Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain’s 5th Anniversary Celebration

Thursday, May 31, 2012
Join the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain’s 5th Anniversary Celebration

The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain will be 5 years old in June 2012.

To celebrate the work, significance and achievements of this unique organisation, we are holding a fundraising luncheon on Saturday 23 June 2012 in London from 13.00-16:00 hours.

The event will be a wonderful opportunity to meet other like-minded individuals and enjoy a three-course lunch with wine, great entertainment and speakers in an intimate setting whilst supporting the organisation’s work.

Guests will hear from renowned philosopher AC Grayling, campaigner Gita Sahgal, comedian Kate Smurthwaite, CEMB founder Maryam Namazie and magician Neil Edwards, amongst others. There will also be a dance act, poetry and music.

In the five years since its establishment, the CEMB has been a beacon of hope for thousands of ex-Muslims who have renounced Islam and religion. It has helped to break the taboo and challenge Islamism, which punishes apostasy with the death penalty. The work of the CEMB has included assisting to return a young woman back to Britain from North Africa where she had been sent as punishment for her ‘disobedience’ to securing the release from detention and the right to asylum for apostates across Europe. The organisation has also given large numbers of people a new ‘home’ via its forum and meet-up group. Moreover, it has helped to highlight the plight of ex-Muslims, apostates and blasphemers internationally, including Indonesian atheist Alex Aan currently in prison and German-Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi facing a death fatwa from Iran’s ayatollahs. The One Law for All campaign against Sharia law in Britain, which was initiated by the CEMB at its first international conference, has also made waves across the globe as has its unequivocal defence of free expression, equality and citizenship rights.

Ticket(s) for the luncheon are £45.00 per person or £35 for students/unwaged.

To purchase tickets, send a cheque made payable to CEMB to BM Box 1919, London WC1N 3XX or pay via Paypal or Worldpay: Please make sure to include an email address and telephone number so that further details can be provided.

Additional donations are welcome. Donations can help ensure the attendance of CEMB volunteers and go towards other activities.

For more information on the event, please contact:
Maryam Namazie
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
BM Box 2387
London WC1N 3XX, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 7719166731

Heythrop College ranked no.2 in Push University Guide

Monday, May 28, 2012
Contact Us
Heythrop College University of London is ranked no.2 in the Push university guide (the top English university). Push ( is the leading independent guide to UK universities, student life, gap years, open days and student finance. Universities are assessed on the basis of five factors: finance; job prospects; academic standards; ease of entry and demand; and the level and range of extra-curricular activities and support.

If you are considering a BA in philosophy, get in touch. I am tutor for admissions. think AT

Say three "outrageous" left-wing things a day

I'm pulling on my Dave Spart hat for this one...

Look across the North Sea and you find Scandanavian countries doing well, economically, socially, artistically and in many other ways. They are riding out the economic storm much better than we. They also have excellent free-health care, maternity and paternity benefits, free university education, free schooling, and so on. Every child gets the same spent on its education in Sweden - you can't buy your kid a leg-up through private schooling. Finland has a fully comprehensive school system (no selection before age 16) which produces some of the best-educated children in the world. These countries have high rates of social mobility as a result (very much higher, ironically, than the "land of opportunity" USA, which should perhaps now be relabelled "land of least opportunity").

But Scandanavian taxes are very high.

We used to have some of these same State-funded benefits too, of course, but even what we had is being slowly dismantled by successive Tory regimes. And Labour too, to some extent. The current Government is accelerating the demolition job. At the same time as the dismantling has gone on, economic inequality has also increased enormously.

What I find interesting is the way in which the economic and social arguments in favour of continued movement in this direction pan out. The justification is almost always economic - we need to get real and recognize that the economy needs "rebalancing" (but not in the Swedish direction, of course!). Private good, public bad. Competition always improves services. Cut taxes on the rich and the wealth will "trickle down". Tax them more and talent will leave the country. There's a whole industry devoted to the production and dissemination of this kind of right-wing apologetic, and while there may be some truth to some of it, most of it appears to be cut-and-paste slogans people have learned to repeat without thinking too much about them.

What's really driving economic policies that endlessly erode tax-funded State provision? Apply the cui bono test. Ask - to whose benefit? Scratch below the surface and answer is almost always the same: the wealthiest top 1% and big business.

However, over the last few decades it has become hard to say these things in public, and even harder to say something "outrageous" like "Why not renationalize the railways?" (which cost taxpayers far than they did when nationalized) or "Why not tax 90% above £500Kpa?" The reason is that the right-wing have largely captured the cultural zeitgeist. Say something fairly left-wing and you'll find people roll their eyes and imply you're a silly, outdated, naive fool. And so we lefties self-censor. We don't dare say what we think anymore.

However, we now have a five- or ten-year window of opportunity. Across much of the country, the penny is beginning to drop that (i) the Tories are, in fact, little more than a machine for manipulating the economy to the benefit of the top 1% and Big Business, that (ii) these wealthy elites are to a very significant extent controlling our Governments - even Labour Governments - and our media in their own interests, and (to a lesser extent) that (iii) decent State pensions, free university education, decent State schools and excellent, free healthcare are, actually, affordable and compatible with a successful economy.

As a result we might, for a little while, be able to shift public opinion enough to  reverse much of - no let's be ambitious: all of - what has happened over the last few decades and take Britain significantly in the direction of the successful and equitable Scandanavian model.

In France, Hollande was able to get elected with a promise to tax the rich significantly more (75%) only because another candidate, Melenchon, started saying out loud "Let's tax 100% above E473K". Given the price-anchoring effect, Melenchon's 100% figure suddenly made Hollande's 75% look quite reasonable, when previously it would have seemed outrageous.

