About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pope, Islam and the role of reason in faith

I'm no friend of the Pope, especially this one (who is as conservative as John Paul II, and apparently less a friend of science than his predecessor). Then again, this raging controversy between Pope Benedict and various Muslim leaders is quite hilarious, from the perspective of a secularist.

First off, the Pope was technically correct. The furor has been focused on the fact that he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor (yes, hardly current literature) as saying that Islam is “evil and inhuman” because of Muhammad's command to spread the true faith by means of the sword. Well, Muhammad did say that, and it is in fact what happened, just check any book on the early history of Islam.

Then again, look who's talking. Christianity itself has often enough spread with the aid of the sword, from the Roman legions under Constantine and his successors to the Spanish “conquistadors” in South America. This is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Second, considering that most of the Islamic world is currently controlled by bloody dictators or equally oppressive small oligarchies, it is rather ironic for a top Islamic official in Turkey to compare Benedict to Hitler and Mussolini (come on, people, you can't simply make that parallel every time you don't like someone, have a sense of historical proportions, will ya?).

What is most sadly ironic about the whole controversy, however, is that a few days after the Pope's remarks an Italian nun was killed in Somalia, apparently in direct response to a local call for attacks against Christians to revenge the Pope's “insult.” What better way to counter the accusation that Islam is a violent religion than going on a killing rampage of infidels, right?

Benedict made his infamous remarks within the context of a scholarly lecture he delivered in Germany on the relationship between faith and reason. That is indeed a serious discussion that all religious people ought to have with themselves and within their churches, synagogues or mosques (although there is always the danger that they will end up choosing reason over faith!). But even more crucially, religious people – Muslim or otherwise – really need to carry out a soul-searching (so to speak) exercise on an even more fundamental relationship - that between faith and human morality. Let's be a little less prone to be mortally offended by words and a little more willing to discuss the consequences of faith-inspired violent actions, for a change.


  1. Hello MP and all,

    The straw that breaks the camel's back always follows the results of earlier deeds.

    The Pope's choice of words was brain dead, in my humble opinion, if he was seeking to spread peace. He could have appealed for cooler heads and humility from all sides using any other words, but instead he chose to quote Crusade era hypocrisy that was clearly designed to inflame Muslims. Now we see the backtracking and spinning that always follows the gaffes of those afraid of simply telling the truth.

    More proof that religion is the opposite of truth, wisdom, and justice

    The "infallible" Grand Inquisitor (the pot) sought to lecture Islam (the kettle) about spreading religion through dark deeds by quoting a Dark Ages text while the USA and Europe are in the midst of the Neo-Crusades. The irony and absurdity in this situation is amazing, to say the least. It evidences both the fallacy and fallibility of those who vainly and arrogantly pretend to serve the Creator.

    Dear Pope, ever heard of Karma or the golden rule? Ever stop to remember how the Vatican and western nations became so rich and powerful over the centuries? Ever consider giving up your blood drenched wealth and earthly power to end the blatant hypocrisy of your vain, materialistic, and duplicitous empire? Ever think of forgoing your peacock's robes to walk the walk instead of simply talking the talk? Remember the "eye of the needle" and "log and mote in the eye" parables? Is this a demonstration of your infallibility, wisdom, or utter blindness? As another wise one once said; What goes around comes around!

    The West has killed far more Muslims (and other dark skins) than they have killed westerners, yet our leaders and many in the press can only see Muslim and "third world" desperation in the face of western military and economic dominance and oppression, (in the name of God and country, by the way), as sources of evil in this world. Never forget that there would not be a war in Iraq nor the Bush administration's many blatant evils without the unwavering support of such a large percentage of Judeo-Christians.

    Guess what guys and girls, war, violence, and injustice are evil, no matter what the excuse or cause or who is doing it to whom. Anyone who thinks the Creator would judge religion, war, or any other profiteering at the expense of others as wise or acceptable activities has a very big surprise in store.

    Here is Wisdom!!
    ...and here
    ...and here too...

  2. All I can add to the comments of Massimo and Seven Star Hand (I apologize but nothing else serves my purpose here) is AMEN. Thanks for the astute commentaries guys!

  3. Dennis
    Go check out seven star hands web page, and see who your aligning yourself with. He is nothing less than the savior himself.

