicate. Even the famous challenge:

Do they say, ‘He (Muhammad) has invented it (the Qur’an)’? Say: ‘Then produce a sura like it and call on anyone you can besides Allah if you are telling the truth (10:38)

can be taken as rhetorical. In many other verses, Allah might be taken, on superficial analysis, to be arguing for belief, but this has never, until recently, been the Muslim view; rather there are many exhortations to believe on a kind of ‘How could you not…?’ basis. But this is not the main point.

Allah is quite clear in stating that the reason that people do not believe is because He has prevented them from believing; and that, conversely, belief comes not from any effort of our own but purely as a gift from Him.

The well known verse beginning ‘There is no compulsion in religion’ (2:255) makes the point that you cannot force someone to have religious beliefs; and I think that applies also to oneself – I cannot force myself to have religious beliefs, even, or perhaps especially, by logic and argument.

So I don’t think there is any getting round the fact that there is ultimately no justification of religious belief of the kind that would satisfy anyone committed exclusively to Greek metaphysics. Is that, however, the end of the story?

In the past, when Muslims were, by and large, not exposed to Greek metaphysics, the issue of defending the Semitic tradition did not arise. Philosophers and mystics, of course, were well aware of the problems, but kept it to themselves, though there were ‘leakages’ in the writings of the Sufis from time to time and Ibn Rushd was obliged to observe that most Muslims lacked the intellectual agility to deal with abstruse philosophical thinking. The ‘manufacture of consent’ is not a uniquely modern western issue.

I think the problem you identify is a real one: people are vulnerable to persuasion by any old Tom, Dick or Harry, and when they cease to believe in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything.

I think it is very important for children to taught to use the skills of critical thinking, which they are not, in any significant way, in any UK school I have ever known. But I think it is also important to recognise the limits, so that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And there is a baby in there somewhere.

The example of the jihadists: I am sure there are Muslims, I have met them, who believe there is no question about anything they are told is ‘the uniquely authoritative Islamic position’ on various issues. They are told this by a rather small and unrepresentative set of ‘scholars’. There are unquestioning people like this in all walks of life, some of them American soldiers in Iraq right now. But this is not the view shared by the vast majority of Muslims. I do not claim to speak for anyone but myself here, though I know my view is widely shared in differing forms and degrees, but there is ample room for both faith and reason in a balanced Islamic world view. ‘Faith’ pertains to certain fundamental matters concerning the ‘inward’ or ‘spiritual’ realm, where reason has no purchase; ‘Reason’ deals with issues of the ‘outward’ or ‘material’ world (highly misleading terminology, without further extensive clarification). The Muslims have always exercised reason in the interpretation of religious texts, and would mostly disagree with the typical jihadist position. (This position has interesting historical antecedents and has always been an extreme minority view). Reason can also be applied to most, if not all, first order ethical issues.

Sp I think that the spectre you raise of unthinking fundamentalist automatons is one not to be found in the real world in the UK today; certainly not in any Islamic schools of my acquaintance.

Mindlessly religious followers? As opposed to what? As I have said, I don’t see that religious faith is based on rationality (to put it crudely; long argument about meaning of terms) and I sense some truth in the idea of believing in order to understand.

Finally, yes, it’s the straw men that I do not wish to be confused with. However, it would take some persuasion for my parents and governors to give you a platform on which to seek to persuade my students that Islamic beliefs are irrational. There is simply too much mistrust of other people’s motives. I am personally very familiar with the traditional arguments for belief in the existence of god and the interesting reasons why they fail. My motive in teaching people about these things is not, however, to undermine their faith. Even so, I have learned from experience that it is not wise to pull the carpet out from under someone in mid-flight. There is a lot of work to do in preparing children for the complex world they are heading for in today’s post-modern societies and there are ethical principles involved which include an large, if not unconditional, element of positive regard.

However, the imam of my mosque likes a challenge, so shall I suggest he gets in touch?

anticant said...

"It would take some persuasion for my parents and governors to give you a platform on which to seek to persuade my students that Islamic beliefs are irrational. There is simply too much mistrust of other people’s motives."

How very defensive!

Ron Murphy said...

Anticant suggests that Mr Lawson's, "However, it would take some persuasion... mistrust of other people’s motives.", is a defensive statement.