So, in short, we lefties need to stop self-censoring. We need to take back the zeitgeist. Make a point of saying three "outrageous" left-wing things a day, out loud, in public. If we all start doing it, the country's cultural and political centre of gravity will start to shift, and the Labour party might eventually be prepared to stick its head above the parapet and take some effective action.

Takes some courage, though, doesn't it?

(Cue eye-rolling and poo-pooing...)

The exam question on antisemitism that Gove condemns

Saturday, May 26, 2012
The Guardian reports today that Michael Gove, the education secretary, has said that that the inclusion of the question, "Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews" in a Religious Studies GCSE paper was "bizarre".

Gove adds "To suggest that antisemitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and frankly bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper."

Personally, I find Gove's reaction bizarre.

I believe all children should gain some understanding of how such prejudices arise. Surely, that's one of the best defences against such prejudices. If you don't know why they arise, you are much more likely to be vulnerable.

In this case, it seems to me, it is particularly important that we understand how this violent prejudice arose. Many millions of people were killed as a result of it. And it's still around. Suppressing such questions for fear of being "insensitive" and causing offence seems to me, in this context, to be absurd (in fact, isn't this the sort of "political correctness gone mad" that right-wing hacks love attacking?).

Many Jewish websites offer explanations. And of course, most of us are aware what the explanations are. So why can't we discuss them openly with young people?

Perhaps part of the problem here is that Gove is, remember, a journalist by trade,  and it is in the blood of hacks of his reactionary stripe to insist that anyone who offers e.g. an explanation of rioting, criminal behaviour, etc. in terms of social, psychological, or other factors is just "excusing" it.

It seems Gove doesn't understand the difference between explaining and excusing. Hence, on Gove's view, the AQA exam board were in effect inviting children to excuse antisemitism when they should have been condemning it.

Here's another illustration of the distinction between explaining and excusing: by explaining Gove's silly comment, I am not excusing it.

(P.S. There is another reason why people can be coy about discussing the root causes of the Holocaust, which is that a significant role was played by Christian anti-semitism. A Christian school teaching GCSE Religious Studies might prefer not to have to address this embarrassing fact, though again I think that would be a mistake. Once discussion of the causes of the Holocaust and antisemitism gets onto the syllabus of Religious Studies, the role played by religion rears its controversial head. So Gove, like some misguided religious folk, might prefer it if that topic was placed out of bounds.)

(P.P.S. I remember as a child finding out about the Holocaust, and wondering why it happened. I also remember, even then, sensing that it was in very bad taste to ask - that it was a question one wasn't supposed to pursue, other perhaps than to say that some mindbogglingly terrible people came to power and did unspeakable things. As if that were an explanation. The "terrible people" explanation creates the impression that the Holocaust could never be engaged in by ordinary people - like us. Again, a dangerous myth that we should bust early on.)

If children are old enough to know that the Holocaust happened, why aren't they old enough to think about why it happened?)

The Disturbing Celebrity Illusion

Wednesday, May 23, 2012
In case you missed it... (and what explains it?)

Study BA Philosophy at My College

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Re posting this, for your information. We are still accepting applications. Recent news is our very good score for student satisfaction, again, on the National Student Survey.

I happen to be tutor for admission for the BA in philosophy at Heythrop College University of London. If you want to find about more about our BA programme, or an evening MA in philosophy, get in touch (email address is in the header to this page). Obviously with the new fees system, all colleges are focusing on recruitiment, and so are we of course. Obviously we're not as well known as some other colleges. But we are quite exceptional.

So here are a few facts about Heythrop you might be interested in, if you're thinking about pursuing a degree in Philosophy or Theology.

(1) Heythrop is the University of London college that specializes in just Philosophy and Theology. It's all we do.

(2) Heythrop students achieve remarkably good results, despite our comparatively modest entry requirements. We have outperformed other better known colleges in terms of number of first class hons degrees achieved, for example

(3) This is because, astonishingly, Heythrop runs a one-to-one tutorial system. Students receive individual one-to-one tutorials on all their second and third year essays. This is unheard outside of Oxbridge, of course, and is one of the main reasons are students are so academically successful.

(4) Heythrop is a Jesuit foundation (in fact it's the oldest college of the University of London, being founded by the Jesuits in 1614, though one of the most recent member colleges of the University). However, despite its religious foundation, it is highly diverse in its membership. (I'm there, for goodness sake. And I'm made to feel very welcome too.) We just ask that you think and question with an open mind.

(5) Heythrop is small, friendly, and located in beautiful, leafy Kensington Square, very close to Kensington High Street tube station.

(6) Heythrop has some excellent philosophy research going on. Tom Crowther is doing cutting edge work in the Philosophy of Perception, for example (recent paper in Philosophical Review). But our greatest strength is in Philosophy of Religion. We have Professors Keith Ward and John Cottingham working in this area as part of Heythrop's Centre for The Philosophy of Religion. And of course I am regularly publishing in philosophy of religion too (and other areas).

Here's a recent letter of mine published in the Independent:

Dominic Lawson ("A Private Sector Oxbridge? Not Exactly" 7th June) rightly celebrates the one-to-one tutorial system, offered by Oxford and Cambridge, which he describes as "the single most valuable aspect of their educational offering". But Lawson is wrong to say the system is only offered by Oxford and Cambridge. It is also offered by Heythrop College, University of London for undergraduate degrees in philosophy and theology.

If you want to know more, get in touch with me directly. Our website is here. Open days and student conferences availabl.

Stephen Law
Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Tutor for Admissions BA Hons Philosophy, Heythrop College, University of London.

What Craig said... (II)

Monday, May 21, 2012
Thinking a bit more...

I suspect a real problem question for a Craig type Christian is, if the atheist knows God exists, and knows the penalty for denying God exists is infinite punishment, and the reward for acknowledging belief is infinite bliss, why does the atheist "suppress" their knowledge of, and deny, God's  existence?