  4. SSH, you're a serious fruitcake.

    Dennis, if you support SSH's doctrine, accept my condolences.
    Guess I've been barking at the wrong tree...


  5. Sergei,
    Do you have your own blog? I found you comments on the previous post very interesting. I think if most liberals took your more realistic approach to issues like terrorism, conservatives would be in trouble.

  6. The roll of whole-wheat in a carnivore’s diet, reason in faith!

    That's like reason in faithlessness.

    Reason and DNA seldom mix,
    super-heroes in
    orrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr social Darwinism, they SELDOM mix.

    Stay on Groovin' (DNA Jungle) Safari,

  7. Oh, Dennis, you should add,
    "Amen hotep IV."

    Just copy & paste, to Google,

    tor hershman the awful facts

    for complete mp3 details.

    Just a lill' something moi discovered and recorded one afternoon.

    Stay on Groovin' Safari,

  8. Tor

    You're Tom Lehrer's illegitimate son, right?

    (you can tell us)

    P.S. Steve Miller wants to talk to you. (Dine on a beagle)

  9. I don't accept SSH's doctrine anymore than I accept your's Sergei. However I do occasionally find a sentence or two of yours acceptable as well. I just happen to think that this post makes some sense. Christianity (or any other religion including Islam) has a lot to answer for.

    I even think Bush was justified in going into Afghanistan after 9/11, and I supported that move. Does that mean that I approve of the rest of his policies. Absolutely not. Same with SSH, just because I agreed with one post doesn't make me a disciple.

    I don't even agree with Massimo all the time, and although his philosophy on religion is much like mine he tends to express himself more clearly than I do. But I won't be worshipping at his feet. If I did I think he would (and should) probably kick me in the teeth. At least I hope so.

  10. Dennis,
    It is not Christianity that has to answer for anything. It is what people did in the name of Christianity that needs answering for (when they did what they did, were they actually acting as Christians?)
    This is the main difference between the two religions. The Qur'an calls for violence if needed to spread Islam, Christ preached the opposite. And Yes I have read the Qur'an, and yes it is actually in there.
    When the Pope was calling Islamic extreemist out, wanting to have open dialog on the nature of God to use violence as being rational or not. This is what he wanted to accomplish. I am not sure why he thought he could have rational debate with irrational poeple and an irrational religion, but I realize you all view Christianity the same way (irrational), so there is no point in discussing it.

  11. I think Dennis is right: it's not who says it, but what is said. As I read SSH's post, I thought that was a pretty reasonable post, but there were weird signs. Like: "pretend to serve the Creator", and other "Creator" references and all that. But that's OK, I thought it was a religious but reasonable and rational person -- there are very many of them around, believe it or not. And then I saw that SSH pointed to wisdom... and it was sites with his/her name on it. Hmmm... Entering the site: "what the...". Nuff said.

    Obviously the Pope knew the kebab would hit the fan whenever those words got out. Who cares about such superfluities as context and all that anyway? What were his intentions though, that's lost on me for the moment...

    Now a little pedantic observation (as is my custom) regarding Massimo's post. I also was making jokes and laughing along with the irony of violent protests against someone saying you're violent... But then I heard part of the original (in the Daily Show, serious news), and the irony got kinda weaker. Then I saw the full original in Der Spiegel magazine, and it goes like this:

    "Zeig mir doch, was Mohammed Neues gebracht hat – und da wirst du nur Schlechtes und Inhumanes finden wie dies, dass er vorgeschrieben hat, den Glauben, den er predigte, durch das Schwert zu verbreiten."

    So, focus in the begining, in my poor translation: "Show me then what's new that Mohammed introduced - and there will you find only evil and inhuman things..."

    Well, the people in those societies like to protest whatever you infidels say, sure. But wasn't this "only evil and inhuman" much more "protestable" than the little example given later? (which reads: "...like his prescription to spread the faith he preaches by the sword.")


  12. My point is that all religion based on a supernatural being (God, Allah, whatever) gives every potential dictator, preacher, king, potentate or other power hungry individual the perfect platform for carrying out his/her powergrab. All they have to do is say that they are in touch with God (George Bush for example) and everyone who recognizes that particular God is in agreement, or is afraid they might offend this God if they disagree. Every nation is just positive that God is on their side.

    This kind of thinking justifies every kind of atrocity in the minds of the faithful.