Stephen, do you find this the case often in your attempts to speak to religious groups? How do find the balance in the various scenarios in this context:

- religious speakers being invited to (for want of a better expression) atheist venues,
- religious speakers accepting the challenge,
- atheists speakers being invited to religious venues,
- atheists accepting the challenge,
- religious speakers offering to speak to atheist groups,
- atheists speakers offering to speak to religious groups

I think the perception among many atheists is that the religious shy away from this challenge in the face of the potential onslaught of sound argument, and that the religious position is indefensible, and that's why they rarely take up the offer. What's your take on this, having some experience of these scenarios?

Ron Murphy said...

It doesn't matter how deep and obscure the basic philosophy goes, in the end it really boils down to whether you accept that some entity, god, is the first cause of the universe and all life in it. But even if you accept that, then where does all the worship and other religious stuff come from? As soon as you accept that any one religion is possible, you have to, by the same token, accept all religions - there is no non-superficial distinguishing character to any of them.

Mr Lawson mentions MacIntyre's 'After Virtue', but much of his ideas are based on the initial presumption that god exists (and from where we derive morality). And MacIntyre's criticism of the enlightenment, in terms of morality, is based on the god assumption, and that any deviation from god's morality, particularly a relaxing of moral codes (with regards to sex, homosexuality, etc.), is inherently immoral or a sign of a decline in moral values. So, until the ultimate question of god is settled, then much of MacIntyre is irrelevant.

Even the problem of evil is irrelevant until the existence of god is establish. If god exists he can create evil, free will, whatever he wants, and it can follow any arbitrary rules he chooses. No god, no evil, just events.

Mr Lawson goes on to explain some principles of Islam, and some passages from the Qu'ran. But again, without god they are irrelevant. The Qu'ran, Bible and other religious texts are no more valid than any others, religious or otherwise. They may contain some moral codes that strike a chord today, and so may be read with some interest, but they also contain much nonsense.

I feel there is always the need to dress up religion to make it more palatable to the masses, to surround it with mystique, and to restrict access to its higher echelons. So, strip away all that and get back to the basic question. What makes you believe? If it's not rational thought, but revelation, then how do you distinguish revelation from delusion? And why is your Islamic revelation any more valid than a Christian one? How can you tell?


On some other points...
"...UK schools..." - I'm sure you're right. It's a tragedy. Philosophy/critical thinking should have been introduced long ago. But hasn't the main resistance been from the religious lobby?

"...American soldiers..." - I'm sure you're right again, but aren't the unquestioning ones from very religious backgrounds, or relatively uneducated, at least in critical thinking? I've seen interviews with some apparently bright American soldiers, who do appear to be able to think, and are critical of their situation; and they also appear to be among the most tortured of souls.

Mr Lawson, with every point you make someone here is making a real attempt to address it, to give you the atheist's point of view with regard to religion and its role in education. I'm afraid that, for me at least, your responses have appeared to be contradictory to some extent to begin with (indoctrination v. critical thinking), and have become more obscure latterly.

You say that it is necessary to go deeper to understand the more of your point of view, perhaps to a greater degree than you wish to go into here. Could you point out some sources where all this is explained, so that we can begin to understand more?

Timmo said...

Ibrahim,

I am glad that you decided to have this open dialog with Stephen and his readers. As Stephen said, this is a rare opportunity, and one that ought to be taken advantage of.

Perhaps you can further characterize what you call Greek and Semitic approaches to (religious) knowledge. What are the key tenets that "Greek" and "Semitic" individuals hold respectively?

I take it that you hold this distinction is very important to religious epistemology, as you write,

So I don’t think there is any getting round the fact that there is ultimately no justification of religious belief of the kind that would satisfy anyone committed exclusively to Greek metaphysics.

Again, what is different about someone who approaches (religious) knowledge in a Semitic way that makes it possible for such an individual to be satisfied? (For the record, my own view on faith is here.)

Ibrahim Lawson said...

I wrote this post (below) before reading this mornings comment from Ron (and I am working on a reply to Ron’s long posting in the other thread. Time is limited I’m afraid)

Anyway, I was very heartened to read his last comment about wanting to understand more. That is so much in contrast with the thinly veiled hostility I have sensed in other posts. I would really like to be able to get to a point where the conversation could address some real issues rather than wearily rehearsing the same old entrenched positions.