Sure, Craig thinks the atheist's denial is born of "wickedness". But that's not a motive. A wickedly selfish and self-serving person, when given an "offer they can't refuse" by a mafia boss, will take the offer, not refuse it.

Craig's God gives us atheists a choice - admit what we clearly see and know to be true, and get a pass to heaven, or deny what we know, and receive infinite torment.

Why do we freely and knowingly choose that latter? How does Craig make sense of that choice? Surely,  a selfish, self-serving person would choose the former?

I'm genuinely interested.... when it comes to my freely choosing infinite torment, what do I think is in it for me?

What Craig said....

Craig (PS correction: one of Craig's Reasonable Faith guys) has said about that quote that Craig never meant that reason alone leads to atheism.  Go here. Thanks to the Uncredible Hallq. We should take Craig at his word of course, and put down what Craig actually said to an uncharacteristic lapse of clarity.

Here by the way is another piece by Craig in which he maintains that atheists know God exists and, by the end of their lifetime, also the great truths of the Gospels.

Notice that Craig talks below about how God reveals himself in nature, but also that nature provides "evidence".

Is the idea that atheists can just see that God exists, as they look upon nature? Or is it that they should merely infer God's existence on the basis of evidence that nature furnishes? If the latter, then they don't necessarily know God exists - they may fail to spot the evidence or make the inference. And why is infinite punishment an appropriate penalty for failing to spot evidence or draw the right conclusions? Inattentiveness and logical error don't merit infinite punishment, surely?

Craig appears to endorse Paul, who says that God's existence is manifest in nature, even to the atheist, who thus does know God exists, and thus is without excuse. Plus there is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit drawing the atheist to knowledge of God (though this suggests the Holy Spirit might fail in this project, and thus the atheist might not come to know God exists by that route).

Craig posts a letter in which he is asked:

Dear Dr. Craig,

I am a brazilian Christian. Your work for the kingdom has been a tremendous help to me in my spiritual life.

I believe God exists, but I am troubled with a question.

Christians are supposed to think that God will punish atheists for choosing not to believe. But how can an sincere atheist be blamed for not believing?

Craig responds...

I find that contemporary atheists take great umbrage at the biblical claim that God holds people to be morally culpable for their unbelief. They want to maintain their unbelief in God without accepting the responsibility for it. This attitude enables them to reject God with impunity. 

Now we can agree that a person cannot be held morally responsible for failing to discharge a duty of which he is uninformed. So the entire question is: are people sufficiently informed to be held morally responsible for failing to believe in God? The biblical answer to that question is unequivocal. First, God has provided a revelation of Himself in nature that is sufficiently clear for all cognitively normal persons to know that God exists. Paul writes to the Roman church:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom. 1. 18-21).

In Paul’s view God’s properties, His eternal power and deity, are clearly revealed in creation, so that people who fail to believe in an eternal, powerful Creator of the world are without excuse. Indeed, Paul says that they actually do know that God exists, but they suppress this truth because of their unrighteousness. As result they become so clouded in their thinking that they may actually deceive themselves into thinking that they are open-minded inquirers honestly pursuing the truth. The human capacity for rationalization and self-deception, I’m sure we’ve all observed, is very great, indeed, and in the biblical view atheists are prey to it.

Second, wholly apart from God’s revelation in nature is the inner witness which the Holy Spirit bears to the great truths of the Gospel, including, I should say, the fact that God exists. Anyone who fails to believe in God by the end of his lifetime does so only by a stubborn resistance to the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing that person to a knowledge of God. On the biblical view people are not like 

innocent, lost lambs wandering helplessly without a guide. Rather they are determined rebels whose wills are set against God and who must be subdued by God’s Spirit.

Do atheists know God exists?

Sunday, May 20, 2012
I recently noted that William Lane Craig takes the view, apparently, that atheists know in their hearts that God exists. It would seem to follow that atheists are liars when they claim not to know that God exists (assuming they know they knows God exists, and that to lie is to assert what one knows to be false).

Theist Andy Everist, in an independent post, sees that this conclusion is implausible, and writes:

The Bible claims all men (atheists and skeptics included) have a knowledge of God. Romans 1:20-21 states, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”

Many atheists find such a claim both wrong and offensive. This is because it generally seems, both to skeptics and Christians alike, that there are only two choices for response when an atheist claims he doesn’t really know God exists. First, we can accuse him of being dishonest. Second, we can accuse him of being deluded. Neither seems particularly appealing. Is there a way to harmonize the biblical record without being firmly committed to one of these options? I think there is.

I believe the answer lies both in intuitive knowledge and the idea of awareness. Intuition is knowledge gained independently of a process. It is simply “in born,” as it were. This passage seems to teach we have some kind of sensus divinitas within; we know God exists.[1] This knowledge does not require conscious awareness of that fact. Here are some clear, everyday examples of knowledge not requiring conscious awareness: ever described something as being “on the tip of your tongue”? Or what about saying, “Oh! I know his name, I just can’t remember it!” You do in fact know his name but you are not currently aware due to forgetfulness.

These examples of forgetfulness are not the only ones of knowledge without awareness. I know my breathing is regular and my individual breaths to be quite frequent and high in number throughout a day. However, when I am sleeping, I am completely unaware of these and other bodily functions that I do in fact know about. Even when I am awake, there are facts of which I have knowledge but of which I am not always aware, like: the 16th amendment of the U.S. Constitution concerns income tax, my mother’s favorite thing is strawberries, South Africa has another country within its borders, etc. It’s quite apparent one can know something and yet not be aware of it.

So how does this apply to the atheist? Well, I do not think he is necessarily being dishonest or deluded, at least not in the senses these terms immediately imply. We see in life as well as the Bible that character is formed by choices and experiences (cf. Exodus

Suppressing conscious awareness of a fact doesn't entail that one does not know that fact (as Everist says), but neither does it follow that one doesn't know one knows it. And if you know you know it, and say you don't, you are a liar - for a liar asserts what he knows not to be true.