    About the only religion that doesn't (or at least hasn't yet, that I know of) used this tactic is the Ba'Hai Faith. Strange, that it should be an derivitive of Islam. But their belief is based on a supernatural power so I would be hesitant to predict that they will forever be as tolerant as they are at this time.

  13. Jesus preached peace did he? How tired I am of informing both Christians and non-believers alike, Jesus did not preach peace:
    Matthew 10:34 - "Do not think I came to put peace upon the earth; I came to put not peace, but a sword..."
    Matthew 13:41: The Son of Man (Jesus) will send forth his angels, and they will collect out from his kingdom all things that cause stumbling and persons who are doing lawlessness 42 and they will pitch them into the fiery furnace...' and so on...very peaceful, even if the people being pitched into the fire are badies...so, why did Jesus tell his deciples to sell something a buy a sword? Because of his peacefullness? He curses a fig tree because it had no fruit on it - very nice, very loving. As the 'Son of God' why didn't he have the tree bring froth fruit instead on cursing it? Matthew 21:19...
    And Luke 14;26; If any man come to me and HATE not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his OWN LIFE also, he cannot be my desciple.'
    Wherein lies the 'peace' in this?
    Again in Luke22:51-53, The Prince of Peace again tells us; 'Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, nay, but rather division..." etc, read it for yourself.
    He preached, Honour they father and mother in one breath, then told you to hate them in another. His own mother - Woman, what have I got to do with you? refusing her even of the respect of calling her 'mother'. John2:4
    Stop making predigested statements that come not from the mouth of the Prince of Peace himself, but from church and cultural propaganda and deliberate misinformation on what Jesus actually taught. He was quite adamant that no one was worthy of him unless you turned your back on all you loved and cared for in favour of him. Saying a few hollow words about loving your enemy is voided totally by all the rest of it. It's nonsense, Christian nonsense, and ill-informed heresay from non-believers that this superstitious Jew from 2000 years ago really had anything revolution to say.

  14. A pox on both their houses, for we are all hurt by them.

    All of them. Religion basically splits people into us and them, and it doesn't take much for Them to become so much less than Us that they aren't quite human. And then anything you do to them is justifiable.

    No one's hands are clean. The pope selected his quotes to maximum impact and he got what he was looking for, proof that Muslims are violent. Thanks, guys - it's not just that you're irony-impaired, it's that you're fueling the hate that he's peddling while pretending to call for sweet, sweet reason... which is a joke in itself, or would be if the church's lack of reason hadn't killed so many.

    A pox on them both, and all the others as well.

  15. 2 Jim Fisher

    I used to have a blog in Hebrew. However, I gave up this project a long time ago cause I was simply short on time. It dealt among other things with this issue too. I wish my english was worthy of a blog, but I still find it difficult to express myself efficiently and coherently in english. The comments which impressed you ( and others ) so much belong to Sam Harris ( the man behind "the end of faith"), so you should really not credit me with that. I simply quoted him because it seemd as the only efficient way to push my ideas forward, since my own phrasing is quite infentile... :-) (I guess it's ok in hebrew).

    If you like what he (with my backing :) ) has to say, you should really check out his site @ www.samharris.org

    And it is a pity that liberals render themselves irrelevant by their PC or blindness, cause the conservarives have a meen habit of making things even worse than they are because of ther religious dogmatism and indoctrination.


  16. 2 DENNIS

    Ok man. It seems as if we're on still waters on this one :-)

    What I meant is that you alligned yourself with this:

    "the USA and Europe are in the midst of the Neo-Crusades"

    "The West has killed far more Muslims (and other dark skins) than they have killed westerners, yet our leaders and many in the press can only see Muslim and "third world" desperation in the face of western military and economic dominance and oppression, (in the name of God and country, by the way), as sources of evil in this world. Never forget that there would not be a war in Iraq nor the Bush administration's many blatant evils without the unwavering support of such a large percentage of Judeo-Christians."

    And the occasional "creator" here amd there. that's it.

    No heart feelings?

  17. Ridger said

    "The pope selected his quotes to maximum impact and he got what he was looking for, proof that Muslims are violent."

    I'm not sure about the last part of the statement, but I suspect that there is some truth in the first part.

    Truly it did seem odd that the Pope could be so dumb as to choose such an inflammatory quote from someone totally unknown to most people, who could have been left interred.