Some sources (Islamic/sufic) referred to here, for more see - http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ABewley/hikamcom2.html .

For western thought, I find Heidegger interesting. A good place to start may be John Caputo’s ‘The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought.


Overnight reflections: A couple of comments that have made me think - my position/reasoning is ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ and the one about the jihadis’ belief being like a belief in geometry.

It’s true, I decided to be a Muslim and from that point on my belief was a priori; the existence of God self-evident; Islam true by definition. That’s why questions like: but how do you know? seem as senseless to me as: how do you know triangles have three sides?

Of course, faith is not mathematical, but it has something of that deductive certainty. The Sufi Sheikh Ibn Ataillah wrote 700 years ago:

“What a difference!
This one is guided by Him.
That one seeks information about Him.
The one guided by Him gains direct knowledge of the Real
and verifies the matter from its actual Source.
Seeking information about Him comes from
not having reached Him.
This must be the case because when was He absent
so as to make it necessary for you to seek information about Him?
When was He distant so that you would need tracks to lead you to Him?”

This is saying that God’s existence has an a priori, deductive certainty for some people, whereas others try (foolishly) to find Him by way of evidence and argument.

Faith also has something in common with aesthetics: it is beautiful. The question: how do you know? seems again redundant.

Some have tried to explain this by positing an ‘organ of perception’, called the heart in the Qur’an, which has its own knowledges and sciences which ‘reason knows not of’. This nature of the existence of this ‘heart’ is problematic, just as that other troublesome organ, the mind, is hard to find in the material world of simple science.

So where does this leave us?

Ibrahim Lawson said...

About my defensiveness: it may well be the case, I have no extensive evidence here, that religious believers are hesitant to debate with atheists for a number of reasons other than because they know they are wrong.

Firstly, atheists – Dawkins is a good example – tend to insist on defining the limits of the debate in such a way as to rule out ways of thinking that do not conform to their own techno-rationalist preferences. They tend to be very skilful at defending their position, having thought about it much more than the majority of believers have thought about their own views. I was an atheist at one time, until I found a way to be Muslim that side-stepped all of those objections and made them irrelevant. So one’s experience of atheists is that they are very good at hitting the target but missing the point, and this makes it frustrating, and ultimately pointless, to debate with them.

Secondly, a Muslim may think that atheism is like some kind of diabolical mind virus that has wiped out religion in the west and left an unholy mess in its place. In particular, Christians may seem to have surrendered to the point where their religion has become meaningless, or can at least be made to mean anything. Jews also seem to have a different take on ‘faith’ due to their confusing religion with culture, or even ‘race’ (I believe there is only one human race).

Thirdly, a Muslim may think that there is no point in discussing Islam with someone who appears to have no positive interest it. By which I mean someone whose express intention is not to find out about Islam with a view to possibly converting, but rather the opposite – to convert Muslims to atheism. Since the end is not sought, the means becomes irrelevant. Call it having a closed mind if you like.

Hugo Hadlow said...

Off topic, but I am very amused by the "Dialogue vs. Debate" page linked to.

"it's important to realise that when two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side to be simply wrong." Dawkins on "teach both sides": intelligent design/creationism vs evolution in schools.

Dialogue sounds much more friendly than debate, more "collaborative", less adversarial. But there may be nothing to collaborate on. There may be no common ground.

The "I don't want a debate, I want dialogue" position sounds to me like "I don't want to have my arguments challenged. I want to put mine on the table, and you can put your's on the table, but I'm not really going to listen."

From that article linked to, it seems the definition of "debate" being used is "involves attacking, disagreeing with or arguing with the other side". And "dialogue" is definted to involve none of this.

Thank goodness you clearly are willing to enter into debate, Mr Lawson: to disagree and be disagreed with. It seems to me that disagreement is what will cause sides to think about their position, make it more intellectually rigorous (more capable of withstanding these attacks) and maybe ultimately abandon it.



There's lots of silly stuff in that article:

"In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning and find agreement.
In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments."
Well yes, but if you can't find any flaws in their arguments, and they find flaws in yours that you haven't seen before, then you might change your mind.
I go to a debate at least once a week, and sometimes do change my mind. I fail to see how anyone's minds are going to be changed if no one ever disagrees or argues with anyone.