What Everist needs to show is that atheists know that God exists but, for certain reasons, don't know they know. Then they would not be liars when they say they don't know God exists. I guess Everist thinks that atheists suppress their knowledge that God exists, so they have it but don't know they have it. However, confusingly, none of his examples are of such a case.

Conscious awareness of a state of affairs P, and knowing the fact that P, are obviously not the same thing. You can lack conscious awareness while knowing the fact. But I cannot see how this particular distinction helps Everist avoid the conclusion that atheists are liars. If an atheist knows (P), where (P) is the fact that he knows God exists, then if that atheist asserts he does not know (P), that atheist is surely a liar, whether or not he is currently consciously aware of God's existence.

If the explanation is in terms of suppressed knowledge, it would also need explaining what the motive would be for suppressing such knowledge, given the known, infinitely horrible consequences of doing so.

Moreover, if sending the atheist to hell is justified given their denial of what they know to be true (that God exists), it must be the case that the atheist's lack of knowledge of what they know does not exonerate them (they must be "without excuse"). Yet in many cases, not knowing you know does seem to exonerate you for not acting on what you know (if reliabilism is true and I "just know" by psychic means that Fred will die if I don't persuade him not to board that train, but I don't know I know this (having no clue that I am psychic and every reason to suppose I'm not), it's not clear I can be blamed for not trying to persuade Fred not to board the train. (Yes, I find myself stuck with the belief he'll die, but I can't understand why I hold this belief, and indeed have every reason to suppose it's both irrational and false. As a result, I don't act on the belief. Am I culpable? I think not...).

Why a degree in philosophy may be a better bet than a degree in business

Saturday, May 19, 2012
This previous post bears repeating in the current economic climate...

If you are wondering what kind of degree programme is likely to boost your general smarts, consider these figures.

Go here. This is one of several graphs from the above article. Based on GRE test performance (Graduate Record Examination) of graduate programme applicants. Quantitative (math) skills on the vertical axis, verbal skills on the horizontal (other graphs include the third component - "analytical writing", at which philosophers also excel, dramatically outperforming all others).

Philosophy graduates are pretty damn smart, the various figures suggest, compared to graduates with other degrees, including most - perhaps even all - sciences (though were they smarter to begin with, or did their degree programme make them smarter, compared to other degrees?). Check the article. Here's the original table of GRE scores of US students completing a variety of degrees.

Notice religion also does very well.

This data suggests (but falls a long way short of establishing) that if we want to produce graduates with general, across-the-board smarts, physics and philosophy are disciplines to encourage [and possibly also that accountancy and business administration should be discouraged (this confirms all my prejudices, I am pleased to say!)].

Note some very weird stats on this graph, such as business administration's woeful performance, doing less well than even "art and performance" on quantitative skills and verbal skills (which is staggering). And accountancy grads less good on quantitative skills than philosophy grads (!) and the worst performers of all on verbal skills. Both business and accountancy are also weak on the analytic writing component.
Of course, as the new business-friendly, market-led Tory vision of degree provision kicks in, we'll probably see philosophy departments up and down the country closing and business administration degrees expanding. Brilliant.

P.S. Just added a second graph comparing analytical writing and verbal. Check out e.g business administration. And where's philosophy?

What is "Character Education"?

Friday, May 18, 2012
"Multi-million pound award to support first research centre dedicated to understanding the UK's character and values." University of Birmingham News Release.

This is an interesting announcement from the University of Birmingham.

The Professor in charge of this Templeton-funded project, James Arthur, says he wants to influence policy in this country, and is clearly being taken seriously already (he mention that DEMOS have expressed interest in his research).

Character education can be a very good thing - and there's much of interest to say about it (going all the way back to Aristotle, in fact - see below) - but whenever you see the phrase, approach with caution. In the United States, "Character Education" has been used as cover for the promotion of fairly conservative (usually conservatively religious)  educational methods. It was part of the  No Child Left Behind policy funded under George W. Bush.

Here's a chapter from my book "The War For Children's Minds" on character education which explain how some (certainly not all) of those who have promoted "character education" in the U.S. have had a rather illiberal agenda. Of course, research done at Birmingham may very well be squeaky clean and of real value.

(PS This article is an example of how "character education" tends to be set up in opposition to the kind of liberal approach I recommend in my book. If this is the direction "character education" takes in this country, we should all be very worried

This article on Character Education is interesting on how "character education" has developed in the US. Here is a quote:

Character education rests on three ideological legs: behaviorism, conservatism, and religion. Of these, the third raises the most delicate issues for a critic; it is here that the charge of ad hominem argument is most likely to be raised. So let us be clear: it is of no relevance that almost all of the leading proponents of character education are devout Catholics. But it is entirely relevant that, in the shadows of their writings, there lurks the assumption that only religion can serve as the foundation for good character. (William Bennett, for example, has flatly asserted that the difference between right and wrong cannot be taught "without reference to religion.")[54] It is appropriate to consider the personal beliefs of these individuals if those beliefs are ensconced in the movement they have defined and directed. What they do on Sundays is their own business, but if they are trying to turn our public schools into Sunday schools, that becomes everybody's business.

Hopefully, turning British state-funded schools into Sunday schools won't be the recommendation of this particular research project.


Chapter of my book The War For Children's Minds below...


How do we become good? One increasingly popular answer emphasizes the importance of building character by instilling good habits. It runs roughly as follows.
Being good and living well are skills, just like, say, being able to ride a bike or play the piano. And skills are primarily acquired, not through thinking, but by doing. Just as we cannot intellectually work out how to ride a bike, then hop aboard and confidently cycle off in style, so neither can we intellectually figure out how to be good and then immediately proceed to behave well. If we want people to behave well, we have to drill into them the right behavioural dispositions. It’s in having such dispositions that having “good character” consists, and it’s on instilling those dispositions that “character education” focuses.
This chapter takes a closer look at character education, which, on the face of it, might seem to be at odds with the Liberal approach advocated here.

