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Showing posts from December, 2007

The "moral capital" move

The "moral capital" move that I explored here showed up again in today's Observer (article here ) . On page 25, Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, suggests that perhaps modern atheist do-gooders are nevertheless living off the moral capital built up by earlier religious generations (and when that capital finally runs out, then where will we be?!): "... many people who have strong moral commitments without any religious foundation were shaped by parents or grandparents for whom morality and religion were fundamentally bound up. Moreover, many of those in the forefront of progressive political change, who have abandoned religion, have been driven by a humanism that has essentially been built up by our Christian heritage... How far are we living on moral capital? " (p.25)] Harries credits Charles Taylor with making this point, though the U.S. neo-cons seem to have got there before him (see below). I have not read Taylor's "magesterial" A Secular

Catholic schools - Bishops cracking down

According to today’s Observer (p5), the Catholic Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue (illustrated), has said in a document written for schools in his diocese that: “ Under no circumstances should any outside authority or agency that is not fully qualified to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church ever be allowed to speak to pupils or individuals on sexual or any other matter involving faith and morals ” O’Donoghue also called for any books containing polemics against the Catholic Church to be removed from school libraries. He also maintains schools should reject the promotion of safe or safer sex, as it is based on the (in his view, deluded) theory that condom use can provide adequate protection against AIDS (I discuss this here ). O’Donoghue is one of several “fundamentalist” Catholic Bishops pushing for a much more authoritarian, conservative approach to Catholic schooling. I draw attention to these Bishops as they illustrate the point that it is not just Muslims like Ibrahim La

The Carol Service - and Hypocrites

Each Christmas, churches that usually stand empty are suddenly brimming with people happily singing carols, kneeling for the prayers and celebrating along with the priest or vicar. Many of them are atheists. Isn’t there something deeply hypocritical about non-Christians celebrating Christmas in this way? Or is Christmas something we should all be able to participate in, whatever our beliefs? Some Christians are annoyed by the presence of atheists at Christmas services. ‘If they don’t believe in God,’ they ask ‘then why do they come? They’re hypocrites, standing awkwardly at the back and hoping we won’t notice them. This is one of the most important events in the Christian calendar and it’s being treated as a concert – they’re only here for the music and lights.’ On the other hand, many Christians don’t just tolerate non-Christians at these events, they positively encourage them to come along. Pascal on going through the motions The philosopher Blaise Pascal’s thinking on religious

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 wh

Review: The Screwtape Letters

Did this review for Norm at normblog. Go here . C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books, also wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters , which was and remains very popular with the Christian fraternity. The book is a series of letters from a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew and protégé, Wormwood, who has just graduated from demon Training College. What the letters reveal are all the tricks of the trade so far as devilry is concerned - the ways in which Satan's demons tempt, trick, and otherwise manipulate us so that we are lost to 'the Enemy' (God) and become delicious morsels for 'our Father below', as Screwtape refers to the Devil. Screwtape's advice to his blundering nephew reveals his own experience at drawing humans to their doom. He explains how we can be tempted to sin, even while we think we are being virtuous. When Wormwood's first 'patient' finds Christianity, Screwtape advises Wormwood thus: The most alarming thing in your last a

The McGinn/Honderich spat

Ted Honderich has developed a theory of consciousness which he calls r adical externalism . Colin McGinn reviewed Honderich's book setting out the theory in Philosophical Review . The review is pretty damning. Opening sentences: This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent. Honderich has replied, and McGinn has replied to the reply. McGinn says: I was well aware that the final product would, however, rank as among the most scathing reviews of a philosophy book ever written; reasonably so, in my opinion. You can find all these pieces on Ted Honderich's website here . I myself contributed to a volume of Journal of Consciousness Studies dedicated to the theory. My piece is here . I won't comment on this spat other than to say that the position McGinn attributes to Honderich - that real physical objects appear within worlds of percept

Religious education - some recommendations

Is there not a good case for ensuring that every school, state-funded or not, should do the following? 1. have a syllabus that includes periods in which open, philosophical discussion of important moral, cultural, political and religious question takes place. These sessions should be run by educators with some training in running a philosophical discussion. Safeguards should be put in place to ensure that pupils are not subtly (or not-so-subtly) psychologically pressured into not asking certain sorts of question or making certain sorts of point (e.g. about religion). 2. present their pupils with a broad range of different political, moral and religious beliefs and arguments. It’s important alternative points of view are not caricatured or demolished as mere straw men. One way to avoid this is to allow pupils to hear these alternative points of view from those that hold them. Students should get at least some chance actively to engage in discussion with those from other faiths.

