Skip to main content

Religion and Philosophy in Schools

Religion and philosophy in schools

[my chapter from Hand and Winstanley (eds.) Philosophy in Schools, Continuum 2008]


Stephen Law

Is philosophy in schools a good idea? The extent to which early exposure to a little philosophical thinking is of educational benefit is, of course, largely an empirical question. As a philosopher, that sort of empirical study is not my area of expertise.

But of course there is also a philosophical dimension to this question. As a philosopher, conceptual clarification and the analysis of the logic of the arguments on either side certainly is my field. That is where I hope to make a small contribution here.

This chapter is in two parts. In the first, I look at two popular religious objections to the suggestion that all children ought to be encouraged to think independently and critically about moral and religious issues. In the second part, I explain a well-known philosophical distinction – that between reasons and causes – and give a couple of examples of how this conceptual distinction might help illuminate this debate.

PART ONE: Two popular religious objections

Philosophy in the classroom involves children thinking critically and independently about the big questions. These questions include questions about morality and the origin and purpose of human existence. Examples are: “Why is there anything at all?”, “What makes things right or wrong?” And “What happens to us when we die?” These questions are also addressed by religion. The subject matter of philosophy and religion significantly overlap. And where there is overlap, there is the possibility of disputed territory. Proponents of philosophy in the classroom may find themselves coming into conflict with at least some of the faithful. While many religious people are enthusiastic about philosophy in the classroom, there are also many who are either totally opposed to it, or else want severely to restrict its scope. Some Christians, Muslims and Jews consider the introduction of philosophy an unwelcome intrusion into those parts of the curriculum that have traditionally been deemed theirs. They have developed a whole range of objections.

I want to look at two very popular objections to the suggestion that all children should be encouraged to think critically and independently about moral and religious questions. The first is:

To encourage a thinking, questioning attitude on these topics is to promote relativism.

The second is:

Parents have a right to send their child to a school where their religious beliefs will not be subjected to critical scrutiny.

Here is an illustration of both worries being expressed simultaneously. In 2004, the U.K.’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) proposed that all children should be exposed to a range of religious faiths and atheism, and also that they be taught to think critically about religious belief. The IPPR recommended that the focus be on

learning how to make informed, rational judgements on the truth or falsity of religious propositions… Pupils would be actively encouraged to question the religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom, not so that they are better able to defend or rationalise them, but so that they are genuinely free to adopt whatever position on religious matters they judge to be best supported by the evidence. (Hand, 2004)

What the IPPR proposed is, in effect, a form of philosophy in the classroom: the philosophical examination of religious belief.

Many religious people were entirely comfortable with this proposal. But not all. The Daily Telegraph ran a leader condemning the IPPR’s recommendations. Here is Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips quoting from it approvingly:

As [this] Telegraph leader comments, this is nothing other than yet another attempt at ideological indoctrination: 'It reflects the belief that parents who pass on the Christian faith are guilty of indoctrinating their children, and that it is the role of the state to stop them. The IPPR and its allies in the Government are not so much interested in promoting diversity as in replacing one set of orthodoxies by another: the joyless ideology of cultural relativism.'’ (Phillips, 2004)

Here we find both of the concerns mentioned above expressed simultaneously. Surely parents have a right to send their children to a school where their religious beliefs will be promoted without being subjected to this sort of independent critical scrutiny. The state has no right to interfere. And in any case, isn’t encouraging such critical thought itself a form of indoctrination – in this case, indoctrination with the poisonous dogma of relativism?

The charge of relativism

I’ll consider that charge of promoting relativism first.

Relativism, as Melanie Philips and the Daily Telegraph use the term, is the view that the truth in some particular sphere is relative.

Some truths are indeed relative. Consider wichitti grubs – those huge larvae eaten live by some aboriginal Australians. Most Westerners find them revolting (certainly, the model Jordan did when she was recently required to eat one on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here). But at least some native Australians consider them delicious.

So what is the truth about wichitti grubs? Are they delicious, or aren’t they? The truth, it seems, is that, unlike the truth about whether wichitti grubs are carbon-based life forms or whether they are found in Australia, there is no objective, mind-independent truth. The truth about the deliciousness of wichitti grubs is relative. For Jordan, that wichitti grubs are delicious is false. For others, it’s true. When it comes to deliciousness, what’s true and false ultimately boils down to subjective opinion or taste.

The relativist about morality insists that the truth of moral claims is similarly relative. There’s no objective truth about whether female circumcision, stealing from supermarkets, or even killing an innocent human being, is morally wrong. Rightness and wrongness ultimately also boil down to subjective preference or taste. What’s true for one person or culture may be false for another.

The relativist about religious truth similarly insists that the truth about whether or not Jesus is God is relative. That Jesus is God is true-for-Christians but false-for Muslims. The “truth” about religion is simply whatever the faithful take it to be.

Often associated with relativism is a form of non-judgementalism – if, say, all moral and religious points of view are equally “valid”, then we are wrong to judge those who hold different moral and religious views.

This brand of non-judgementalist relativism about truth is widely considered to be eating away at the fabric of Western civilization like a cancer. It is supposed to be deeply destructive – resulting in a culture of selfish, shallow individualism in which personal preference trumps everything and, ultimately, anything goes.

