Q&A on Philosophy with Dr Stephen Law – Session 3

Q&A on Philosophy with Dr Stephen Law – Session 3

In Part Three of this Q&A with Conatus News, Dr Stephen Law discusses authoritarian philosophies, epistemology and education.

Part 1
Part 2

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.

stephen law, philosophy
Dr Stephen Law

Scott Jacobsen: In the first session, we discussed faith schools in the United Kingdom (UK) and critical thinking education, and in the second session we discussed religious education in the UK and the critiques of philosophy. You mentioned the threat of purported authorities from religions and did mention the atheist community-party, which leads to the next thought for me. Many religious philosophies turned fundamentalist can become dangerous, delusional, and tyrannical. However, and, at the same time, what about the philosophies of national ideologies including National Socialist fascism in older Germany or some communist tyrannies? Are these more deadly and threatening than religions turned ideologies to you?

Dr Stephen Law: More deadly or threatening? Well, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, and Stalin each achieved a far higher body count than the Holy Inquisition, so in one obvious sense, they were more deadly. I am not sure what we can extrapolate from this though.

It is worth reminding ourselves that Nazism was not, as many suppose, an atheist philosophy.

Hitler and the Nazi’s anti-semitism was religious, creationist, and anti-Darwinian. The Nazis drew on Biblical sources in justifying their views about race (for an interesting, evidence-led perspective on this see here)

Nazi attitudes to the Jews were not foisted on unwitting German people, but were already widespread. Anti-semitism was rampant, with deep roots in Christian thinking, both Protestant and Catholic. In 1936, the Primate of Poland issued a letter to be read from every Catholic pulpit in the country – a letter that, while opposing violence against Jews, said the following:

“It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic Church, persisting in free-thinking, and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism and subversion. It is a fact that the Jewish influence on morality is pernicious and that their publishing houses disseminate pornography. It is a fact that Jews deceive, levy interest, and are pimps. It is a fact that the religious and ethical influence of the Jewish young people on Polish young people is a negative one.”

Anti-Semitism was also deeply embedded in the Protestant Churches. Daniel Goldenhagen, in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, reports that one Protestant Church publication would, in the words of a contemporary observer, “Again and again describe the Jews with great zeal as a foreign body of which the German people must rid itself, as a dangerous adversary against whom one must wage a struggle to the last extreme . . . Dissent was rare . . . One churchman recalls in his memoirs that anti-Semitism was so widespread in clerical circles that “explicit objection [to anti-Semitism] could not be ventured.”

What all these horrific regimes – Hitler’s, Pol Pot’s, Mao’s and Stalin’s – had in common was not atheism, but authoritarianism. All were profoundly opposed to free-thought. All brutally suppressed dissent. If we want to avoid such moral catastrophes in future, I believe our best bet is not the promotion of religion – which can be brutally authoritarian too – but the promotion of free-thought amongst the citizenry and political secularism that protects the freedom of all to practice or criticise religion as they wish. Philosopher Jonathan Glover notes:

“If you look at the people who shelter Jews under the Nazis, you find numerous things about them. One is that they tended to have a different kind of upbringing from the average person, they tended to be brought up in a non-authoritarian way, bought up to have sympathy with other people and to discuss things rather than just do what they were told.”

I think this should be our recipe for raising new citizens.

Jacobsen: Even if pupils are, as per the minimum standard recommendations from Session 2, encouraged to think for themselves, especially on religion, and exposed to a wide range of views, will this necessarily be practised? For example, could the seriously motivated and devout work to subvert the best intentions of these minimum standards?

Law: Of course. In my book The War For Children’s Minds I argued for certain minimum standards regarding moral and religious education that all schools – religious or not – should meet because I thought that the introduction of such standards is practically achievable in the short term. However, they are just minimum standards. Note that I think all schools should ensure that pupils are exposed to a variety of views about religion – including atheist and humanist views – from those who hold those views. This at least would be a counter to the kind of strawman representations of atheism and humanism that might otherwise be presented in the classroom.

Jacobsen: If we take the current, most widely accepted epistemologies in philosophy, and if we take the modern incarnation of the scientific method, what seems like the probable future of epistemology and science?

Law: Greater insight into the workings of the universe, better technology, and so on. However, I am no utopian. I am not that optimistic about the future of humanity. Humanists such as myself are often accused of naive thinking on which, once all embrace science and reason, a Brave New World will open up before us and humanity can look forward to endless peace and contentment. Most of us humanists are not that silly.

Jacobsen: Thank you once more, Dr Law, it’s a continued pleasure.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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