Dr. Stephen Law is Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He is also the editor of THINK: Philosophy for Everyone, a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy (published by Cambridge University Press). Stephen has published numerous books on philosophy, including The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (on which an Oxford University online course has since been based) and The Philosophy Files (aimed at children 12+). Stephen is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts. He was previously a Junior Research Fellow at The Queen’s College, Oxford, and holds B.Phil. and D.Phil. degrees in Philosophy from the University of Oxford. He has a blog at www.stephenlaw.org. Stephen Law was Provost of CFI UK from July 2008-January 2017 taking on overall responsibility for the organisation, and particular responsibility for putting on talks and other educational events and programmes.
Dr. Stephen Law: I think it is important for young people to be taught about religion. Religion has hugely shaped, and continues to shape, our world.
What I am opposed to is what I call (in my book The War For Children’s Minds) the ‘Authoritarian’ teaching of religion – in which young people are supposed to accept, more or less uncritically, what they are told about religion by some supposed authority – whether that authority be a priest, a rabbi, an imam, or their local atheist communist-party official. Authoritarian religious schools are such a part of our traditional cultural landscape that they benefit from the anaesthetic of familiarity. We think they’re harmless, perhaps even socially necessary.
In order to see just how pernicious many really are, consider this analogy. Suppose authoritarian political schools started opening up around the country. A conservative school opens in Swindon, and is followed by a communist school in Slough for instance. In these schools, portraits of political leaders beam serenely down from classroom walls. Each day begins with the collective singing of a political anthem. Pupils are expected to defer, more or less unquestioningly, to their school’s political authority and its revered political texts. Rarely are children exposed to alternative political view points, except, perhaps, in a caricatured form, so they can be sweepingly dismissed.
What would be the public’s reaction to such schools? Outrage. These schools would be accused of stunting children – of forcing their minds into politically pre-approved moulds.
My question is: if such authoritarian political schools are utterly beyond the pale, why are so many of us prepared to tolerate their religious equivalents? The answer, I suspect, is inertia. Authoritarian political schools would be a shocking new development. But there have always been authoritarian religious schools, thus familiarity, and perhaps a sense of inevitability, has blunted the sense of outrage we might otherwise feel. I think it is time we got that sense of outrage back.
Jacobsen: How can we move things in that direction in the UK educational system?
Law: It seems to me that all schools should meet certain minimum standards when it comes to religious teaching – (i) every child should be encouraged to think for themselves and make up their own minds about what religion to accept, if any. It is very important that they are reminded that they are entirely free to accept or reject atheism, Roman Catholicism, Islam, etc., (ii) every child should be exposed to a range of views about religion, including atheism and humanism, preferably explained by those who actually hold them. Unfortunately, many schools, including many state-funded schools, fail to meet these standards. Children are told not to befriend those of other faiths. Children are told that they have no choice – that they are followers of Islam, or Judaism, or Roman Catholicism, and will pray, and engage in devotional activities, and recite creeds, like it or not.
Children are often also given little exposure to say, atheist, humanist, or other religious points of view, except perhaps in a rather caricatured form. As a result, we have a situation in which, for example, roughly a third of young British Muslims leave school believing that the appropriate penalty for any Muslim that leaves the faith is death. We have young British folk leaving our education system having never heard such views questioned or challenged, thinking that they have no choice but to accept a particular religious faith.
Jacobsen: Currently, ‘philosophy’ as a term seems to have expanded, and now includes the natural sciences. Natural scientists, whether knowingly or not, are teaching natural philosophy. So while philosophy is still relevant, but this branch (natural philosophy) is currently enjoying most of the success and recognition. What’s your view on the contemporary importance of philosophy?
Law: Well, the term ‘philosophy’ now tends to be reserved for a sort of armchair intellectual activity – not the sort of thing that empirical scientists engage in (they perform observations, engage in experiments, etc.; while philosophers can work while sitting in a comfy chair with their eyes closed).
I think a lot of people are suspicious of philosophy, and even consider it a grand waste of time, because they think: ‘Well, if we want knowledge of how things really are – of the reality as it really is – then we need to engage in the observation of reality. We need to apply scientific methods, pull out our microscopes and telescopes, and so on. We are not going to get far just sitting in a comfy chair and relying on pure reason and philosophical intuition alone. Indeed, aren’t our philosophical intuitions about what reality must be like (about the nature of space, or matter, say) notoriously unreliable?’
Now, I actually have a lot of sympathy with that criticism of philosophy. I think philosophy is actually pretty useless when it comes to uncovering the fundamental characters of reality. But that’s not to say that philosophy is without value. I still think philosophy is immensely valuable actually. For what philosophy can do is, for example:
(i) reveal that our theories about reality cannot be true because they involve or generate logical contradictions. So, for example, if someone claims to have discovered a four-sided triangle in the rainforests of Brazil, mathematicians won’t bother mounting an expensive expedition to find out if that’s true. They can know, from the comfort of their armchairs, that no such triangle exists out there. Not all contradictions are quite as obvious as that – sometimes we need to engage in some pretty deep thinking to excavate them. That is a job for armchair philosophy, not empirical science.
(ii) reveal that, say, our fundamental moral commitments have consequences we had not recognised. For example, we may discover, through armchair reflection, that our moral commitments require that we treat women, or other races, or other species, very differently from the way they’ve traditionally been treated. By means of armchair philosophical reflection, great moral progress can, and has, been made.
(iii) solve conceptual puzzles. Many traditional philosophical puzzles, such as the mind/body problem, appear to be essentially conceptual in nature. For example, it seems that mind must be material in order for it to have any physical effects; yet, on the other hand, it seems to many that there’s some sort of conceptual obstacle to identifying mind and brain, or mental states, or events with neurophysical states or events. Whether there really is such a conceptual obstacle will require, not empirical science, but armchair conceptual methods to figure out.
Philosophy may be useless at revealing how reality fundamentally works, and I believe that the traditional metaphysical role associated with philosophy should actually be left to the natural sciences, but philosophy, nevertheless, remains hugely important.
Jacobsen: Thank you very much for your time again Dr Stephen Law.