William James on good habits

            In his The Principles of Psychology, the philosopher William James emphasizes how important good habits are to living well. He begins with a comical illustration of the force of habit:

There is a story, which is credible enough, though it may not be true, of a practical joker, who, seeing a discharged veteran carrying home his dinner, suddenly called out, 'Attention!' whereupon the man instantly brought his hands down, and lost his mutton and potatoes in the gutter. The drill had been thorough, and its effects had become embodied in the man's nervous structure.”[i]

James believes that, just as soldiers are drilled to obey commands to the point where doing so becomes automatic and unthinking, so we should similarly drill ourselves in behaving in ways advantageous to us.

The great thing… in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemyFor this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can... The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.[ii]

It’s particularly important, thinks, James, that positive habits are ingrained at a young age. The mechanism by which our nervous systems become disposed to act in our interests is repetition. The more we make ourselves do something, thinks James, the more we will become disposed to do it.
James believes that it’s by this kind of repetitive drilling that good character is properly developed. If we want to behave well, the mere desire or intention to act well is not enough. We must instill the right habits in ourselves, so that good behaviour becomes unthinking and automatic.

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one's sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one's character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.[iii]

James argues that unless the right habits are ingrained in us from early on, by constant repetition, so that good behaviour becomes unthinking and automatic, the fabric of society is under threat. Habit is “the enormous flywheel of society, it’s most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance”[iv].


Aristotle, like James, also emphasizes the importance of instilling good habits. Aristotle’s thinking is particularly influential in today’s “character education” movement.
Aristotle thought that while we aren’t naturally virtuous, we can become so. The right way to raise a child, according to Aristotle, involves inculcating certain habits or customs of behaviour. We must be trained to act well by getting into the habit of doing it, so that such behaviour becomes part of our nature. So that it becomes, if you like, second nature.
Aristotle believes children will not spontaneously develop such virtuous character traits as honesty, integrity, generosity, fortitude, perseverance and orderliness. There nature, to begin with, is to do whatever they feel like doing. They are led by their own immediate fancies and whims. It’s only be being trained, by some external authority, to behave well that they will acquire the habit of behaving virtuously.
            However, unlike James, Aristotle is not after mindless, automatic behaviour. As Sarah Broadie, the author of Ethics With Aristotle explains, Aristotle’s view is that

[f]orming a habit is connected with repetition, but where what is repeated are (for example) just acts, habituation cannot be a mindless process, and the habit (once formed) of acting justly cannot be blind in its operations, since one needs intelligence to see why different things are just in different circumstances. So far as habit plays a part, it is not that of autopilot…[v]

What we should get into the habit of doing is reflecting and applying our intelligence in order to arrive at the right judgement, and then acting upon it. This is obviously not something we can do unthinkingly. Our minds need actively to be engaged.
            As Broadie points out, there’s a further reason why it would be a mistake to characterize Aristotle as recommending we turn citizens into unthinking automata or mindless creatures of habit. By getting into the habit of behaving well, so that it becomes second nature to us, we are able to learn two valuable lessons.
First, we learn that behaving in these ways is good. This is not something that can simply be figured out purely in a purely intellectual way. We need personal experience of what living virtuously is like before we are in a position to appreciate that this really is how we ought to behave. And we are only able to have that experience if we have been trained, disciplined and habituated into acting well by some an external authority. It’s only by doing it, by being forced into the habit of doing it, that we are able to recognise for ourselves that this is how we should live.
Second, having been properly trained, we are also released from the grip of our own immediate desires, and so we are now also ableto live that way.  So it seems an individual trained in the way Aristotle recommends acquires both a kind of knowledge and a kind of freedom that the child left to his or her own devices will never attain.

Character education

            There’s a great deal of intuitive plausibility to Aristotle’s vision of what a good moral education involves. There’s undoubtedly some truth to the suggestion that individuals can’t be expected simply to reasontheir way to being good, that they must get into the right habits before they will be in a position to judge. But then shouldn’t moral education, in the first instance, be about, not about getting them to think and reason, but about developing good character by instilling good habits?
            That moral education needs to be rooted in the instilling of good habits is, as I say, an increasingly popular point of view. Numerous books have been written to help parents and schools build character, including best-sellers like Thomas Lickona’s Character Matters – How To Help Our Children Develop Good Judgement, Integrity, And Other Essential Virtues, David Isaacs’ Character Building – A Guide For Parents And Teachers, and Helen LeGette’s Parents, Kids And Character: 21 Strategies To Help Your Children Develop Good Character.
In the U.S., character-building has caught the popular and political imagination. Many see it as the cure for the moral malaise. Thomas Lickona, for example, says that:

The premise of the character education movement is that the disturbing behaviours that bombard us daily – violence, greed, corruption, incivility, drug abuse, sexual immorality, and a poor work ethic – have a common core: the absence of good character. Educating for character, unlike piecemeal reforms, goes beneath the symptoms to the root of these problems. It therefore offers the best hope of improvement in all these areas.[vi]

Indeed, character education has become a focus of both the Democrat and Republican parties. George Bush’s plan for education, No Child Left Behind, specifically refers to character education, stating that,

additional funds will be provided for Character Education grants to states and districts to train teachers in methods of incorporating character-building lessons and activities into the classroom.[vii]

Character education has, according to one proponent, Kevin Ryan, become the “new moral education”.