Relativism is certainly commonly supposed to have infected the young. Schools are often blamed. Marianne Talbot of Brasenose College Oxford, says about her students that they

have been taught to think their opinion is no better than anyone else’s, that there is no truth, only truth-for-me. I come across this relativist view constantly – in exams, in discussion and in tutorials – and I find it frightening: to question it amounts, in the eyes of the young, to the belief that it is permissible to impose your views on others. (quoted in Phillips, 1997, p. 221)

The U.S. academic Allan Bloom writes:

[t]here is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. (Bloom, 1987, p. 25)

The new Pontiff is also deeply concerned. He says,

We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires. (Ratzinger 2005)

Relativism even gets the blame for the rise of dangerously rigid political and religious dogmas. Just last week, it was reported that the Ministry of Defence believes that

the trend towards moral relativism and increasingly pragmatic values [is causing] more rigid belief systems, including religious orthodoxy and doctrinaire political ideologies, such as popularism and Marxism. (quoted in Baginni, 2007)

Interestingly, when Nick Tate, head of the UK’s QCAA (the U.K. body responsible for devising and assessing the national curriculum) introduced compulsory classes in citizenship for all pupils attending state-funded schools, he was explicit that one of his chief concerns was to “slay the dragon of relativism”. (Tate, 1996)
So, relativism is supposed to be rampant. But where did it come from?

The roots of relativism

In the minds of many, the blame lies with the Enlightenment and the 1960’s.Take the U.K.’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, for example. He finds particular fault with the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant provides the classic definition of Enlightenment. He says individuals should think independently and make their own judgement, rather than defer more or less uncritically to some external authority:

[Enlightenment is the] emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy. Infancy is the inability to use one’s reason without the guidance of another. It is self-imposed, when it depends on a deficiency, not of reason, but of the resolve and courage to use it without external guidance. Thus the watchword of enlightenment is: Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own reason! (quoted in Honderich, 1995, entry on Enlightenment))

It is no coincidence that “Sapere” and “Aude” have been adopted as the names of two philosophy-for-children organizations.

The Chief Rabbi considers Kant’s thinking dangerous. He says that

according to Kant…[t]o do something because others do, or because of habit or custom or even Divine Command, is to accept an external authority over the one sovereign territory that is truly our own: our own choices. The moral being for Kant is by definition an autonomous being, a person who accepts no other authority than the self. By the 1960s this was beginning to gain hold as an educational orthodoxy. The task of education is not to hand on a tradition but to enhance the consciousness of choice. (Sacks 1997, p. 176)

It’s this Kantian rejection of any external moral authority that might decide right and wrong for us - Kant’s insistence on the moral autonomy of the individual - that is the root cause of our problems. It’s here that we find the origin of today’s relativism. For to teach in accordance with Kant’s thinking, says Sacks, requires,

…non-judgementalism and relativism on the part of the teacher” (Ibid.)

Melanie Phillips concurs. “It seems reasonable,” she says “to regard the Enlightenment as the defining moment for the collapse of external authority” (Phillips, 1996, p. 189) The problem with Enlightenment thinking, argues Phillips, is that

instead of authority being located “out there” in a body of knowledge handed down through the centuries, we have repositioned it “in here” within each child. (Phillips, 1996, p. 28)

Because each individual “has become their own individual arbiter of conduct” so relativism and the view that “no-one else [is] permitted to pass judgement” have become the norm.

For Sacks, Phillips, and many other religious conservatives, Kant’s “Sapere Aude!” – the battle cry of the Enlightenment – lies at the very heart of the West’s “moral malaise”. It is not surprising, then, that Phillips would oppose the IPPR’s recommendations that children be encouraged to think critically about their own religious beliefs and traditions.

According to Sacks, Phillips, and very many others, encouraging children to think independently, particularly about moral and religious matters, is precisely what got us into the awful mess in which we now find ourselves. They believe the time has come to move back in the direction of the traditional, authority-based moral and religious education that tended to predominate before the 60’s.

Philosophy in the classroom promotes relativism?

I have sketched out just one of the many reasons social and religious conservatives will give when explaining their hostility to the suggestion that all children ought to be encouraged and trained to think critically even about moral and religious beliefs. Such encouragement, they claim, promotes relativism. But need it?

No. In my book The War For Children’s Minds, I deal with this sort of objection – as well as many others – in much greater detail. Here I will merely sketch out three very obvious reasons why to encourage and teach children to think critically even about morality and religion need not entail the promotion of relativism and non-judgementalism.

1. Relativism entails no point to thinking critically. If relativism were true, there would be no point in engaging in the kind of critical thinking that proponents of philosophy in schools recommend. For if relativism is true, the belief that you arrive at after much very carefully critical thought will be no more true than the one you started with. Those who recommend we think critically about the Big Questions – including moral and religious questions – even from a young age are, in effect, opposed to relativism insofar as they think that this sort of activity is able to get us closer to the truth.

2. Philosophy can combat relativism. Secondly, a children’s philosophy programme is free to include critical discussion of relativism. A little close critical scrutiny is able pretty quickly to reveal precisely why the usual politically-motivated arguments for relativism (such as that only relativists can promote tolerance) are, frankly, awful. I believe children should have the failings of moral relativism explained to them. That should form part of their education.