Ofsted report on Islamia school

Incidentally, I checked the Ofsted report on Ibrahim's school (he is no longer head, it seems). Before I get to the school's report, what is especially interesting is this: There are no national statutory requirements for religious education (RE), other than that RE should be provided. There are non -statutory (i.e. entirely toothless) guidelines, however. They are here . Very waffly, aren't they? What do the require so far as getting children to think critically about their own religion is concerned? Er... um... Maintained schools do have to comply with a locally agreed RE syllabus, determined by the Local Education Authority on advice from a Standing Advisory Council on RE (SACRE) which is comprised of 4 groups of people, each group with one vote, comprising representatives from: (i) religious denominations, (ii) the Church of England, (iii) local teaching reps, (iv) the Local Education Authority (notice membership must therefore be at least 50% religious). The sy

Ibrahim Lawson: latest response

For those arriving late - this is an ongoing dialogue between myself and Ibrahim Lawson, head of a Muslim school, (and of course, many others), focusing on his remark that "In any good Islamic school, Islam is a given and never challenged". Ibrahim now writes: Stephen, It is good that you have raised the issue of ethics and morality as this brings us closer to the live issues we began with. It was useful to thrash out a few metaphysical matters, albeit superficially, and I fear we must return to this ground sooner or later, even though, in view of recent events in Algeria for example, it sometimes feels as though we are indulging in intellectual speculation as ‘the luxury of the weak’ However, by shifting the focus in this way, we introduce a new element: that of ‘authority’, and associated concepts such as ‘power’ and ‘will’. We can rephrase the non-question “why be rational?” as an inquiry into why we should feel obliged to be rational; what authority does or should

Worry about religious education

Incidentally, that there's something deeply inadequate about religious education as currently provided in schools (Islamic, and other) in this country is suggested by the finding of one recent poll that 36% of young British Muslims believe the appropriate penalty for any Muslim that rejects their faith is... death! "...a significant portion of British Muslims think that such behaviour is not merely right, but a religious obligation: a survey by the think-tank Policy Exchange, for instance, revealed that 36 per cent of young Muslims believe that those who leave Islam should be killed." Daily Telegraph.

Summarizing case against Ibrahim's position

To refocus the dialogue, can we now start commenting here, please... Also, remember the main topic here is whether or not Ibrahim is right to suggest that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged" . Let me summarize my case for getting children to think critically about morality and religion from as young an age as possible: (i) Actually, individuals cannot avoid the responsibility for making moral judgements. They cannot hand that responsibility over to some religious or other authority. Given they cannot hand it over, shouldn't they be encouraged and trained to discharge the responsibility properly? Surely the best way to do this is to confront them with the responsibility and encourage them to think and question. (ii) There's evidence that raising people to think and question, rather than more or less uncritically defer to authority, provides some protection against the sort of moral catastrophes that marred the 20th Century. (iii) T

Further case against Ibrahim's position

Here's one more reason to encourage people as early as possible to start thinking independently about morality/religion... (again, from my book The War For Children's Minds .) When it’s sensible to trust an authority Deferring to authority isn’t always a bad idea. We do it all the time. No doubt you go to a doctor for a medical opinion, to a plumber for expertise on central heating, to a lawyer for legal advice, and so on. It’s pretty reasonable to take the authority’s word for it in these cases. In fact, modern life demands that we trust the expertise of others. The world is now so complex that any one of us can only properly understand how a tiny bit of it works. We can’t all be experts on plumbing, science, the law, car mechanics, psychology, and so on. We have to seek out others upon whose expertise we inevitably have to rely. So what if you go to an authority on some matter, and they give you bad advice? Who’s to blame, then, if things then go awry? Suppose, for examp