The new moral education is not a fad. Instead, it is a break with the faddism that characterized much of the moral education of the Sixties and the Seventies, when the emphasis was on process and teachers pretended that the culture has few moral principles or lessons to transmit. … [T]he new moral education is really quite old; indeed, it is deeply rooted in classical thinking about education. [Some of it] comes straight from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle said that a man becomes virtuous by performing virtuous acts; he becomes kind by doing kind acts; he becomes brave by doing brave acts. A school that institutes a community service program is merely operationalizing Aristotle. And a teacher who takes on the new moral education is simply reassuming a responsibility traditionally assigned to teachers. The role of the school is not simply to make children smart, but to make them smart and good. We must help children acquire the skills, the attitudes, and the dispositions that will help them live well and that will enable the common good to flourish. For schools and teachers to do only half the job puts the individual child and all the rest of us in danger.[viii]

Proponents of character education suggest there’s growing evidence that character-building programs are effective, and that they can even help improve academic results.[ix]The building of character is increasingly seen, not as an optional extra that might be added to the curriculum, but as the framework within which good teaching takes place. Schools with character-building programs are, it seems, more effective schools. There’s certainly a great deal of anecdotal evidence that character-building programs can work. Here, for example, is Hal Urban, a high school teacher, testifying to the power of character education to transform a school:

I’ve had the good fortune to visit schools all over the country that have character education programs in place. The first word that pops into my mind when I visit them is “clean”. I see clean campuses and buildings, hear clean language, and see kids dressed cleanly and neatly. I see courtesy being practiced by everyone – students, teachers, administrators, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Most important, I see teaching and learning going on in an atmosphere that is caring, positive, and productive.[x]

An attack on the Liberal Approach

But if character education is the way forward, doesn’t that mean giving up on the kind of Liberal approach advocated in this book? Surely the Liberal approach, with its emphasis on individual autonomy and the use of reason, has now quite rightly been superseded by character education, which places the emphasis where it should be – on doing, rather than on thinking. Surely we need to cultivate good habits precisely so that individuals don’thave to start reflecting on what to do.

Defending the Liberal Approach

The attack sketched out in the preceding paragraph commits the fallacy known as false dilemma. It insists we choose between two alternatives that are, in fact, entirely compatible. We can have both character education and a Liberal approach.
Certainly, the Liberal approach outlined in chapter three doesn’t rule out character education. It’s focus is on freedom of thought, not freedom of action. It’s consistent with a strict, disciplined upbringing. It’s also entirely consistent with drilling and the instilling of good habits. You’ll remember that Liberalia High, a school that adopts a highly Liberal attitude to moral education, is just as regimented and disciplined as Authoritia High. We can enforce good habits, applying authority with a small “a”, while at the same time encouraging a critical, questioning attitude. We can say that, while we might expect students to behave in certain ways, we certainly don’t wish them to swallow whatever we say blindly and uncritically.
            So the Liberal approach to moral education is consistent with character education. Indeed, it requires it, for at least two reasons:
             (i) The kind of Liberal approach advocated in this book can only work within a fairly disciplined environment where children have gotten into the habit of listening to different points of view, calmly and carefully considering them, and so on. So it seems that the Liberal approach does inevitably need to be paired with something like character education.
(ii) One of the virtues we should be promoting is that of thinking critically and independently and getting individuals to take seriously their responsibility for making moral judgements. But, to be effective, this is something we need, not just to tell them about, but to get them into the habit of doing, so that it too becomes second nature. In which case an effective Liberal moral education must inevitably involve an element of character education.
            So, yes, the Liberal approach needs to be paired with character education. But the reverse is also true: character education needs to be paired with the Liberal approach.
One obvious potential problem with “character education” is that it can be used to ingrain not just noble and virtuous attitudes, but also racist and sexist attitudes too. Suppose we ingrain in our young the habit of treating women as domestic serfs. If our offspring are raised to treat women in this way, without much exposure to critical thinking, no doubt they will find the belief that a woman’s place is behind the sink “obvious” and will in turn pass it onto their children. In this way, such “obvious” beliefs as that women should stay in the home and that Jews are untrustworthy will merrily cascade down the generations without ever being effectively challenged. The “character” each generation develops will be sexist and racist.
An important safeguard against this potential problem with character education is to add a further habit to the list of habits character education should aim to instil: the habit of thinking carefully and critically about our own beliefs and attitudes.
I stress this needs to be a habit, a habit introduced fairly early on. If it’s introduction is delayed until those sexist and racist beliefs and attitudes have got themselves fully ingrained in the child’s character, it will then be very difficult to get them out again. If independent, critical thought is not encouraged until late on in the child’s development, and if it is then only tokenistic and not habitual, it’s unlikely to be of much benefit. The safeguard won’t work.
So, far from being in opposition, character education and the kind of Liberal approach to moral education advocated in this book actually complement one another.

Two types of “character education”

Many proponents of character education are clear that it’s both compatible, and desirable that it be paired, with the fostering of independent critical thought. But not all. For some, “character education” is merely a useful banner under which they hope to reinstate religious Authority with a capital “A”. They want the opportunity to drill children into mindlessly accepting their own religious and moral beliefs. They are looking to instil specifically religious habits, to get them ingrained in children while their intellects are firmly switched off.
Advocates of character education are aware of such divisions within their ranks. Take for example, this quote taken from an article at the character education website

What is character education? This is a highly controversial issue, and depends largely on your desired outcome. Many people believe that simply getting kids to do what they’re told is character education. This idea often leads to an imposed set of rules and a system of rewards and punishments that produce temporary and limited behavioral changes, but they do little or nothing to affect the underlying character of the children. There are others who argue that our aim should be to develop independent thinkers who are committed to moral principals in their lives, and who are likely to do the right thing even under challenging circumstances. That requires a somewhat different approach.[xi]

It does require a different approach – a Liberal approach.
We should be wary of allowing those wishing to return to more Authority-based forms of values education to hijack character education. Some proponents of character education are, in truth, merely looking for an excuse to turn children into moral sheep with a religious Authority leading the flock.
Those enthusiasts for character education who are, in truth, closet Authoritarians, are fond of draping themselves with Aristotle’s intellectual mantle. The irony is that Aristotle was no Authoritarian. Yes, Aristotle emphasizes the importance of applying authority with a small “a”, so that the right habits can be instilled. But Aristotle’s aim in doing so is to get individuals in a position rationally to recognise for themselves from personal experience that this is the right way to live. Aristotle’s idea is not to get individuals blindly to accept whatever Authority tells them.
So let’s say yes to character education, but let’s be clear that it needs to be Liberal character education, not Authoritarian.