3. Relativism and respect for religious authority. Thirdly, there’s at least anecdotal evidence that, rather than relativism being a product of a thinking, questioning culture, embracing relativism may be a strategy teachers embrace in order to avoid thinking critically about – and, in particular, questioning the authority of – any given religious tradition. If a teacher is required to teach a range of faiths, children are likely to spot that they contradict each other, and will inevitably ask, “Which is actually true? Is Jesus God, as Christians claim, or merely a prophet, as Muslims claim?” Suggest that one religion must be mistaken and phone calls may ensue (“My daughter has been told the Pope might be mistaken”). Embracing relativism provides teachers with an easy escape from this dilemma. They can say “That Jesus is God is true-for-Christians, but false-for-Muslims”. Religious relativism conveniently makes all religious beliefs come out as true. As Marilyn Mason (former chief education officer for the British Humanist Association) here explains, rather than promoting relativism, clear philosophical thinking is actually well placed to combat this sort of shoddy, relativistic thinking.

I used to wonder where my students’ shoulder shrugging relativism and subjectivism about knowledge came from, though I think I now know: talk of “different truths” or “subjective truth” seems to have become the accepted RE way of demonstrating tolerance and mutual respect when confronted with differing and sometimes conflicting beliefs and views on morality or the supernatural… Here is an area where the clear thinking characteristic of philosophy at its best would surely help. (Mason, 2005, p. 37)

Regarding the last two points, I should add, incidentally, that I do not mean that children should simply be told that they must more-or-less uncritically accept that relativism is twaddle. The idea is not to encourage independent critical thought about everything… except, er, relativism. But I see no reason why children cannot be given the very good arguments against relativism (which, presented correctly, are both engaging and fairly easy to grasp) to reflect on at an appropriate stage in their development.

I should perhaps also add that the kind of philosophy programme I would recommend is not, then, an exclusively hands-off affair in which topics are always chosen by children, in which children are never taught basic skills, positions and styles of argument, and in which the supposedly “philosophical” discussion is allowed to take the form of little more than a free association of ideas, with little, if any, logical structure or rigour.

While I am enthusiastic about class discussions on the P4C model (which are often excellent), I think they probably need to be paired at some stage with some teaching of the basic skills, arguments and positions – including relativism. (This is not to say I favour a dry semi-academic approach either – I think we need to develop new, engaging ways of teaching skills, arguments and positions.)

I don’t deny, of course, that this sort of teaching would need to be carried out by people who are at least reasonably competent in the area, by teachers who, for example, are well-versed in the arguments for and against relativism. Nor do I deny that an intellectually flabby “philosophy for children” programme might inadvertently end up promoting relativism. But there is certainly no necessity that philosophy in the classroom should promote relativism. As I say, done correctly, philosophy in the classroom is actually well-placed to combat the kind of relativism that is allegedly carrying Western civilization to hell in a hand basket.

A parental right to a philosophy-free religious and moral education?

Now let’s turn to the second objection I mentioned at the beginning of this section – that parents have a right to send their child to a school where their religious beliefs will not be subjected to critical scrutiny.

Of course, many who favour philosophy in schools will agree with this. They may say, “I believe philosophy in schools is a very good idea, but I don’t think it should be forced on religious parents if they don’t want it.”

My view is that the IPPR recommendations are sound: all children should, without exception, be encouraged to think critically – and thus philosophically – even about the moral and religious beliefs they bring with them into the classroom. Religious parents should not be able to opt out.

I am not going to attempt to make much of a positive case for that perhaps rather illiberal-sounding assertion here. I will simply offer a challenge to those who, like Phillips and the Daily Telegraph, believe that schools that promote a religious faith in a wholly uncritical way are acceptable.

Suppose political schools started springing up – a neoconservative school in Billericay followed by a communist school in Middlesbrough. Suppose these schools select pupils on the basis of parents’ political beliefs. Suppose they start each morning with the collective singing of political anthems. Suppose portraits of their political leaders beam down from every classroom wall. Suppose they insist that pupils accept, more or less uncritically, the beliefs embodied in their revered political texts. If such schools did spring up, there would be outrage. These establishments would be accused of educationally stunting children, forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds. They’re the kind of Orwellian schools you find under totalitarian regimes in places like Stalinist Russia.

My question is, if such political schools are utterly unacceptable, if they are guilty of educationally stunting children, why on Earth are so many of us still prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents? Why, if we cross out "political" and write "religious", do these schools suddenly strike many of us as entirely acceptable?

Assuming that Phillips and the Daily Telegraph would consider such political schools unacceptable (irrespective of the desire of parents to send their children to them), the onus is surely on them to explain why we should consider their religious equivalents rather more acceptable – indeed, even desirable.

One move they might make would be to say that our political beliefs are clearly far too practically important – they are far too likely to have a concrete impact in terms of the kind of society we live in – to be left in the hands of the indoctrinators. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are more other-worldly, and so less of a concern.

But this would be to overlook that religious beliefs are often intensely political. Clearly, religious points of view on homosexuality, charity, a woman’s place in the home, abortion, the State of Israel, jihad, and even poverty and injustice, are all political. There are few aspects of religious belief that don’t have an important political dimension.

