Thursday 5 March 2015

Kant vs the Qur'an

                                         Kant vs the Qur'an: you decide

I've always been slightly worried in agreeing with Brendan O'Neill. He is (for example) one of the few commentators to note how appallingly bad same sex 'marriage' arguments are without coming from a Christian point of view. And on a number of issues, I and fellow Catholics have often found ourselves cheering the lad on: 'Go on, Brendan! You tell them!' I've always been slightly uneasy though, not being quite sure whether he is just a genuinely free thinker content to follow the arguments where they go, a clickbait merchant relying on contrarian views to generate, well, views, or some sort of cunning Commie who wants to suck the desperate sad loons like myself in, where, upon waking up, we'll find ourselves living in a caravan and selling copies of the Trotsky Newsletter round social housing ghettos.

Anyway, bit of a relief then to find him talking the sort of rubbish I can disagree with. Much more the natural order of things. In an article entitled, 'Why won’t we tell students that Kant is better than the Koran?' (here) he calls out university teachers for not simply telling students, well, what it says in the title...

Given that their universities won’t stand up for Kant or Mill or the superiority of rationalism over superstition, and considering their identities have been ringfenced from ridicule by a whole host of censorious slurs, is it any wonder some students flirt with non-academic, non-Western ideas? The academy implicitly invites them to, by sending the message that its own values aren’t that great, and it unwittingly encourages them to hold on to their non-academic ideas by safe-spacing them from robust critique.


We should let everyone speak, including the haters, and we should simultaneously challenge the cult of relativism on campus and strip away every slur that is now used to silence those who criticise superstition or stupidity and who uphold Enlightenment values. We should tell students that, with his call on humanity to grow up, to dare to know, and to use moral reasoning to impact on the world, Kant is worthy of close and serious study. Kant is better than the Koran. And if they cry Islamophobia? Do that thing with your fingers to signify the playing of the world’s smallest violin just for them.

Good fighting talk. Go on, Brendan! You tell them!! But...

First, let's put aside the University of Westminster from where the article which prompted O'Neill's spleen emerged. It's perfectly possible that it's a rubbish university with rubbish teachers. I don't know. But in a wider academic context, I recognize the conversation referred to:

I recall a seminar discussion about Immanuel Kant’s “democratic peace theory,” in which a student wearing a niqab opposed the idea on the grounds that “as a Muslim, I don’t believe in democracy.” Our instructor seemed astonished but did not question the basis of her argument; he simply moved on. I was perplexed, though. Why attend university if you have such a strict belief system that you are unwilling to consider new ideas? And why hadn’t the instructor challenged her? 

So. I've taught Kant. (Not admittedly Kant's Perpetual Peace which I assume is being referred to here.) I've also had students preface their remarks by, 'As a Muslim....' (though not as many as have prefaced their remarks by 'As a Christian...' or 'As a feminist...' or 'As an atheist...' or 'As a gay man..') and then gone on to explain why this or that philosophical position is unacceptable. I think I'm probably good enough at deadpan not show my astonishment (although I have been astonished over the years). I've also sometimes moved on rather than tackle the remark. So I reckon I've probably had more relevant experience in this area that O'Neill, whose response to an outburst of anti-semiticism was to use the hoary old Enlightenment tactic of calling the man a sh*t.

The first thing to remember is that reports of classroom discussions (particularly free flowing ones) are incredibly unreliable: I have been genuinely astonished at what students have thought has been said in such discussions as opposed to my own recollection. But assuming the facts are as stated, there might be any number of reasons why the instructor moved on rather than challenging the view. (Imagine you've got an hour to discuss Kant. How much time do you want to spend refuting Islam for the benefit of one student?) But perhaps more to the point, the challenging of the sort of 'I am an X' remark is pretty commonplace in my experience. You're usually better not calling students 'sh*ts' but trying to get them to set their own beliefs in this or that ideology aside for the moment and try to argue rationally. It's as much about distraction as anything else: 'Well, look, you appreciate that not everyone accepts the Bible/Qur'an/Stonewall as you do, so what might they say without relying on that source?'

I suspect that O'Neill here might retort that this is the sort of lily-livered cowardice that fails to tackle the rot directly: rather than convincing the student that Kant is more important that the Qur'an, the yellow academic sidesteps the issue and allows the student to remain in the position that Kant (at best) is just one more view alongside the Qur'an (and more realistically, just a piffling thought experiment rather than the correct way to see the world). The trouble with this is a) it's impossible; and b) it's a fine example of saloon bar chatter but not really a rigorously academic position.