[i]William James, The Principles of Psychology, chpt. 4, on-line at, p.121
[ii]Ibid, p. 122.
[iii]Ibid, p. 125.
[iv]Ibid, p. 121.
[v]Sarah Broadie, Ethics With Aristotle(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) p. 109
[vi]Thomas Lickona, Character Matters(New York: Touchstone, 2004) p. xxiii
[vii]From “No Child Left Behind: Executive Summary” by G. W. Bush, available at:
[viii]Kevin Ryan, “The New Moral Education”, available on-line at:
[ix]See, for example, B. David Brooks, “Increasing Test Scores and Character Education - The Natural Connection”, available on-line at:
[x]Quoted in Thomas Lickona, Character Matters (New York: Touchstone, 2004) page xxvi.

Me on Think Atheist Radio

Tuesday, May 15, 2012
I am on Think Atheist Radio. Podcast available here.  On bullshit, evil, God, etc....

Daily Mail and the art of ad hominem

Monday, May 14, 2012
Here is an article in Daily Mail that nicely illustrates that newspaper's tendency to make ad hominem attacks. The suggestion seems to be that a rich person who is leftwing is a hypocrite. It is a standard Daily Mail smear, of course, to attack lefties for being hypocrites and champagne socialists.

However, isn't someone who fights for policies that are not in their own self-interest actually demonstrating real integrity, rather than hypocrisy?

And what's wrong with a rich person "disliking the rich"?

I imagine we'll see an awful lot of this sort of ad hominem attack directed at Hollande, who clearly rattles the DM, which, I imagine, is fearful of someone similar gaining power over here.

Here's the start...

New French president Francois Hollande, who claims to ‘dislike the rich’, has THREE homes on French Riviera 

France's new Socialist president owns three holiday homes in the glamorous Riviera resort of Cannes, it emerged today.

The 57-year-old who 'dislikes the rich' and wants to revolutionise his country with high taxes and an onslaught against bankers is in fact hugely wealthy himself. 

His assets were published today in the Official Journal, the gazette which contains verified information about France's government.

Mixed messages: Socialist president Francois Hollande portrays himself as an enemy of the rich - and yet he holds assets worth almost £1million
Mixed messages: Socialist president Francois Hollande portrays himself as an enemy of the rich - and yet he holds assets worth almost £1million

To the undoubted embarrassment to the most left-wing leader in Europe and a man who styles himself as 'Mr Normal', they are valued at almost £1million.

It will also reinforce accusations that Hollande is a 'Gauche Caviar', or 'Left-Wing Caviar' - the Gallic equivalent of a Champagne Socialist.

Among other assets are three current accounts in French banks - two with global giant Societe Generale and one with the Postal Bank - and a life insurance policy.

Gay marriage: three key factors behind voting for bans

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Interesting Guardian article here with research into why people vote against same sex marraige. It's not just about religion...

Gay marriage: three key factors behind voting for bans

With high levels of religious adherence, North Carolina voters followed a predictable pattern. But that's not the whole story
    People pray supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage in Raleigh, North Carolina
    North Carolina voters passed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions Tuesday night. The reaction in the Twitterverse can be described as anger and hurt. Many probably thought to themselves that such a decision by the voters was "backward".

    I have discussed how voter opinion on same-sex relationship issues is complex, but there isn't anything difficult to understand why Amendment 1 or any other constitutional ban on same-sex marriage pass.

    Support for bans between states is highly predictable simply by knowing the percentage of religious voters. Many times, however, what explains differences between states' support does not explain how votes differ within a state.

    Two years ago, I ran a simple regression on three recently voted-upon ballot bans on same-sex marriage in Arizona (2006), California (2008), and Maine (2009). I wanted to examine whether the percentage of religious adherents, taken from the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA), within a state could explain county-to-county variance in support of marriage bans. I also added variables for partisanship (as measured by Obama's 2008 vote percentage) and for educational attainment (as measured by the percentage of voters within each county with at least a bachelor's degree, according to census figures).

    What I found many would call predictable: 89-93.5% of the variation in vote for same-sex marriage amendments could simply be accounted for these three variables.

    Counties were less likely to vote for a ban if their voters were better-educated, more Democratic, and less religious. Importantly, equations such as these control for the fact that some counties might be quite Democratic and less religious, but have a high percentage of less well educated folk. In that case, these counties are more likely to vote for the ban than those counties that are highly Democratic, less religious, but (on average) more highly educated.

    Continues here.

Craig: reason leads to atheism or agnosticism

Friday, May 11, 2012
"The person who follows the pursuit of reason unflinchingly toward its end will be atheistic or, at best, agnostic." William Lane Craig.

Yes, Craig really did say that. The source is here. A very interesting article. Thanks to this forum.

But does Craig really mean what he appears to mean? You should make your own mind up about that. These other quotes from Reasonable Faith re. the role of reason may be relevant:

"Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa."

[William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), p. 36.]

"Therefore, when a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God." 

[William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, (Revised edition, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), pp. 35-36.]