In which case, my challenge becomes sharper still: if such authoritarian political schools are unacceptable, then why are their religious equivalents acceptable, particularly as these religious schools are, in effect, highly political?


I see no reason why an enlightened, liberal approach to moral and religious education of the sort recommended by the IPPR cannot be conducted in religiously-affiliated schools. It is not incompatible with a religious upbringing. Teachers at a Christian school, for example, might say “This is what we believe, and these are the reasons why we believe it. Obviously we would like you to believe it to, but not just because we tell you to. We want you to think and question and make up your own minds.” A school can have a strong Christian ethos even while encouraging independent critical thought- indeed, even while promoting philosophy in the classroom.

I don’t yet see that the appeal to relativism and parental rights justifies either the conclusion that philosophy in the religious classroom is largely undesirable or the conclusion that it be made, at most, an optional extra.

PART TWO: Reasons and causes

In this second part of this chapter, I want to make a well-known philosophical distinction – that between reasons and causes – and then draw out a couple of conclusions concerning philosophy in the classroom.

Reasons and causes

People’s beliefs can be shaped in two very different ways, as illustrated by the two different ways we might answer the question “Why does Jane believe what she does?”

First, we might offer Jane’s reasons and justifications – the grounds of her belief. Why does Jane believe our CO2 gas emissions are causing global warming? Well, she has seen the figures on how much CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere, and she has seen the graphs based on Antarctic ice cores showing how global temperatures have closely tracked CO2 levels over the last 600,000 years. So, concludes Jane on the basis of this evidence, the rising temperatures are very probably a result of our CO2 emissions.

Another example: why does Jane believe there is a pencil on the table in front of her? Because there appears to be a pencil there. She remembers just putting a pencil there. And she has no reason to suppose that there’s anything funny going on (that she’s hallucinating, the victim of an optical illusion, or whatever).

Of course, explaining why someone believes something by giving their grounds or reasons is not yet to say that they are good reasons. Mary may believe she will meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger because that’s what a psychic hotline told her.

So we can explain beliefs by giving people’s reasons. But this is not the only way in which beliefs can be explained. Suppose John believes he is a teapot. Why? Because John attended a hypnotist’s stage-show last night. John was pulled out of the audience and hypnotized into believing he is a teapot. The hypnotist forgot to un-hypnotize him, and so John is still stuck with that belief.

Of course, John needn’t be aware of the true explanation of why he believes he is a teapot. He may not remember being hypnotized. If we ask him to justify his belief, he may find himself oddly unable. He may simply find himself stuck with it. He may well say, with utter conviction, that he just knows he is a teapot. In fact, because such non-inferentially-held beliefs are usually perceptual beliefs, it may seem to John that he can see he’s a teapot. “Look!” he may say, sticking out his arms “Here’s my handle and here’s my spout!”

So we can explain beliefs by giving a person’s reasons, grounds and justifications, and we can explain beliefs by giving purely causal explanations (I say purely causal, as reasons can be causes too [see for example Davidson, 1963)).

Purely causal explanations range from, say, being hypnotized or brainwashed to caving in to peer pressure or wishful thinking. These mechanisms may even include, say, being genetically predisposed to having certain sorts of belief (it has been suggested by Daniel Dennett (2006) and others that we are, for example, genetically predisposed to religious belief).

Of course, both kinds of explanation may be relevant when it comes to explaining why Sophie believes that P. Sophie may believe that P in part because there is some evidence for P, though not enough to warrant belief in P, and in part because she is, say, biologically predisposed to believe P. It may be that neither factor, by itself, is sufficient to explain Sophie’s belief.
We may well flatter ourselves about just how rational we are. Sometimes, when we believe something, we think we’re simply responding rationally to the evidence, but the truth is we have been manipulated in a purely causal way. I might think I have decided that sexism is wrong because I’ve recognized the inherent rationality of the case against it, when the truth is that I have simply caved in to peer pressure and my unconscious desire to conform.


So there are two ways in which we might explain belief. There are, correspondingly, at least two ways in which we might seek to induce belief in someone. We might attempt to make a rational case, try to persuade them by means of evidence and cogent argument. Or we might take the purely causal route and try to hypnotize, apply peer pressure, etc. instead.
One of the most obvious ways of engaging in purely causal manipulation of what people believe is, of course, brainwashing. Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in physiology at the University of Oxford who has published a study of brainwashing, writes that five core techniques consistently show up:

One striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation. (Taylor, 2005)

The isolation may involve physical isolation or separation. Control covers restricting the information and range of views people have access to, and includes censorship. Cults tend endlessly to repeat their beliefs to potential converts. This repetition may include, for example, very regular communal chanting or singing. Under uncertainty, Taylor discusses the discomfort we feel when presented with uncertainty: by providing a simple set of geometric certainties that cover and explain everything, and also constantly reminding people of the vagaries and chaos of what lies outside this belief system, cultists can make their system seem increasingly attractive. Emotional manipulation can take many forms – most obviously the associating of positive feelings and images (e.g. uplifting or serenely smiling icons) with the belief system, and fear and uncertainty with the alternatives.