Let's take a). I don't know how, in an academic debate, you show that 'Kant is better than the Koran'. It's the sort of blithe confidence in the power of reasoning that once made me sure that I could show Christianity is rubbish. Debates do have a role to play in changing people's minds, but perhaps more effective is the institutional sneer: 'You don't really believe in that, surely?' Not exactly quite what we take Enlightenment values to be, but nonetheless, perhaps a realistic example of what they are in practice. Having lots of free speech on a campus won't make any difference: the nuttiest views then just become one more voice in the clamour. (And the institutional sneer doesn't always work either, or at least plenty of Catholics have been through (or even emerged from) the secular Protestant, 'You don't really believe that, do you?' Drink and sex probably are more likely ways of luring people away from a religious background. Now that would be an interesting Prevent strategy...)

Turning to b), the lack of academic rigour in the claim that 'Kant is better than the Koran' really ought to be apparent. Putting aside the tempting alliteration (which I guess this is really what it's about), I suppose this is little more than the claim that the Enlightenment is better than Islam. How is one supposed to assess that sort of claim? Is the university supposed to be turned into some four year balloon debate, in which only one ejectee (an entire culture?) is possible?

I don't always agree with Peter Hitchens but I think his Christian faith does make him seek the truth rather than celebrity. His recent piece is, I think, much closer to the truth:

 As we saw in an interesting poll, these Muslim fellow citizens don’t want to chop our heads off or murder us. They are reasonable, peaceful people who make better neighbours than many indigenous Britons.

But they think differently from us about the world. And they believe in something, which most of us do not. That’s the chief difference between us. And bit by bit, as they become more numerous and find their way into our institutions, helped by their competence, self-possession and sobriety, they will change society into one that suits them.

I don’t see how this process can be stopped now. I sympathise with a lot of their concerns, though I greatly dislike their attitude towards women. Like them, I find our way of life tawdry, immoral and often debauched. I just wish we had found our own British, Christian solution to these problems.

But we turned our back on patriotism and the church long ago. And round about the same time, we opened our borders, so wide that I do not think we will ever be able to close them again.

This thing has happened. We are going to have to try to learn to live with it as best and as kindly as we can, for the alternative is horrible. 

I'm less hostile to immigration and its effects than he is. (The biggest destruction in modern Britain is self-inflected by secularising liberalism.) But putting that aside, the idea that you can just wish away the religion and culture of students by calling them sh*ts or grandly informing them that Kant is better than the Koran is nonsense. I don't quite know what the solution is (although I suspect that MacIntyre's vision of competing institutions teaching from within a deep understanding of a particular tradition coupled with Hitchens' living with this 'as best and kindly as we can' is a far more realistic alternative). But far too much of the response to the perceived 'Muslim problem' is about posturing and fantasies rather than a serious attempt to discuss how people of very different views can live together peacefully.


  1. I too lie in bed at night worrying about how much I agree with Brendan O'Neill (but from a Trotskyite perspective, not a Catholic one). But I think the Kant vs Koran setup is a clumsy way of setting universalism against relativism. We need a literary canon, for example, and this involves passing judgement on the respective merits of books and ideas. Without a canon, there would be anarchy! People on remote Scottish islands would end up maintaining that their local poets are "better" than Shakespeare, because these poets are, for them, simply more familiar. In this way, closed minds are fortified.

    Yet demanding that devout Muslims analyse their venerated Koran as if it was Kant is not realistic. You need years of life experience to challenge your deepest beliefs - it's not something which can be done in a tutorial. Kant vs Koran is actually unusually clumsy for Brenda. Both are sources of Enlightenment - both have their respective merits and pitfulls which require serious thought - you can't just summarise one with the empty word "better." Perhaps you put your finger on it when describing "saloon bar chatter."

  2. I suppose I'm coming at this from two perspectives: the practical and the theoretical. On the practical level, I just can't imagine what he wants or how he thinks it is remotely possible given the nature of HE in the UK. Eg: I doubt whether someone who studied computer science at most universities would even enter a seminar on Kant let alone find him ridiculed by an instructor.

    On a theoretical level, as I said, I think that MacIntyre's probably closest to being right. And if that's so, you have the genuine problem of getting the various traditions to engage with each other. That's inevitably going to be messy, and I certainly wouldn't assume that in a Kant/Koran fight, Kant would come out on top. (As you note, each has pitfalls and merits.)

    Personally, I'm beginning to wonder if a ten year on the use of the phrase 'Enlightenment values' would be a major contribution to human flourishing. It's becoming a fetish.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting! Perhaps I could return the favour by recommending your site: