Reply To Ibrahim Lawson
This is part of an ongoing discussion with the head of an Islamic school, Ibrahim Lawson, focusing on his suggestion that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged".Apologies to Ibrahim for delay in responding.I think this has been a very interesting and useful exchange, myself, and am very pleased Ibrahim has contributed. Certainly I have a somewhat clearer idea of what he believes.Ibrahim says:"I have been trying to suggest that the total chaos of his 'nuclear option' might be avoided by appeal to some other criteria of justification than those of the 'techno-rationality' (or 'calculative thinking' or whatever it might be) of the rational-empirical intellectual tradition characteristic particularly of the European enlightenment up to modern times. Within that tradition, I see no room for religion: it becomes absurd. And I think this cannot be stressed enough."As I see it, I am not applying some modern Western phenomenon - "techno-rationality", whatever that is.I am just applying bog-standard rationality - the same sort of rationality that people have been applying to practical and other problems and questions since the dawn of time.[Incidentally, I have been reading Amartya Sen's book The Argumentative Indian, which makes very clear that in C16th India, for example, the Muslim ruler Akbar was very keen on applying reason and encouraging individuals to think and question rather than uncritically accept Islam. His subjects were even free to reject Islam if they so wished (this at the time the European Inquisition was burning Giordano Bruno for heresy - so much for the idea that the European Enlightenment invented the tolerant secular society). The idea that "reason", and indeed secularism, is essentially some sort of modern European invention is post-modern cobblers, I suspect.]Also: lots of people who apply reason (including Western philosophers) think religious belief is reasonable. Perhaps you are too pessimistic?Certainly you reach for rational argument whenever you think it will support your case. But when the argument starts to run against you, you reach for the skepticism-about-reason button. That's what I call "going nuclear".But what I REALLY want to know is: what are these other "criteria of justification" by which Islam might be justified? If you respond to anything in this post, do please respond to this.Ibrahim continues:"So, for example, I have not said that religion and morality cannot be thought about critically, only that there are limitations in the scope of 'criticality', at least as usually understood, especially when it comes to foundational principles."We can all agree that their are limits to what reason can show (which is not to say it cannot show religion is false - perhaps it can).Ibrahim says: If you think that Islam is about teaching blind acceptance of a whole worldview, as many of you seem to, then come into any Islamic school in the country and see for yourself that this is not true."Frankly, I don't believe this.I have a great deal of anecdotal evidence that many Muslims - and even Muslim teachers, do indeed want uncritical acceptance from kids.Including evidence from a member of one of the SACREs, who has been into many such schools, and was "horrified".I could also quote a few Muslims at you, including a headmaster who doesn't even want his kids mixing with those of unbelievers lest they be "corrupted". Hard to believe he's encouraging much independent critical thought in his school.There's also the not unrelated statistic that 36% of young British Muslims think the appropriate penalty for any adult Muslim that leaves the faith is... death. Doesn't sound like they've been raised to think and question, does it?I also note that when I offer to come into your school to offer your kids some arguments against theism, you turn me down flat.But, hey, if you really do think young Muslims should be encouraged to think and question about their own faith, then perhaps you won't object to the Government introducing statutory requirements so far as getting children to think critically about morality and religion is concerned? Which is what I am after."On the other hand, if you are looking for imperfectly critical thinkers doing their best to teach to teach critical thinking then you will not be disappointed, either in Islamic or any other kinds of school. The point, though, is that someone has to accept the task of thinking things right through to the end, to the point where critical thinking turns, reflexively, on its own first principles. Very few have the inclination or ability to do this. At this point, thinking starts to throw up some very peculiar results. Perhaps there is an analogy here with nuclear physics, where common sense understanding begins to fail as we are introduced to such concepts as 'space/time', multiple dimensions beyond the usual three, the uncertainty principle and so on, in order to explain what is 'really' going on. Clearly this is not going to happen in the school classroom, but this is the sort of thing I have been trying to talk about in my contributions to this blog."Yes but this is not a reason for discouraging children from asking fundamental questions about morality and religion.Bbut you say you don't discourage it, so fine. Or, are you saying that? Perhaps you are saying: "Yes kids can think critically about Islam (about e.g. whether Mohummad meant this, or that), but not when it comes to the fundamentals of faith". See - I am not sure. Can you clarify?"Next, your point about each of us being our own 'ultimate moral authority'. What I said was that I did not see that you had actually argued for this belief, only asserted it; I see no argument to deal with here yet. I tried to argue that the concept of total personal moral autonomy breaks down upon examination and I suggested that that was why you had been unable to provide a supporting argument."There was an argument, in fact. It was based on the premise that while it would be wrong to blame someone for doing something chemical that the chemistry prof. told them to do, it would not be wrong to blame someone for doing something immoral that their religious authority told them to do. Morality is not like chemistry. When it comes to morality, the buck stops with you. It won't do to say: "But they told me to do it" and point to an "expert". The argument is here. If you reject it, then I don't see how you avoid excusing the mass murderer who murders on the instructions of their moral/religious authority. Do you excuse that?"I have no problem with teaching children to think critically, including about religion and morality and critical thinking itself (in fact I insist on it) and I too believe that a better society would be the result."Good (though I need some clarification on what this means - see above) But then it's hard to reconcile this with your original statement that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged".That, of course, is what this entire debate has been about. Or at least I thought it was."What appears to me to be irrelevant, because non-existent, is your response to the serious questions I have repeatedly raised about the extent of the remit of rational-empirical thinking in determining how we understand our existence and our consequent decisions as to how to lead our lives and organise our societies, including our education system."My view is, we should apply reason as best we can. I don't say it can necessarily answer all our questions about life, the universe and everything. I also acknowledge there are classic skeptical worries even about reason itself. However, I also pointed out why I thought that sort of general skeptical worry was rather beside the point to the debate I thought we were having."And there was me thinking we would be having a philosophical discussion about the warrantability of religious belief from the perspective of hermeneutic phenomenology."That would be a very interesting discussion to have, but it's not the one I thought we were having. I thought we were discussing whether children should be encouraged uncritically to accept Islam."Philoso-babble aside, it is clear in retrospect that what most of the contributors to this discussion have wanted is to share their scorn, dislike, fear or hatred of Islam."Personally, I seriously dislike Authoritarian religion. The kind that requires uncritical acceptance. Seems to me, many Muslims go for that. Others (15thC Akbar) don't. The same is true of the other major religions, as well. They too have their Authoritarian wings. My dislike is not for all Islam, and indeed it extends far beyond Islam. It even extends to Authoritarian atheism, in fact!"Let me finish with some questions:You say you encourage critical thinking in class, even about Islam. But:(i) is this restricted to e.g. what Mohammad meant by this remark, or what that passage of the Koran means? etc. Or can kids ask more fundamental questions, such as why they should even believe the Koran is true?(ii) Even if the latter question is one they are permitted to ask, would it be taken seriously and answered - or just met with unjustified insistence ("It just is true!")(iv) Would such questions be not just permitted, but positively encouraged? If so, how?(iv) Could a child say in class, "Frankly, I don't believe this is the word of God", and face no sanction?I don't see how your statement that in any good Muslim school, "Islam is a given and never challenged" can be squared with positive answers to these questions.