Of course, the extent to which these techniques are applied varies from cult to cult. Clearly, they are also applied by non-religious cults and regimes. A school in Mao’s China or under the present regime in North Korea would almost certainly check all five boxes.

I note (though Taylor doesn’t), simply as a point of fact, that religious schools of the sort that tended to predominate in this country up until the 1960’s also very clearly check all five boxes.
That these and other purely causal mechanisms are effective at influencing belief even outside a cult’s headquarters or a prisoner of war camp is surely undeniable. We are all very heavily influenced by them. The success of the advertizing industry is testimony to their effectiveness. Indeed, many advertising campaigns check many, if not all, of Taylor’s five boxes for brainwashing.

When challenged on this, the industry typically insists that it is primarily concerned with “informing” the public - providing good reasons and evidence on which consumers can base a rational and informed choice. Nevertheless the main tools of the advertizing trade are for the most part purely causal. An advertisement for soap powder, lipstick, a car or a loan typically contains very little factual information or argument. The power of these adverts to shape our thinking and behaviour is mostly purely causal – they play on our uncertainties and rely very heavily on repetition and emotional manipulation.

The question of balance

That such purely causal mechanisms are going to shape what people believe is something that is, to some extent, unavoidable. Even in a very liberal educational setting in which philosophy is involved, there will inevitably be many purely causal factors also influencing belief. Certainly, we should admit that a classroom is not wholly given over to the space of reasons. All sorts of causal and psychological pressures are applied, knowingly and unknowingly, within a school. This may even, to a very significant extent, be desirable.

The question is how these purely causal influences should be balanced against giving reasons and justifications, encouraging rational reflection, and so on.

Now I would suggest that the extent to which religious people tend to favour or oppose the introduction of philosophy in the classroom (and the extent to which they would recommend a return to more traditional religious educational methods) tends to a very large extent to correspond with the degree to which they prefer reliance on techniques that are, in effect, purely causal.

Philosophy in the classroom is of course about thinking critically and independently about many of the same issues in which religion has a stake. Free and open discussion, in which all views are open to close critical scrutiny (religious views included) means operating within what Wilfred Sellars called “the logical space of reasons” (Sellars, 1956, p. 169)

On the other hand, while traditional religious education might also involve a degree of free discussion (typically within certain parameters: children may be subtly or not so subtly steered away from asking certain sorts of question or making certain sorts of point), it was generally orientated far more towards purely causal techniques of influencing belief. Daily repetitive acts of worship, repetitive prayer, isolation from other belief systems (including physical isolation from those who hold them), control over the range of materials children have access to (such as writings critical of that faith), the punishment of those who dare to question (a colleague of mine educated in a Catholic School in the 1960’s was punished simply for asking why the Catholic Church opposed contraception) and emotional manipulation (associating “all things bright and beautiful” with the faith, images of moral chaos and hell with the alternatives) – these techniques were the mainstay of religious education.

So while every style of moral and religious education inevitably involves a blend of both engaging children’s rational, critical faculties and (whether or not intentionally) applying purely causal mechanisms, one of the fundamental issues dividing proponents of philosophy in the classroom from religious traditionalists is how these two ingredients should be balanced.


I want now to look at some of the ways in which reason-involving educational methods differ from purely causal mechanisms for shaping belief. Let’s begin with truth-sensitivity.
One interesting fact about these two ways of getting someone to believe something is that, generally speaking , only one is truth-sensitive.

The purely causal mechanisms of isolation, control, repetition, uncertainty and emotional manipulation, for example, can be used to induce the belief that Paris is the capital of France. But they can just as easily be applied to induce the beliefs that Paris is the capital of Germany and that Big Brother loves you.

The attractive thing about appealing to someone’s power of reason, by contrast, is that it strongly favours beliefs that are true. Cogent argument doesn’t easily lend itself to inducing false beliefs. You are going to have a hard time trying to construct a strong, well-reasoned case capable of withstanding critical scrutiny for believing that Swindon is inhabited by giant wasp-men or that the Earth’s core is made of cheese.

Sound reasoning and critical thought tend to act as a filter on false beliefs. Of course, the filter is not foolproof – false beliefs will inevitably get through. But it does tend to allow into a person’s mind only those beliefs that have at least a fairly good chance of being correct.

Indeed, unlike the purely causal techniques of inducing belief discussed above, the use of reason is a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. It doesn’t automatically favour the teacher’s beliefs over the pupil’s. It favours the truth, and so places the teacher and the pupil on a level playing field. If, as a teacher, you try to use reason to persuade, you may discover your pupil can show that it is you, and not them, that is mistaken. That’s a risk some “educators” are not prepared to take.

Causal vs normative determination

Some post-modern thinkers insist, of course, that “reason” is a term used to dignify what is, in reality, merely another purely causal mechanism for influencing belief, alongside brainwashing and indoctrination. Reason is no more sensitive to the “truth” than these other mechanisms (for of course there is really no truth for it to be sensitive to). Reason is, in reality, just another form of power – of thought-control. It is essentially as manipulative as any other mechanism.
But this is to overlook the fact that while a rational argument can in a sense “force” a conclusion on you, the “force” involved is normative, not causal.