    Also, in the clip I saw on TV the pope seemed to be speaking from a raised dais, and was dressed rather popishly for a scholar (Well, perhaps he had no choice as to unform- not the first time!)

    And did I not read somewhere recently that the Pope intended to "engage" both islam and secularism in a "dialogue?" [correct me if I'm wrong on this one- I can't find my source]

    This guy could ber interesting to watch.

    Practise saying. Ratsinger. Ratsinger. Ratsinger.

  18. Pope Rat doesn't want a dialogue with Islam; he wants to crush Islam and turn the whole world into a Catholic theocracy. At least he's honest about this, unlike Muslims who claim that Islam is about peace, and then in the next breathe order the death of infidels. I'd like to put all the theists on an island together (it would need to be a big island! Perhaps the Moon?) and let them all duke it out, leaving spaceship Earth to the stewardship of us rational thinkers.
    I can but dream...

  19. 2 kimpatsu

    "dialogue with Islam"

    Islan and dialogue in the same sentence?
    hhh.. talk about logical contradiction.

    As for the rest, I couldn't agree more!!! Where do I sign in?

  20. Euthydemos@yahoo.comSeptember 24, 2006 3:25 PM

    I wrote the following in response to Dr. Thomas W. Smith's article "Pope's focus was on the place of reason in religion."

    Rather than hypothesize that the nature of God is reasonable, a claim without even a shred of evidence, one should look at the combined absence of reason emanating from all "religious people [who view] God [as] the fundamental ground of reality."

    To do so is to attempt to elevate personal beliefs to the level of divine inspiration. For anyone to attest that "acting against reason is contrary to God's nature" is to deny the very fundamental reality that God cannot be proven to exist, or be observed to act in the world. It is a masquarade that acts as a mirror and a lens to each indivdiual's psyche, reflecting or amplifying only those interpretations that already exist within oneself. Any two individuals will define God according to their own needs, wants and desires. Since reason is not a variable in the equation, there is no way to say that a Muslim's interpretation of the will or nature of God is any more or less valid than an Orthodox Jew's interpretation. The only arbiter of what God's nature is, is what that individual feels to be right, and the lengths he is willing to go to suppress dissent and enforce his own view.

    All religions stem from the same flawed basis, that denying reason is a valid form of existence and that an appeal to a supernatural force that is inexplainable, unknowable and ultimately inhuman, will provide a stable basis for understanding reality and interacting with other humans productively or ethically within it.

    This has proven to be a completely groundless and false claim that has led to incalculable damage. Religion provides rules of action that are based on arbitrary dictates, irrational ceremonies, exclusionary practises, credulous or false explanations, gullibility, hierarchy or exploitation and ultimately foster distrust, dislike, and eventually destruction. Unless a religion holds as a central tenet that all other beliefs are equally acceptable, every religion assumes that there is only one true interpretation of God's nature and one correct way to approach him.

    That some religions are not known for espousing extreme violence says more about the degree to which that religion is held in check or neutered by the political state in which it exists. When European nations were dominated by religious factional governments, it became state policy to harass, wrongly imprison, torture, burn, execute or banish vast numbers of persons. As religious governments gave way to secular parliments, religious pogroms and recriminations faded.

    But to suggest that it is to religion that we should turn in order to enshine reason is to stand the entire edifice on its head. It is the inherent denial of reason at the heart of all religious dogma that has created the milieu of internecine fratricide that we find ourselves in now. The Pope's call for a focus on reason (the correct word here is rational, not reasonable) ignores the 2,000 year history of repression, backwardness, exclusion, genocide, mass murder, prejudice, racism, exploitation, witch-burning, mass hysteria, and all of the other ills conceived, created and delivered specifically by the Roman Catholic Church.

    To hear the Pope say: "For Christians, it always is wrong to spread the faith through violence, precisely because of what the Christian faith claims about God" and "violence is incompatible with the nature of God" is laughable and ludicrous. Ask the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayans who were eradicated, enslaved and massacred, whose cultures, writings, history and even their very language were mercilessly expunged, whether "it is always wrong for Christians to spread the faith through violence." Ask the millions enslaved in Africa and shipped to colonies in the New World whether "for Christians, violence is incompatible with God."