Craig's view seems to be that reason is a useful apologetic tool, but faith is not dependent on reason, nor should it be. Indeed, when faith and reason come into conflict, it is reason that must give way (though I wonder, then, exactly why he rejects Young Earth creationism).

Craig's view that unbelievers such as myself know in our hearts that God exists (and, apparently, even that Christianity is true) is linked interestingly to his view of hell, and why unbelievers really do deserve to go there. Of course, no one deserves to burn in hell for not embracing God if they don't know that God exists. However, according to Craig, I do know God exists. Which is why hell is indeed an appropriate punishment for me - why a loving God really will send me there to receive infinite torment.

On Craig's view, when I, as an atheist, say I don't believe God exists, I'm lying. I am freely and knowingly sending myself to hell to receive infinite punishment, when I could be going to heaven if I would only admit what I know to be true and embrace God (and that's really quite an incentive to do so, isn't it? Though - surely somewhat bafflingly from Craig's point of view - not incentive enough.)

I find Craig's view genuinely fascinating, if rather disturbing.What must it be like like to look at the world from a perspective like that? How must I look to Craig? I find it hard to imagine.

Big Questions comment

Monday, May 7, 2012
I was on BBC1 Big Questions yesterday. Go here. The whole hour was devoted to religion and children. I argued early on that children should be encouraged to think and question and all schools should be forced to meet minimum standards on that. I got a big round of applause on that from pretty much everyone - religious and non-religious (about 15 mins).

Later in the programme, a young man to my right called Nick explained how, on the last day at his Catholic school (he was Head Boy), "came out" as an atheist in his speech. The Monsigneur patted him on the shoulder and said he was "brave". Again, some approving applause and comment about this from the religious (at about 39.20 mins)

But hang on: why did this pupil have to wait until the last day of school before he could admit what he believed? Why, even at that point, was this acknowledged to be a pretty "brave" thing to do?

The answer is fairly obvious, isn't? Because the school had managed to convey the message to pupils that while some thinking and questioning was fine up to a point, the fundamentals of the faith were not included. Atheist? Keep it to yourself.

So was this, I suspect probably pretty typical, Catholic school meeting the minimum standards I earlier recommended, and which almost everyone applauded? Was it encouraging pupils to think and question? Was it encouraging them to voice their questions, doubts, own points of view?

Clearly not. It was, in fact - if probably by largely tacit means - actually suppressing any such open, critical discussion. And doing so very effectively.

Is that acceptable? If so, how is acceptance of such schools to be squared with the opinion that thinking and questioning should be encouraged?

Had I been quicker on my feet I'd have pointed put this seemingly contradictory attitude among some religious people (not all obviously) - and certainly several in the audience.

Talk on moral and religious education

Friday, May 4, 2012
There's a talk I gave as an avatar on moral and religious education available here. It is based on my book The War For Children's Minds. About 50 mins long. Obviously the book goes into more detail. This is merely a short taster...

Philosophy Poster

Thursday, May 3, 2012
Nice philosophy poster from Floris Van Den Berg here. Also available at TAM.

Howthelightgetsin 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
The following is from Spoonfed, written by Hilary Lawson founder of Howthelightgetsin.

In the closing pages of A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking takes a sideswipe at contemporary philosophy, arguing that it has been reduced to an analysis of language. In The Grand Design he goes a step further. “Philosophy,” he tells us, “is dead”.

As a philosopher and founder of the world’s largest philosophy and music festival,  HowTheLightGetsIn, I’m not convinced by Hawking’s vision. Excluding philosophy and any other strategy one might employ to tackle life’s big questions seems a careless dismissal of forms of human enquiry.

The reality is that science has no monopoly on truth. Scientist and broadcaster Baroness Greenfield has spoken of the “smugness and complacency” of science and has called for a return to curiosity and open-mindedness. If science gave up its metaphysical pretentions and stopped supposing that it was uncovering the essential character of the world, it would be stronger not weaker. It would be in a better position to entertain new theories, which might enable more effective intervention in what we take to be reality. Just as science demonstrated the limitations of the church, so now we must come to terms with the limitations of science.

The relationship between data and knowledge is a complex one. It’s important to consider what human knowledge consists of, how is it uncovered and whether data can be trusted. This is turn raises issues about what remains unknown and where developments are likely to be found, as well as the ethical implications of new scientific research. To what extent, for example, can we trust research funded by commercial organisations? What are moral issues accompany human genome mapping? These are not questions that can be answered by science alone.

In The Limits of Science, one of this year’s debates held in association with Spoonfed, controversial biologist and author of The Science Delusion, Rupert Sheldrake and physician and historian of science James Le Fanu will debate the limits of knowledge with Think editor, commentator and philosopher Stephen Law. They’ll be asking whether science can uncover the ultimate nature of the world, or whether there are things it simply cannot fathom.

The irony is that in Hawking’s ‘science-trumps-all’ world, philosophy has never been more necessary. The old certainties that came from religion and science have been shaken and their demise has left us confused and lost in our postmodern world.  And where can we look now but to philosophy to try and make sense of the strange circumstances in which we find ourselves?

For centuries in the West we've looked forward to political, economic, and ethical progress. We've seen ourselves as on the upward curve of history.  But the future looks uncertain, our values precarious. Do we need a new notion of progress and if so what would it be? HowTheLightGetsIn is really an opportunity to get philosophy out of the academy and into people’s lives.

The Limits of Science is on Saturday 9th June 2012 at HowTheLightGetsIn

HowTheLightGetsIn runs from 31st May to 10th June 2012.

From here.

I am also co-hosting a dinner...

Event [438]
Saturday 9 June 2012
Philosophy Now Dinner
Anja Steinbaer, Stephen Law, Rick Lewis.

Philosophy Now editors Rick Lewis and Anja Steinbaer and philosopher Stephen Law consider questions of truth and ethics in philosophy and literature.

Price includes dinner