Causal determination determines what will happen. For example, given the causal power of these rails to direct this train, the train will go Oxford. Indeed, it is causally forced or compelled to. Normative determination, on the other hand, determines not what will happen, but what ought to. It is an entirely distinct kind of determination involving an entirely different sort of “compulsion” or “force”.

A rational argument shows you what you ought to believe if you want to avoid contradiction and give your beliefs the best chance of being true. Take this valid deductive argument:

All men smell
John is a man
Therefore, John smells.

To recognise that this argument is valid, is just to recognize that if you believe that all men smell, and that John is a man, then you ought to believe that John smells. But of course this argument doesn’t causally compel you to accept that conclusion even if you do accept the premises. You’re free to be irrational.

This isn't to deny that rational arguments have causal power. Of course they do. A good argument can have the power to change history (consider the wonderful arguments of Galileo, or the campaigner against slavery William Wilberforce). But when rational arguments have the causal power to shape people’s thinking, they typically have it as a result of their having normative power. People change their opinions precisely because they recognize the normative force of the argument.

[Notice, by the way, that we can easily demonstrate that a rational argument doesn’t have normative power simply in virtue of its having the causal power to shape people’s thinking (though critics who fail to understand the difference between normative and causal determination or "force" typically miss this point). The obvious counter-example is fallacious argument. A fallacious argument lacks any normative power. But notice that, if the fallacy is seductive, it will still have considerable causal power to shape belief.]

So rational arguments have causal powers. But that is not to say that rational argument is in reality just another purely causal mechanism alongside e.g. brainwashing and peer pressure.

So far, I have stressed how rational argument differs from purely causal mechanisms for influencing belief. In particular, rational argument is truth-sensitive, while purely causal mechanisms are typically not. Also, rational arguments, while possessing causal power to shape belief, typically have this power in virtue of their normative power. The kind of “determination” a rational argument “imposes” on us is, in the first instance, normative, not causal. Rational argument is certainly not a form of coercion or manipulation in the way that purely causal mechanisms are.

Let’s now develop that last point a little further. As I explain below, it seems to me that rational arguments allow for a form of freedom in a way that purely causal mechanisms do not.

Reason and freedom

Enlightenment liberals like myself tend to feel uncomfortable about heavy reliance on purely causal mechanisms. Here’s one reason why.

When you use reason to persuade, you respect the other’s freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision. When you apply purely causal mechanisms, you take that freedom from them. Your subject may think they’ve made an entirely free and rational decision, of course, but the truth is that they’re your puppet – you’re pulling their strings. In effect, by ditching reason and relying on purely causal mechanisms – peer pressure, emotional manipulation, repetition, and so on – you are now treating them as just one more bit of the causally-manipulatable natural order – as mere things.

On one of the formulations of his categorical imperative, Kant says that we ought always to treat both others and ourselves always as ends in themselves, and never purely as means to an end. We should not treat others or ourselves in an entirely instrumental way, as we might treat a screwdriver or car, to get the result we want. We should have “respect for persons” – for their the inherent freedom and rationality, which, according to Kant, is what distinguishes them from mere things.

Here’s an illustration (not Kant’s) of the kind of respect Kant has in mind. Suppose I need food to feed my starving children. I might get food from the local shop by lying – by saying that I will pay for it next week knowing full well that I won’t. Or I might try to get food by honestly explaining my situation to the shopkeeper and hoping she will be charitable. In both cases, I “use” the shopkeeper to get what I want. But, unlike the first option, the second does not involve using the shopkeeper purely as a means to an end. I respect her rationality and freedom to make her own decision about whether to provide food without payment. Kant says that only the second option shows the shopkeeper the proper respect she is due as a person. The first treats her purely instrumentally, as if she were merely a thing.

Avoiding the purely causal route so far as influencing the beliefs of others is concerned is, presumably, one of the things that Kant would insist on. Indeed, if Kant is right, it seems that reliance on purely causal mechanisms to shape belief also involves a fundamental lack of respect for persons.

How to influence belief?

It is undeniable that, as educators, we do want to influence children’s beliefs. Influencing beliefs is not all there is to education, not by a very long way. But that this is one of the things we are interested in doing in the classroom is surely undeniable. We don’t want to send children out into the world believing that a woman’s place is behind the sink, that it’s morally acceptable to torture animals, that Jewish people are untrustworthy, or that the entire universe is just six thousand years old. Well I don’t, anyway.

So let’s admit that we want to influence what children believe . The question is: how?

My central aim in the second part of this paper has been to show how the philosophical distinction between reasons and causes can help illuminate this question. We have seen that rational argument differs from taking the purely causal route in at least three important ways:

(i) it is truth-sensitive (whereas purely causal mechanisms typically are not)
(ii) while rational arguments can be causally powerful, their causal power typically derives from their normative power – which is a categorically distinct non-causal form of “power”.
(iii) Rational argument allows for an important form of freedom - a freedom that the purely causal mechanisms actually strips from us.

We have also seen that religious traditionalists lean rather more towards purely causal mechanisms for influencing belief then do proponents of philosophy in the classroom. Indeed, this is one of the fundamental issues, perhaps the fundamental issue, dividing them.