    At the very heart and core of all religious doctrine is the complete negation of all critical reasoning faculties of any who purport to accept, embrace and live by the tenets of that (or any) religion. The appearance of rationality is only apparent in the degree to which an adherent does NOT embrace the totality of religious doctrine as a guide to behavior. It is the refusal or the repudiation of religion that allows one to be rational. Defection is rationality, when adherance is irrational.

    The Pope, if he truly wishes to see sectarian violence wane, should denounce all religion as the mere rationalization (as in justification) of arbitrariness and willfullness, the hallmarks and synonyms of all stripes of religion. His appeal to reason should and would start with a critical examination of what tenets are held in common in all religions, not just the extremist brands, and deduce that at the core is a rejection of our reality as humans perceive and endure it, and ultimately a complete rejection of reason, the means by which all men perceive reality, in favor of some promise of life hereafter in exchange for obediance and fealty now.

    The day all religions abdicate their thrones and set reason up as a neutral abiter of man's actions, is the day sectarian violence and irrational hatreds and prejudices will fade, and not before. The font of ethicality of mans actions is not a blessing, scripture or decree from some invisible god, some pontificating preacher or some moldy book, it is instead the use of non-arbitrary reason, rationality and logic to derive truly universal human ethics, which could only and inevitably lead to the recognition that all men are brothers.

  21. My favorite part (should be recited to every person who says "but they are violent, Christians are not, blah, blah..."):

    That some religions are not known for espousing extreme violence says more about the degree to which that religion is held in check or neutered by the political state in which it exists. When European nations were dominated by religious factional governments, it became state policy to harass, wrongly imprison, torture, burn, execute or banish vast numbers of persons. As religious governments gave way to secular parliments, religious pogroms and recriminations faded.

    Thanks, Euthydemos.

  22. The Pope must have know the effect he was going to have, after all, he did run the modern Inquistion in his previous gig and while I question his lack of rationalism and reason, his arguments have holes all over the place, he is not mindless, but an astute political operative, all be it barking up the wrong tree, but not a fig as it would probably die if Jesus's representative barked at it.

    The hypocrisy of his comments annoys but doesn't surprise me as do the comments from Christians that Muslims respond with violence and not reason while Christians use reason and not violence, when this is not true. It is true currently in the west, but that's because we live in liberal secular democracies and the clergy have been turfed out of positions of direct state power and our secular society gives us freedom of religion and freedom from it and that's not a lot to do with Christianity. Christianity is a totalitarian ideology, just like Islam and when the Christians had control of the state they were just as intolerant of others as Islamic states are now.

    And in the third world, particularly Africa, when Muslims rampage and murder when historical truths about their religion are pointed out to them, Christians respond in kind. Following the cartoon issue, dozens of Muslims were murdered and Mosques destroyed in Nigeria. I suspect the same is happening now in that sad country torn apart not only by ethnic rivalries but religious ones as well.