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 authorit

Reply from Ibrahim

[this is a response to the preceding post below - the final sentence is for the benefit of dd, I believe. S.L.] I think it must be clear from my previous posts that I have no objection to teaching children to think critically. It must also be clear that I think that analytical philosophy has its limits. The point at which it becomes possible to think about those limits is after long preparation and practice. In the meantime, the practice of Islam as a spiritual process enables one to understand how those limits may be recognised for what they are – a curiosity that results from some kind of ‘knots in our thinking’ to use Wittgenstein’s expression. Many other western thinkers have detected the same kind of problem, as have the mystics of various traditions. This is where interesting possibilities begin to open up as far as I am concerned. Trading insults, even when thinly disguised as intellectual arguments, may be entertaining, but I don’t need to come to this blog for that.

Can children think philosophically?

Here's a bit from my book The War For Children's Minds . I include it as opening the case for saying critical thinking is something children can do, even at a fairly young age, and it's good for them. It's offered as an opening response to comments by Ibrahim Lawson and sr that children cannot think critically below 14, and also Ibrahim's comment that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged" - so I guess he thinks children should not be thinking critically about Islam in school at all (and also, of course, his turning down of my offer to come to his school and argue for atheism). One way of being Liberal-with-a-capital-L would of course be to ignore morality altogether, to abandon each child to invent his or her own morality from scratch, within a moral vacuum. That’s not the method advocated here. This book recommends a much more specific sort of approach, an approach that involves a training in and the fostering of what might

Letter to Ibrahim: Going Nuclear

Hello Ibrahim Lots of interesting points being made here (especially in your comments on last three posts) – I won’t try to address them all. Seems to me one of the biggest issues you raise concerns the use of reason. Here’s a popular argument for general scepticism: Why suppose reason is a reliable route to the truth? Any justification of reason we offer will itself rely on reason, and so be unacceptably circular. So, that reason is a reliable route to truth cannot be justified. But if reliance on reason cannot be justified, then, because every justification relies on reason, nothing can be justified. So, all beliefs are equally irrational! Moreoever, if, to qualify as knowledge, a belief must be justified, knowledge is impossible too. Suppose I am involved in a debate – and I’m struggling to make my case. In fact, my opponent seems to have shown I’m wrong. Oh dear. What do I do? I might be tempted to make just this sceptical move. It offers a wonderful “get out of jail” card. I give

Further point re Ibrahim Lawson correspondence

Here’s another, hopefully more accessible, way of making the same point I made in my reply to Ibrahim below. Suppose Ted buys an astrology book. The first line of the book says he must accept the basic principles of astrology without question. They must not be subject to critical scrutiny. Ever. Ted accepts this. As a result, whenever Ted comes up against any apparent evidence against astrology, he always attempts to explain away the evidence, or, if he can’t, says it’s simply a “mystery” that such evidence should exist given astrology is true. The one thing he never does is question the basic tenets of the book. Ask him why he does not question the book, he simply answers: because the book says he mustn't. Ted has made acceptance of the principles of this book part of his foundational beliefs – his first principles, if you like. Given you reject astrology, as I do, would you nevertheless accept that, because Ted has made acceptance of these principles "foundational",

Reply to Ibrahim Lawson

Hello again, Ibrahim (if I may) I have pointed out that other religious folk are able to tolerate – some even positively encourage – critical thought about religion in school. I ask: why aren’t you? If I have understood correctly, your answer is that this is simply not permitted according to Islam. In any good Islamic school, “Islam is a given and never challenged”. Your main response to my arguments for encouraging such critical thought seems to be this: that you and I have different foundational principles. Your foundational principles include certain beliefs about Islam, mine don’t. Neither set of foundational principles can ultimately be “justified” (perhaps because all justifications have to come to an end somewhere, and here is where they come to end). Procedural reason always takes something for granted – premises. If our first premises – our foundational principles – differ, reason will not, then, be able to settle which are correct. I guess you think this dispute over how