How the distinction can illuminate the debate

To finish, I want to provide a couple of examples of how thinking about the debate between proponents of philosophy in the classroom and religious traditionalists in these terms might shed some light on some of the arguments offered on either side.

1. A temptation

First, the distinction makes a little clearer, perhaps, why taking the purely causal route can be tempting. When you open up debate and critical discussion, you run the risk that people won’t believe what you want them to believe. If we suppose that certain beliefs are very important indeed, perhaps even vital for the survival of Western civilization, well then the temptation to take the purely causal route can become very strong indeed.

For example, some argue that, whether or not religious belief is true, it is socially necessary. Remove it, and society will eventually fall apart. So we must rely on traditional religious education to instill it. Bring reason into religious education, and, given its truth-detecting power, the dubiousness of religious belief might be exposed. The results may be disastrous. So philosophy in the classroom – and certainly in the classoom where religion is discussed – is a bad, if not downright dangerous, idea. Many American neo-conservatives take this view.

At least some of these kinds of concern deserve to be taken seriously.

2. Muddling reasons and causes

Secondly, a failure properly to understand this distinction may lead defenders of traditional religious educational techniques to think that their methods are, in essence, really not so very different to what proponents of philosophy in the classroom have in mind. At bottom, aren’t both really just forms of causing-people-to-believe-what-you-want-them-to-believe? As we saw above, Melanie Phillips considers what the IPPR proposes (critical scrutiny of religious beliefs in the classroom) to be, just “another attempt at ideological indoctrination”. In Phillips’ mind, philosophy in the classroom is not an alternative to indoctrination. It’s just a different kind of indoctrination.

It is certainly in the interests of religious opponents of philosophy in the classroom to obscure the distinction between educating within the logical space of reasons, and educating via the purely causal route. In particular, it is in their interests to obscure the fact that the distinction raises some very fundamental questions about freedom, and also about what Kant calls “respect for persons”.

That many proponents of traditional religious educational methods (who would oppose philosophy in the classroom) fail fully to realize the extent to which they are applying purely causal mechanisms to induce belief is also indicated by the fact that when the beliefs in question are political, not religious and when the techniques are applied in political schools rather than religious schools, they consider these same techniques “brain-washing”.

That many of the faithful simply don’t recognize that their preferred educational methods come at least very close to brainwashing is, I suspect, largely due to fact that - within the religious setting of convent schools, madrassas, etc. and, of course, within their own upbringing (“After all, it never did me any harm”) - these techniques have acquired the rosy glow of comfortable familiarity.


Asch, S. (1951) “Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments”, in Guetzkow, H. (1951), pp. 177-190.
Baginni, J. (2007) “What The Clash of Civilizations is Really About”, The Guardian 14th April.
Bloom, A. (1987) The Closing of The American Mind, New York: Touchstone.
Davidson, D. (1963) “Actions, Reasons and Causes”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 60, No. 23, pp. 685-700
Dennett, D. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Viking (Penguin).
Feigl, H, and Scriven, M. (1956) The Foundations of Science and the Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. I, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Guetzkow, H. (Ed.) (1951) Groups, Leadership and Men: Research in Human Relations, Pittsburgh: Carnegie Press.
Hand, M. (2004) ‘What is RE for?’, in the IPPR Event Report What is Religious Education for? Getting the National Framework Right, (
Honderich, T. (1995) The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mason, M. (2205) “Philosophy – can’t live with it, can’t live without it”, THINK, issue10, p. 37
Phillips, M. (1996) All Must Have Prizes, London: Warner Books.
Phillips, M. (2004)
Ratzinger J. (Cardinal) (2005)Homily at the mass for the election of the Roman Pontiff. 18th April.
Sacks J. (1997) The Politics of Hope, London: Jonathan Cape.
Sellars, W. (1956) "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind", in Feigl and Scriven (1956) pp 127-196.
Tate, N. (1996) Speech to the SCAA, 15th January
Taylor, K. (2005) “Thought Crime” The Guardian, 8th October.


Hi Stephen,

Just a quick correction on this sentence:

Many religious people were entirely comfortable with this proposal. But not all. The Daily Telegraph ran a leader a leader(repitition) condemning the IPPR’s recommendations. Here is Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips quoting from it dis?approvingly:
Anonymous said…
Stephen. From your paper - "But they can just as easily be applied to induce the beliefs that Paris is the capital of Germany "

Reminds me of a news programme on at the tie of the German reunification. An interviewer was asking a sample of Germans where they thought the new capital city should be. Mostly the responses were "Berlin" "Bonn" and an occasional "Frankfurt" but one crusty old boy who looked ancient enough to predate both wars gave the matter some thought and then replied "Paris".
Jit said…
I dunno - I think the anti-critical-thinking brigade are stuck in relativistic space (not in the Einsteinian sense!). Although either their religion is right or it isn't and there's no in between they have to share the country with other faiths and those with none. Relative truth is the best they can hope for, unless they once again obtain sufficient temporal power to sweep out dissenting voices (as pertains in some countries). The problem with reason & evidence is that atheism tends to win, by and large. This would seem to boil the relativism down into the kind of absolutism that most people couldn't stomach.
Unfortunately for reason.
Anonymous said…
Here's a question: When is it philosophically acceptable to respond to arguments with causal explanations?

Some people are highly in favour of seeing religion as a by-product of modules inside our heads that detect intention. The idea being that it was evolutionarily advantageous when faced with a russling bush close by to suspect intention, and be wrong, than to be sceptical, and risk getting eaten. So we have in that a plausible account of why we might be 'over-tuned' to looking at certain things, like the universe, and see it as the result of an intentional act. But if someone responding to religion simply by saying "oh, you only believe that because of an overactive intention detector", we would likely think that saying so was philosophically naughty.

Reason being, we could dismiss any claim whatsoever by speculating about causal explanations for belief. Suppose I was a Marxist and finished telling you about how unjust the capitalist mode of production is, and then you reply simply by saying "oh, you only believe that because you weren't hugged enough as a child". Now, that could certainly be true, yet it would be inappropriate to do away with any arguments I offered on that basis.

So, when is it acceptable to speak of causal explanations for belief?
Anonymous said…

"we could dismiss any claim whatsoever by speculating about causal explanations for belief"

I do not think this is so because many beliefs will be also supported by reason and objectively verifiable evidence.

In the absence of the strongest rational arguments for a belief it becomes surely a matter of probabilities. Is it more likely that Germany has managed to annexe France and make Paris the capital or that the person making the claim has been hypnotized?
Anonymous said…
I am sure the Marxist thinks the evidence is on his side! He just finished detailing the case for Marxism, only to be responded to with "you weren't hugged enough".

I admit of course though that such causal responses are unlikely to occur for mainstream, mundane beliefs.
Martin Freedman said…
Well many interesting points Stephen.I can only cover a few in this comment, you will be glad to read.

First I wonder if there is such a thing as relative truth? Are such entities instead just non-cognitive? Your example on the deliciousness of wichitti grubs is surely makes more sense - ahem, to me - as being non-cognitive not a relative truth. That is deliciousness and taste in general is non-cognitive. On the other hand reporting ones preferences for or against wichitti grubs is a simple statement that is true or false and not relative. Now, assuming one is not lying or under some form of self-deception, then it is true. And if one is lying etc then the statement is plain false and that too is also a matter of fact, however difficult it may be to ascertain in practice.

Now I mention the above because it is not clear to me how well this example hangs with the rest of your argument, with which I broadly agree. Certainly my initial response to the idea of that teaching philosophy brings about relativism was, how absurd. And then of course realized this is yet another empty rhetorical claim by religionists and the opposite is the case. It is more likely that religious eduction, though preventing the teaching of philosophy, indirectly encourages relativistic thinking, as most pupils, according to stats from the BHA, end up rejecting theism, to a higher degree than in the adult population - and this is with the current religious education we do have.

Now if these critics are really concerned about relativism then the simplest argument is that teaching critical reasoning is the best antidote to relativistic thinking. As usual they are actually looking to defend religious education and create a strawman argument, based on an argument from ignorance and a false dichotomy and an appeal to (false) consequences. If they are really concerned about relativism - which they are not - then they should be for teaching philosophy in schools.

As for causes versus reason for belief, well this is one topic that would be covered through teaching philosophy. These critics confusion and fears over being exposed is, ironically, a result of their own relativism that they are so quick to (falsely) condemn in others! :-)
Anonymous said…
Kosh3 -

Well I guess it would depend on how the Marxist's case was put. If it simply consisted of a string of appeals to the authority of Marx or even a bitter catalogue of the injustices perpetrated upon the proletariat (as personified by himself) then the causal response seems fair enough.

Of course to rebut it, one needs to find enough Marxists from loving homes...but no that can't be right either. Surely the definition of enough hugging is "until the Marxism goes away"?
anticant said…
Stephen - would you please explain what's wrong with relativism [so long as it isn't the mindless "everything is equal, there are no values" brand]?

If you aren't a relativist of some sort, presumably you must believe in the existence of absolute truth, which I find surprising.

I have no difficulty with a relativism which recognises that some standards, values, and cultures are better or worse than others.
Martin Freedman said…
Although this comment thread seems to have died, I wanted to clarify my previous comment. Are you Stephen arguing that "relative truths" are non-cognitive - given your example? I don't think so and I do think that such "relative truths" are cognitive, just all in error... if they think that truth is relative to culture or equivalent.
Anonymous said…
though long, but worth reading

Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Aquinas on homosexuality

Thought I would try a bit of a draft out on the blog, for feedback. All comments gratefully received. No doubt I've got at least some details wrong re the Catholic Church's position... AQUINAS AND SEXUAL ETHICS Aquinas’s thinking remains hugely influential within the Catholic Church. In particular, his ideas concerning sexual ethics still heavily shape Church teaching. It is on these ideas that we focus here. In particular, I will look at Aquinas’s justification for morally condemning homosexual acts. When homosexuality is judged to be morally wrong, the justification offered is often that homosexuality is, in some sense, “unnatural”. Aquinas develops a sophisticated version of this sort of argument. The roots of the argument lie in thinking of Aristotle, whom Aquinas believes to be scientifically authoritative. Indeed, one of Aquinas’s over-arching aims was to show how Aristotle’s philosophical system is broadly compatible with Christian thought. I begin with a sketch of Arist

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o