  23. Re: "violence is incompatible with the nature of God"

    The following is a list of people, according to Jewish & Christian religious myth, murdered by God directly or through His command.
    The entire population of the earth except for eight survivors (Genesis 7:23)
    Every inhabitant of Sodom and Gomorrah except for one family (Genesis 19:24)
    Every first born of Egypt (Exodus 12:29)
    All the hosts of the Pharaoh, including the captains of 600 chariots (Exodus 14:27,28)
    Amalek and his people (Exodus 17:11,16)
    3,000 Israelites (Exodus 32:27)
    250 Levite princes who had challenged the leadership of Moses (Numbers 16:1-40)
    14,700 Jews in a plague who had rebelled against Moses following the killing of the princes (Numbers 16:41-49)
    All the subjects of Og (Numbers 21:34, 35)
    24,000 Israelites who lived with Moabite women (Numbers 25:4, 9)
    All the males, kings, and non-virgin females of the Midianites (Numbers 31:7, 8)
    The Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2:19-21)
    The Horims (Deuteronomy 2:22)
    All the citizens of Jericho, except for a prostitute and her family (Joshua 6)
    12,000 citizens of Ai. Joshua hung the king on a tree. (Joshua 8:1-30)
    All the people of Makkedah (Joshua 10:28)
    All the people of Libnah (Joshua 10:29, 30)
    All the people of Gezer (Joshua 10:33)
    All the people of Lachish (Joshua 10:32)
    All the people of Eglon (Joshua 10:34, 35)
    All the people of Hebron (Joshua 10:36, 37)
    All the inhabitants of 1 of the country of the hills, and of the south, and the vale, and of the springs and all their kings (Joshua 10:40)
    All 31 kings and inhabitants of their countries, and south country, and the land of Goshen, and the valley, and the plain, and the mountain of Israel, and the valley of the same from Mt. Halak to Mt. Hermon (Joshua 11:12, 16, 17, 12:24)
    10,000 Moabites (Judges 3:29)
    10,000 Perizzites and Canaanites (Judges 1:4)
    600 Phillistines (Judges 3:31)
    All of Sisera (Judges 4:16)
    120,000 Midianites (Judges 8:10)
    25,100 Benjaminites (Judges 20:35)
    50,070 people of Bethshemesh (I Samuel 6:19)
    All the Amalekites (I Samuel 15:3, 7)
    The armies and five kings of the Amorites (Amos 3:2)
    The Moabites and 22,000 Syrians (II Samuel 8:2, 5, 6, 14)
    40,000 Syrian horsemen (II Samuel 10:18)
    100,000 Syrian footmen, followed by 27,000 who are all crushed by a wall (I Kings 20:28, 29, 30)
    42 children eaten by a bear (II Kings 2:23, 24)
    185,000 Assyrians killed by an angel (II Kings 19:35)
    10,000 Edomites, followed by 10,000 more whose killers brought them to the top of the rock, and cast them down from the top of the rock, that they were broken in pieces (II Chronicles 28)
    120,000 Judeans (II Chronicles 28)
    75,000 Persians (Esther 9:16)

    (Thanks to Robt. nassir)

  24. Sam harris again:

    The world is still talking about the pope’s recent speech — a speech so boring, convoluted and oblique to the real concerns of humanity that it could well have been intended as a weapon of war. It might start a war, in fact, given that it contained a stupendously derogatory appraisal of Islam. For some reason, the Holy Father found it necessary to quote the Emperor Manual II Paleologos, who said: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman....” Now the Muslim world is buzzing with pious rage. It’s a pity that Pope Benedict doesn’t also draw cartoons. Joining a craven chorus of terrified supplicants, The New York Times has urged him to muster a “deep and persuasive’’ apology. He now appears to be mincing his way toward the performance of just such a feat.

    While the pope succeeded in enraging millions of Muslims, the main purpose of his speech was to chastise scientists and secularists for being, well, too reasonable. It seems that nonbelievers still (perversely) demand too much empirical evidence and logical support for their worldview. Believing that he was cutting to the quick of the human dilemma, the pope reminded an expectant world that science cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps: It cannot, for instance, explain why the universe is comprehensible at all. It turns out that this is a job for… (wait for it) … Christianity. Why is the world susceptible to rational understanding? Because God made it that way. While the pope is not much of a conjurer, many intelligent and well-intentioned people imagined they actually glimpsed a rabbit in this old hat. Andrew Sullivan, for instance, praised the pope’s “deep and complicated” address for its “clarity and openness.” Here is the heart of the pope’s argument, excerpted from his concluding remarks. I have added my own commentary throughout.

    “The intention here is not one of retrenchment or negative criticism, but of broadening our concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from these possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizon....”

    The pope suggests that reason should be broadened to include the empirically unverifiable. And is there any question these new “vast horizons” will include the plump dogmas of the Catholic Church? Here, the pope gets the spirit of science exactly wrong. Science does not limit itself merely to what is currently verifiable. But it is interested in questions that are potentially verifiable (or, rather, falsifiable). And it does mean to exclude the gratuitously stupid. With these distinctions in mind, consider one of the core dogmas of Catholicism, from the Profession of Faith of the Roman Catholic Church:

    “I likewise profess that in the Mass a true, proper, and propitiatory sacrifice is offered to God on behalf of the living and the dead, and that the Body and the Blood, together with the soul and the divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly, really, and substantially present in the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist, and there is a change of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into Blood; and this change the Catholic Mass calls transubstantiation. I also profess that the whole and entire Christ and a true sacrament is received under each separate species.”