"In dialogue, one submits ones best thinking, knowing that other people's reflections will help improve it rather than destroy it."
"Dialogue" as defined here assumes that neither side is simply wrong: that each side can be improved, or merged.

"Dialogue remains open-ended.
Debate implies a conclusion."
No one is right? Relativism?

"Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put them into a workable solution.
Debate assumes that there is a right answer and that someone has it."
That's why debate is better.

Ibrahim said...

Interesting comments from Hugh.

I think it depends on whether you think ‘truth’ is a function of propositions that ‘correspond with the facts’ or something less binary. That suggestion is not logical in the formal, theoretical sense if I understand the law of the excluded middle, but I think I can see where Wittgenstein is coming from when he states that ‘the crystalline purity of logic was a requirement not a discovery’ (somewhere in Philosophical Investigations).

I suppose the difference between dialogue and debate that is being proposed relates partly to the emotional tone (eg friendly) and to the intended outcome (eg victory/defeat or something less conclusive).

The preference for ‘dialogue’ is not because I am not prepared to have my views challenged. I find that if you really go into where the differences lie, the sort of fractal edge if you like, interesting things are found.

By the way, I am not unwilling to change my mind about anything, including not being unwilling to change my mind about anything.

The emphasis of dialogue is more about seeking agreement than airing disagreements; but you can’t do one without the other so it’s not either/or.

Dialogue assumes that neither ‘side’ is totally right in such a way as to exclude any possible revision in any detail. That seems reasonable to me up to a point. I guess it’s about seeing complexity in place of simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. This is more about pragmatism than relativism – workable solutions rather than triumphant meta-narratives.

Ibrahim said...

Timmo,

The view that this is a rare and important opportunity for dialog/debate/discussion, whatever, has been expressed several times. Why is that, do you think?

Mind you, recently having spent much more time than usual in cyberspace – recovering from an operation – I can see that it attracts a certain sort of mind. But I would like to think that my willingness to hold open the space for inquiry may have something to do with it. I mean, I am not approaching this as a means to win any arguments but neither will I capitulate that easily (either by taking my ball and going home or by revealing that I secretly agree with my opponents). This is risky for me because I am not an experienced philosopher like Stephen and am probably quite naïve and ill-informed, if not plain wrong about some things. So I guess I am here because I want to learn and this is probably a good opportunity.

I have read and discussed quite a lot of philosophical writings in fairly lazy way over the years, and that has led me to certain interim conclusions whose origins now fade into memory. However, to put it very superficially, the distinction between Greek and Semitic (no racial connotations) is something to do with the idea that metaphysics as we know it has got something wrong with it – possibly to do with an appeal to ‘metaphysical realities’ in the attempt to explain human experience.

I know this may sound funny coming from a religious believer, but I have the idea that it is only when you apply Greek thinking to Semitic concepts that you come up with the idea of a metaphysical God. That God died during the 19th century – ‘God is dead and we have killed Him’. But an important part of Nietzsche’s idea is that the madman is looking for God with a lighted torch in the middle of the day.

I don’t think the Semitic mind thinks of religious stories as true or false in the same way as the Greek mind. The important question to ask of a story is not ‘Is it true’ but rather ‘What does it mean?’ (To paraphrase Umberto Eco).

So I think the focus shifts to hermeneutics, and in particular the peculiar ‘hermeneutic phenomenology’ of Heidegger. It may even be that Heidegger didn’t go far enough, as Derrida claims, but I can’t judge that at the moment.

This is an area where I would like to have some dialog – though analytical philosophers may well consider us to have strayed into the realm of poetry (= fantasy).

Ron Murphy said...

Mr Lawson,

In your reference to "WAKENING ASPIRATION (Iqâdh Al-Himam):,COMMENTARY ON THE HIKAM ,by Ibn 'Ajiba, I think I'm going to have to spend more time with that, but on first reading I have a couple of objections.
- It appears to rely on the acceptance of god for much of its authority. But that pre-condition can only lead to a circular argument, since I'm looking for an explanation into the belief in god in the first place.
- The whole thing appears to be more prose and poetry that anything else, with plenty of prescriptive advice, but little explanation. I'm afraid I would liken it to what might disparagingly be called a 'new age' guide to life.

