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New at Leuphana: Honorary Professor Dr. Dr. Alexander Görlach – “Critical thinking is the most important skill set”.

2019-01-17 This Doctor of theology and linguist, publicist and media entrepreneur teaches at the Institute for Theology and Theological-Scientific Research. In this interview, he explains how to conduct a successful debate at the university without policed speech and thought.

Professor Görlach, if you had to do it again: Why would you like to study at Leuphana University of Lüneburg?

I gave my first lecture at Leuphana in 2010. I was already acquainted with Sascha Spoun and his work thanks to an interview I did for the newspaper “Die Welt” in 2001. In St. Gallen, he had already brought his ideas of a course of study which takes the broader view into fruition. The economists there all had to complete obligatory humanities modules. I think that was – and still is – very good, because if these sciences do not talk to each other, no added value is created, which could even turn out to be dangerous. As early as 2011, I spoke about this in a TEDxTalk in Berlin entitled “Letters and Numbers”. 

I believe that, in Lüneburg, Professor Spoun pushed the realisation of his vision at Leuphana with great success. It depends on the connection between thinking and creating something sustainable out of what has been learned. And in view of digital degree courses, universities have to think again about why they tie people to a place for a certain period of time. One answer is the Leuphana Semester, in which you immerse yourself deeply in various subjects. Interdisciplinarity, good lecturers from different fields, in one place, that is an added value. I would be happy to study at Leuphana.

You teach the “Theory of secularism” and the question of how we talk so that we all understand each other. How can this be achieved?

For many religious people in the USA, the word “secularism” means Atheism and godlessness. It is not. It is about understanding how we structure ourselves into a society. That has a lot to do with how we speak. And speaking is the reflection of consciousness and thinking. And people think and speak differently. It starts in the family and ends in society as a whole. Secularism means to think about the basis of common thinking and acting and to communicate. In my opinion this has nothing to do with the question of the existence of God.

The most important skills set for this is critical thinking. Therefore, I would like to offer a course on “Introduction into Critical Thinking” at Leuphana in addition to my course on theories of secularism. The students should learn to deal with a topic and at the same time deal with it critically. At a time when we talk a lot about whether robots and algorithms are going to make us work for them, it is important to emphasise: this holistic, integral, holistic thinking that enables humans to draw a “big picture”, algorithms and robots will not be able take over for long time. There is a broad consensus on this.

You once said: “Debate will influence future changes”. Does this apply to science as well as to politics? 

Where are the major debates held, if not at university? We need extra-parliamentary and civil society spaces. Science is able to provide a language so that discussion can take place without anyone feeling hurt. Here, we are experiencing a moment of crisis: many colleges in the USA are arguing about policed speech and thought, described as political correctness. Here, again we arrive at the theories of secularism: the university can provide methodology, instruments and language that assure that a question is academically discussed and evaluated. And thus have an effect on society. Democracy, which today is often sneered at and ridiculed as “liberal” by its opponents, and whose followers are denounced as “globalists”, “patronisers” or “Care-Bear utopians”, feeds from this debate. There is no absolute truth, discourse provides consensus; we communicate about our values. That is what makes the model of democracy that prevailed after 1945 so successful.

You yourself like to initiate debates, even demanded the deposition of Pope Francis when he wanted to change the "Our Father". Yet you used to be an altar boy...

Just because the Pope had a gut reaction that made him improve "Our Father", without new linguistic or biblical findings that support such a statement, this suggestion must remain populistic. And a pope should defend himself against this. Intellectuality is not everything, but it helps. And while we're at it: the so-called “Bible in Just Language” will eventually backfire. The texts of Holy Scripture, like all written testimonies that have been preserved, come to us from a certain time, with their own ideas of what is just and good. Some things are intolerable for us today, that is true. But it doesn't get any better if you grind the texts down and subject them to fashion. You have to face it. By the way, I enjoyed being an altar boy!

Alexander Görlach is a linguist and theologian who works on narratives of identity, politics, and religion, and liberal democracy, as well as secularism, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. He was a visiting scholar to both Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Center for European Studies and a J. F. Kennedy Memorial Policy Fellow at that Center in the academic years 2014-2017. Alex is senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, a fellow at the Center for the Governance of Change at IE University in Madrid, a senior research associate at Cambridge University’s Institute on Religion and International Studies, a senior advisor to the Berggruen Institute, and a honorary professor of ethics and theology at Leuphana University of Lüneburg in Germany. Prior to his current engagement at Cambridge University Alex served as a fellow to the Center for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). In the academic year 2017-2018, he was also invited as a visiting scholar to universities in Taiwan and Hong Kong. In East Asia Alex looked into the democracies of the region and how the cope with the rise of China. One narrative of identity he is particularly researching on is the narrative of work. Given the rise of AI, algorithms and an increasing automatisation it is crucial for him to reassess how individuals and societies perceive work and its impact on self-worth and identity. Alex is an op-ed contributor to The New York Times and the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, among others. He is also the founder of the debate-magazine The European and served as its editor-in-chief from 2009 until 2015. Today he is the editor in chief of, a magazine on technology, Ai and ethics, and he also publishes the initiative

Author: Marietta Hülsmann