    While one can always find a Catholic who is reluctant to admit that cannibalism lies at the heart of the faith, there is no question whatsoever that the Church intends the above passage to be read literally. The real presence of the body and blood of Christ at the Mass is to be understood as a material fact. As such, this is a claim about the physical world. It is, as it happens, a perfectly ludicrous claim about the physical world. (Unlike most religious claims, however, the doctrine of Transubstantiation is actually falsifiable. It just happens to be false.) Despite the pope’s solemn ruminations on the subject, reason is not so elastic as to encompass the favorite dogmas of Catholicism. Needless to say, the virgin birth of Jesus, the physical resurrection of the dead, the entrance of an immortal soul into the zygote at the moment of conception, and almost every other article of the Catholic faith will land in the same, ill-dignified bin. These are beliefs that Catholics hold without sufficient reason. They are, therefore, unreasonable. There is no broadening of the purview of 21st-century rationality that can, or should, embrace them.

    “Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today....”

    It is ironic that a man who has just disparaged Islam as “evil” and “inhuman” before 250,000 onlookers and the world press is now talking about a “genuine dialogue of cultures.” How much genuine dialogue can he hope for? The Koran says that anybody who believes that Jesus was divine—as all real Catholics must—will spend eternity in hell (Koran 5:71-75; 19:30-38). This appears to be a deal-breaker. The pope knows this. The Muslim world knows that he knows it. And he knows that the Muslim world knows that he knows it. This is not a good basis for interfaith dialogue.

    “In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures....”

    Astrologers don’t like “their most profound convictions” attacked either. Neither do people who believe that space aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Happily, these groups do not take to the streets and start killing people when their irrational beliefs are challenged. I suspect that the pope would be the first to admit that there are millions of people on this Earth who harbor “most profound convictions” that are neither profound nor compatible with real dialogue. Indeed, one doesn’t even need to read between the lines of his speech to glean that he would place the entire Muslim world beyond the “universality of reason.” He is surely right to be alarmed by Islam—particularly by its doctrines of martyrdom and jihad. He is right to find the treatment of Muslim women throughout the world abhorrent (if, indeed, he does find it abhorrent). He is right to be concerned that any Muslim who converts to Christianity (or to atheism) has put his life in jeopardy, as conversion away from the faith is punishable by death. These profundities are worthy objects of our derision. No apologies necessary, Your Holiness.

    We might, however, note in passing that one of the pope’s “most profound convictions” is that contraception is a sin. His agents continue to preach this diabolical dogma in the developing world, and even in sub-Saharan Africa, where over 3 million people die from AIDS each year. This is unconscionable and irredeemably stupid. It is also a point on which the Church has not shown much of an intelligent capacity for dialogue. Despite their inclination to breed themselves into a state of world domination, Muslims tend to be far more reasonable on the subject of family planning. They do not consider the use of temporary forms of birth control to be a sin.

    “Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought—to philosophy and theology....”

    This may have been where Sullivan found the Holy Father to be particularly “deep and complicated” and “profound.” Granted, questions of epistemology can make one sweat, and there are many interesting and even controversial things to be said about the foundations of our knowledge. The pope has not said anything interesting or controversial here, however. He has merely insinuated that placing the God of Abraham at the back of every natural process will somehow reduce the quotient of mystery in the cosmos. It won’t. Nearly a billion Hindus place three gods—Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer)—in the space provided. Just how intellectually illuminating should we find that?

    “The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor....”

    Please read that first sentence again. I hope it doesn’t seem peevish to point out that the West faces several dangers even greater than those posed by an incomplete epistemology. The West is endangered, primarily, by the religious fragmentation of the human community, by religious impediments to clear thinking, and by the religious willingness of millions to sacrifice the real possibility of happiness in this world for a fantasy of a world to come. We are living in a world where untold millions of grown men and women can rationalize the violent sacrifice of their own children by recourse to fairy tales. We are living in world where millions of Muslims believe that there is nothing better than to be killed in defense of Islam. We are living in a world in which millions of American Christians hope to soon be raptured into the sky by Jesus so that they can safely enjoy the holy genocide that will inaugurate the end of human history. We are living in a world in which a silly old priest, by merely giving voice to his religious inanities, could conceivably start a war with 1.4 billion Muslims who take their own inanities in deadly earnest. These are real dangers. And they are not dangers for which more “Biblical faith” is a remedy.

  25. I believe that anyone who would call Benedict XVI a conservative probably ignores everyhthing written by Pope Saint Pius X. To my Catholic traditionalist mind, Benedict XVI is deplorably progressive. So were the other post-Vatican-II popes, especially John Paul II.


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