Your statement, "It’s true, I decided to be a Muslim and from that point on my belief was a priori; the existence of God self-evident; Islam true by definition." now puzzles me. I thought you had made it clear earlier that one couldn't choose to believe in god, that it required revelation. I can see that you could choose to become a Muslim, to choose a path to follow (though I still don't know why one would choose that particular path). But I can't see how that then leads, a priori, to real belief.

I feel as though you are saying you have convinced or persuaded yourself in some way that this a priori belief is true, without actually saying why you or anyone else should think that an a priori belief is consequential of the particular choice to become a Muslim. Without that, then why shouldn't anyone choose any old path: Christianity, Buddhism, Mormonism, New Age Whatever, Santa Clausism, etc., with - and this is the point - equal weight. Of course from the point of view of reason, an atheist concludes that there is no good reason to follow any of these paths.

If you were to say that your 'decision' was in fact revealed to you by god, through a revelation, then I could understand why you would then accept what follows, but then that brings me back to the questions about revelation - delusion? How do you know? etc.

You quote The Sufi Sheikh Ibn Ataillah. Again, I find this poetic in some way; and it may well be saying that "...god has an a priori (deductive?) certainty, for some people." Isn't deductive certainty achieved through argument and hence not applicable to belief? That some people do believe in god a priori isn't in question - why they believe is. And then, "...whereas others try (foolishly) to find Him by way of evidence and argument." What is foolish about evidence and argument in relation to belief? I still haven't come across anything that says it isn't, other than theists simply claiming it isn't.

"Faith also has something in common with aesthetics: it is beautiful. The question: how do you know? seems again redundant." - I don't think so. I accept that faith may be beautiful to some, but that is irrelevant. The question: how do you know? is precisely what is being asked, and is not redundant. For example, how do you know the Qu'ran wasn't written by a charlatan or fool? That's a reasonable question. What about Joseph Smith, Jr., do you think he has equal validity to Mohammed, simply because they both deliver what they claimn is a message from god?

"Some have tried to explain this by positing an ‘organ of perception’, called the heart..." - Yes, but then some have thought all sorts of things about the mind, the location of the soul in the heart, yin and yang, the seven humors, etc., but that doesn't make them true. Again, we're back to the question of why should one accept any of that as a proposition, without some evidence. It appears to be superstition, or at best another poetic representation of feeling. I really can't see what it offers.

"So one’s experience of atheists is that they are very good at hitting the target but missing the point, and this makes it frustrating, and ultimately pointless, to debate with them." - Many atheists could say the same about theists, except the target is one that has been conjured up from nothing and adorned with all sorts of mystique. While we're on the subject of Dawkins, his opinion that any massive claim should be backed up by significant evidence. And that is what the atheist is asking for - if we are missing the point, what is the point? So far, no answer that doesn't already pre-suppose god (God, through the Qu'ran/Bible says this is the point, etc.).

"Secondly, a Muslim may think that atheism is like some kind of diabolical mind virus that has wiped out religion in the west and left an unholy mess in its place." - I wouldn't go along with that precisely. It hasn't wiped out religion, and I don't think deep down its intention is to do that. It's intention is to ask for good reasons for accepting theism and the rules it would like to impose, and those reasons not having been forthcoming; so religion is struggling to survive - this is the 'problem' for theists (for atheists it's not a problem). An unholy mess? Unholy, yes - no problem. A mess - maybe it is taking some time to recover from impact of religion, so lets apply some critical thinking to clearing up the mess - it doesn't require religion. And religion isn't immune from the virus that creates an 'unholy mess'.

"Thirdly, a Muslim may think that there is no point... Call it having a closed mind if you like." - Surely what you've just described in the Muslim is a closed mind, in that he has his faith and isn't prepared to discuss challenges to it. On first meeting, an atheist may bring with him his own view of the world, and may think he can persuade the Muslim. But the atheist, at least one who has an open mind, would be prepared to accept any convincing arguments that might change his mind.

"By the way, I am not unwilling to change my mind about anything, including not being unwilling to change my mind about anything." - Can I paraphrase this, and please correct me if I'm wrong. "I'm prepared to change my mind, but then again I might not be."


My interpretation of dialogue and argument? Dialogue is a means of discovering common ground when two positions are poles apart and both parties want to make an attempt to accept co-existence without necessarily any conversion of minds. Dialogue tends to be limited in its used where one party appears, at least to the other party, to be imposing its system on the other. When this isn't the case, when one party does want to impose its system on the other, then the imposing party need to justify it with a very good argument.

As far as I know, no reasonable atheist is requiring that any theist gives up their religion, just that the religion isn't imposed on the atheist. No reasonable atheist, as far as I know, is suggesting laws be put through that positively discriminate in their favour and against any religion.

Theism, on the contrary, wants to impose itself on atheists. You have said you would like Britain to become a Muslim Ummah. If all 'reasonable' Muslims managed to convince the whole of British society that this would be a safe thing to do and that atheists and others wouldn't be imposed upon, and if this was achieved, do you really think that Sharia law wouldn't be eventually imposed on the whole society? And its no good saying that some of these despicable laws are rarely if ever used. They are used in some states.

"...don't think of religious stories as true or false... " - This appears to a long way from the 'truth' you have suggested at other times. How can something be a priori true, and yet not really true or false?

Heidegger may well have some interesting philosophical points about being and so on. But even if you suppose that a god exists, again, how do you get from there to the validity of religious texts an prophets on their own say-so? And you really can't say resort to the claim that they are god's messengers - there is no reason to believe that.


Do you have any more references that have a clearer explanation of the Islamic point of view that can give an atheist a route into understanding Islam?

Anonymous said...

Mr Lawson,

I am an athiest but I would like to commend you on having the courage to bring your beliefs to this forum and for being honest about what you must have known would be viewed as at best a delusional worldview. It takes guts to expose yourself to that criticism.

I think we may have found at least some common ground in that some athiests, myself included, find the modern christian faith particularly frustrating. They simply modify the religion everytime it comes into too much conflict with modern western morality.

While I don't believe that either of us has any hope of convincing the other, through dialogue we may learn to understand each other better. I hope more Muslims are willing to enter this debate.

Timmo said...

Ibrahim,

Thanks for your reply. It sounds like the Greek/Semitic distinction you are drawing has less to do with religious epistemology and more to do with the special character of religious language. Your remarks suggest a distinction of this sort:

Greek Thesis: Whether God exists, and whether He has certain properties, such as being compassionate and merciful, is independent of the beliefs and conceptual schemes of human beings. Religious language is about facts which are metaphysically independent of human beings.

Semitic Thesis: Religious language is not about facts which are metaphysically independent of human beings; locutions such as 'God is compassionate and merciful' are neither true nor false.

If the Semitic Thesis is correct, then the entire project of trying to determine whether Theism is correct by unaided human reason is deeply misguided: religious propositions are not even the sort of thing for which one can provide evidence or counter-evidence!

I do not think it can be reasonably maintained that the Semitic Thesis is consistent with the tenants of Christianity or Islam. Christians and Muslims believe that there will occur, at some definite moment in human history, a Day of Judgment during which a literal, bodily resurrection of the dead will occur. If God is not a "metaphysical reality", then the significance of Christianity and Islam vanishes.

Stephen Law said...

Hello all - my email alert isn't working so have only just spotted all these comments.

There are responses by me in main postings now, Ibrahim, if you want to take a look.

By the way - deductive validity entails: necessarily: if the premises are true, then so is the conclusion. The following argument is deductively valid:

I am a donkey
Therefore, I am a donkey

The conclusion follows a priori. But of course, it's a terrible argument, isn't it? Because it provides us with no justification for supposing I am a donkey (being circular). Your suggestion that once we accept Islam, it has a priori deductive certainty seems, to me, to turn on something like this mistake, but I might well have misunderstood...

Anonymous said...

Stephen, while I generally find this blog interesting, your continual talking down to people is immensely irritating.

Do you really think a philosophy graduate needs a kiddy-level description of deductive validity? Treat Ibrahim Lawson with the sort of respect you demand from others.

Ibrahim Lawson said...

Stephen, on your last point in this thread,

Careless use of language by me. By ‘deductive certainty’ I meant ‘knowing a priori’, as in the result of a valid deductive argument containing only true premises. If god’s existence is going to be the conclusion of such an argument, there can be no shade of doubt contained in the truth of the premises, which is impossible if there is any empirical element requiring inductive verification. If you know what I mean; badly put. And if the argument contains only necessarily true premises (making no factual claim about what does ‘actually’ exist in the ‘real world’ of ‘facts’) the conclusion remains similarly empty.

Basically, neither deduction nor induction will do to establish the existence of the kind of God I believe in. That’s the point I was circling around.

Your donkey argument, by the way, doesn’t seem to be an argument but a tautology of the form P therefore P, the connective doing no work, so to speak.

Curiously though, I sense there is indeed a circularity in what I am suggesting lies at the heart of faith.

I must have a look at the book Bob recommends on the ‘tu quoque’ defence. A tutor at university whose thinking I had great respect for (an atheist who first taught me philosophy of religion), said to me once, quite intentionally – well I suppose I have faith in reason.

What reply could be given to the question ‘why be logical’?- without resorting to logic? Why ask the question at all if you don’t want a logical reply?

Isn’t this the sort of thing Wittgenstein was interested in? the impossibility of an infinite regress of rule-writing?

Ibrahim said...

Timmo,

It is a distinction to do with religious language which seems to me to have implications for epistemology.

I suppose the argument turns on the definition we give to ‘true’. The semite might say, ‘God exists’ is true but not in the way you define ‘true’.

Are there different definitions of ‘true’? I repair at this point to Heidegger’s writing about truth as ‘correspondence with the facts’ and truth as ‘aletheia’. Check Wikipedia as a starting point.

I have read Heidegger on this subject and also Caputo’s ‘The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought’ and I believe this is where the discussion leads us.

(Please, before anyone is tempted, could we not have the ‘Heidegger was a Nazi’ debate?)

On your last point: I disagree. The tenets of Islam can, and should, be viewed ‘Semitically’, just drop the misleading term ‘literal’ if you can, it comes already loaded with ‘Greek’ metaphysics.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Ibrahim - ah, that's a bit clearer, thanks.

Just to get the boring irrelevancy out the way:

"If P then P" is a tautology (it's also a statement)

P, therefore P, is an argument (it's not a statement).

True, it's a circular argument, but it's an argument non-the-less. It's also deductively valid, according to the standard definition of validity.

Well I think we have got to the nub of something here. We all hit foundations at some point: beliefs or principles that cannot be justified other than in a circular way. Take the basic principles of reason. There's no non-circular way to justify them, it seems, as any such justification will itself rely on reason.

Well, let's agree about all that, at least for the sake of argument. The point I raise in my next main posting is that, even if we all have certain beliefs that are foundational for us, which we cannot justify, it doesn't follow that those beliefs should not be subjected to critical scrutiny.

Logicians who treat certain principles as axiomatic and foundational can still subject them to critical scrutiny. Philosophers who apply reason can still subject the principles of reason to critical scrutiny.

So what can't you subject your foundational principles to critical scrutiny? The mere fact that they are foundational doesn't necessitate you treat them that way.

Have a look at my last two main posts for elaboration.

Do please comment on my astrology example.

[Also - parting thought - just because something cannot be justified doesn't mean it cannot be falsified. Perhaps one of our principles will turn out to contradict all the others. In which case we may have to drop it. Critical scrutiny may reveal such a contradiction.]

Ron Murphy said...

Anonymous,

I'm an amateur,let alone a philospohy graduate. These simplifications can be helpful and sometimes clarify points. I don't think there's anything wrong to bringing things back to first principles now and then.

Stephen Law said...

Hi Ibrahim - ah, that's a bit clearer, thanks.

Just to get the boring irrelevancy out the way:

"If P then P" is a tautology (it's also a statement)

P, therefore P, is an argument (it's not a statement).

True, it's a circular argument, but it's an argument non-the-less. It's also deductively valid, according to the standard definition of validity.

Well I think we have got to the nub of something here. We all hit foundations at some point: beliefs or principles that cannot be justified other than in a circular way. Take the basic principles of reason. There's no non-circular way to justify them, it seems, as any such justification will itself rely on reason.

Well, let's agree about all that, at least for the sake of argument. The point I raise in my next main posting is that, even if we all have certain beliefs that are foundational for us, which we cannot justify, it doesn't follow that those beliefs should not be subjected to critical scrutiny.

Logicians who treat certain principles as axiomatic and foundational can still subject them to critical scrutiny.

Philosophers who apply reason can still subject the principles of reason to critical scrutiny.

So what prevents you subjecting your own foundational principles to critical scrutiny? The mere fact that you treat them as foundational doesn't necessitate you make them immune to critical scrutiny.

Have a look at my last two main posts for elaboration.

Do please comment on my astrology example.

[Also - parting thought - just because something cannot be justified doesn't mean it cannot be falsified. Perhaps one of our principles will turn out to contradict all the others. In which case we may have to drop it. Critical scrutiny may reveal such a contradiction.]

Apologies if, as anonymous suggests, I have been condescending.

Ron Murphy said...

Mr Lawson,

On the point of your tutor who said "well I suppose I have faith in reason". I obviously don't know what he really meant, but I would take it that in this sense 'faith' means a 'trust' based on experience of the reliability of reason, rather than what many theists would think 'faith' means regarding heir religion: absolute unquestioning belief and the complete irrelevance of reason.

I would say that any 'atheist' who disbelieves in god or any other deity simply based on an absolute un-reasoned belief is a 'faith-based-atheist' as opposed to a 'reason-based-atheist'.

Ibrahim said...

Stephen…

[Good job we’ve got nothing else to do. Just out of interest: can an argument only have one premise and that identical to the conclusion? What makes that an argument as such? Or: is there any difference between ‘if…then’ and ‘therefore’.]

There is no non-circular way to rationally defend rationality, just as there is no way to give a true definition of truth. We are left with critical scrutiny. Would that be ‘rational’ critical scrutiny or something else?

When we apply critical scrutiny to the principles of reason – what does that look like? Is it something like this: “To know is … the ability to stand in the manifestness of what is , to endure it.” (Heidegger; an introduction to metaphysics, p21, trans Mannheim, Yale, 1987)


I personally INSIST on critically scrutinising my own apparently foundational assumptions. I think of myself as an inveterate iconoclast, as did Hunter S. Thompson (who also said: when the going gets weird, the weird turns pro.)

Anyway, I have commented on the astrologist.

No worries about the brusqueness or the condescension.

Ibrahim said...

Ron –

I think he meant that his relation to his fundamental assumptions shared some similarities with mine. He would NOT have accepted that this meant my assumptions were no better or worse than his and he was certainly of the opinion that reason trumped theism on the basis that the latter was (a) self-contradictory and (b – if more were needed)) empirically unfalsifiable and therefore redundant as any kind of explanation of the facts.

Timmo said...

Ibrahim,

I am very puzzled by your most recent response. The way I attempted to characterize the Greek/Semitic distinction in my previous note went along these lines: a "Greek" takes religious language to be truth-apt language which is about a metaphysically independent, objectively existing God, whereas a "Semite" uses religious in a way which is not truth-apt. Perhaps, for the latter, religious language is wholly noncognitive: mystical nonsense uttered in the face of an ineffable God.

Instead, you write,

I suppose the argument turns on the definition we give to ‘true’. The Semite might say, ‘God exists’ is true but not in the way you define ‘true’.

Are there different definitions of ‘true’? I repair at this point to Heidegger’s writing about truth as ‘correspondence with the facts’ and truth as ‘aletheia’.


I must confess that I am wholly unfamiliar with Heidegger's philosophy and his work on truth, so the reference is unhelpful for me. To be sure, the word 'true' has multiple meanings, and can be used in various ways. We say things like, "He's a true friend" or "Be true to yourself". On the other hand, there is notion of truth as applied to propositions. When a proposition is true, then the world really is the way the proposition represents it to be. Because it is the notion of truth as applied to propositions is what matters in this context, does Heidegger contend there is more than one way for a proposition to be true in this sense?

Ibrahim said...

Timmo - I wasn't meaning to use references to Heidegger to close down debate. I may be wrong, but it seems as if you understand truth to be a property of propositions applicable to their degree of correspondence with the facts/actual state of affairs/world (whatever we call it that the proposition is held to represent). This is known as the 'correspondence' theory of truth. There are problems with this theory which have prompted philosophers to try to come up with other ways of understanding truth. A semite could hold to the truth of his propositions just as much as a greek, but they would have what I have called 2nd order or meta-level disagreements over what 'true' meant. If they were not aware of this, they would have an unresolvable 1st order disagreement without realising why. I think that's exactly what is happening today - and not just in reference to religion.