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.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ecrasez l’Infame

The Pope has left New York, and I celebrated the event the other night by going to see Voltaire’s “Candide” (in the fantastic musical adaptation by Leonard Bernstein). Considering that the French Enlightenment philosopher was famous as a harsh critic of organized religion, and that Pope Ratzinger has had the balls of claiming that “the Enlightenment is of Christian origin,” there seemed to be a delicious irony to the weekend.

When we hear news we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.” (Voltaire)

Indeed, Voltaire -- who was a deist, not an atheist -- got so pissed at religious authorities that he began to sign his letters “Ecrasez l’Infame” (let us crush the infamous), referring to the Church of Rome, currently guided by Ratzinger. As is well known, the latter was until a few years ago the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition, the very same folks that brought us the burning of Giordano Bruno and the trial of Galileo (though they also inspired the immortal Monty Python skit claiming that “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”).

Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” (Voltaire)

Ratzinger is a conservative Pope by the standards of the last half century or so, who utters much nonsense, as when he defended the “importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work.” In other words, to believe blindly is much more commendable than actually rolling up one’s sleeves and doing something to improve humanity’s lot.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Voltaire)

Pope Benedict made a big show during his visit in the US of looking contrite about the prolonged scandal centering on sexual abuses perpetrated by members of his clergy. But I wonder how many Americans know that he also wrote a letter to Catholic bishops on the subject, claiming that any Church investigation on this and similar matters is to be considered a pontifical secret, and that anyone revealing any detail of it will be excommunicated (which, if you are a Catholic, means eternal damnation in Hell). Sounds to me like his “Holiness” has something to hide.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” (Voltaire)

Ratzinger has made a major point of his efforts to combat “relativism” and “secularism,” terms that he curiously seems to use almost interchangeably. The Pope has complained of a “dictatorship of relativism,” which is actually an oxymoron, given that relativism is the (bad) idea that all opinions are of equal weight, the very opposite of a dictatorship (the Pope, incidentally, is technically a dictator within his own State).

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” (Voltaire)

In a rare display of philosophical ignorance, Benedict actually attributed modern relativism to Kant, because the latter questioned the absolute powers of reason. But there is a huge difference between acknowledging the limits of human reason and rejecting reason altogether. Indeed, Kant is famous for having attempted to establish morality on reason rather than faith, despite being a rather strict Christian himself. Ratzinger has said idiotic things like “Christianity [is] the religion according to reason,” while at the same time rejecting Kant’s project of bringing back reason in our moral discourse.

I’m just glad that I spent my time enjoying Candide rather than going to pay homage to Ratzinger at Yankee Stadium. Ecrasez l’Infame indeed.


  1. Thank you. This is the first logical report of the papal visit that I have come across.

    How can a person be given so much credit, for doing absolutely nothing? Condemning the priest scandal is the least he should do. And 4 years after it originally broke???

    I was literally trapped in my block (not allowed to cross any of the streets) several times over the weekend, simply because this man and his ridiculous entourage were passing by my building. It's utter silliness that someone who has contributed so little to the well-being of humanity, can cause so much of a fuss


  2. Congrats on your nuptuals. I wonder if fear of criticism from the religious right prevented the Times from mentioning your contributions to the secular humanism and anti-creationism scholarship. These credentials seem to me would be one of the more interesting parts of your resume to non-scientists.

  3. The amusing thing is that religious people are the ones who will likely start using relativism against Reason: their campaign against stem-cell research, abortion and euthanasia is framed as a binary choice between life and death. Not to mention Ben Stein's "teach the controversy" plot.
    On a minor note, I believe (wikipedia-level knowledge) that the sentence
    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
    is credited to Evelyn Beatrice Hall (who wrote Voltaire's biography).

  4. MJB,

    thanks for the congrats. Funny you noticed the absence of references to my secular humanist activity from the NYT article. That was how it was pitched to them (by a friend who is a member of NYC Atheists), and both my wife and I stressed the *secular* nature of the ceremony. Oh well.

  5. I'm glad someone mentioned the nuptials. A very heart-warming article in the Times. Both of the ladies are lovely. And you don't look like a botanist at all!

    Congratulations, and may you both be very happy.

  6. "And you don't look like a botanist at all!"

    Well, I'll take that as a compliment! :)

  7. My blog is somewhat of a tribute to that Voltaire quote about certainty being absurd ... that quote is actually my blog's subtitle

    I've also borrowed the “Ecrasez l’Infame” sign off, but for another reason.

    I figure that the conservative movement generates as much - if nor more - reality revision than anything else at the moment so I guessed Voltaire would approve of the usage.

  8. Is there a link to this NYT article?

    Congratulations Massimo!

    And yes, I have always laughed at the tendency of some of the religious to condemn relativism by word, and practice it by actions.

    Bill Maher said some hilarious things about the Pope during his New Rules segment. They are worth watching. Its the second one down on the linked page below. The first one on the page has some good commentary on "Obama's bittergate".

  9. Sheldon, since you asked, the NYT link to the article is:


  10. Hey!
    Parabéns, Massimo! :-)

    All the happiness to the two of you. Lucky guy! Well, I shouldn't say that, it takes away your merit... Let's go for lucky couple, then. That's more like it.

    As for the original post's subject... Nothing to add, really. But Herr Ratzinger does remind me of Uncle Fester...

  11. Congratulations Massimo.

    I'm surprised that in a discussion of the Dope and his morals that no one mentioned his comments in Brazil. Consider the effect that religion can have even in reviewing past genocides. Most of us would look in horror at a culture that came and enslaved, killed, and forcibly converted a huge number of the people already inhabiting a location.

    However, the Dope's take on it was a bit different.

    'American Indians had been "silently longing" to become Christians 500 years ago.'


    Silently longing to be killed, enslaved, forcibly converted and have all of their natural resources exploited by a foreign country? I don't think so.

    Only religion could create such a delusional view of the world.

  12. Hey Massimo, one thing I couldn't help but notice: Is it just me, or does Ratzinger bear a suspicious resemblance to emperor Palpatine?

  13. BTW,I was just going over my old Skeptics' Guide to the Universe episodes, and heard #3 again, when the NESS interviewed you. I was wondering if they've talked to you about being on an episode since then.
    Anyhoo, congratulations on the wedding, and keep up the good work on this site.

  14. No, I haven't been contacted for an interview, though I'm doing a podcast for Internet Infidels this Thursday night at 8 (I don't think it's live).

  15. "Ecrasez l'infame!"

    - What America sorely needs is a Voltaire.

  16. ...Now, having said all this, I'm going to say that you simply don't understand the Pope, and insulting what you don't understand is neither cleverness nor intelligence, it's buffoonery. Benedict was not making the point that charity is bad; since the world gets the word "charity" (caritas, caritatis, Latin) and the idea of a theological selfless love from the Catholic Church, that's a fine claim, you'd think some of us would notice were he actually saying that, but he isn't.

    If you were giving money to a charity which you thought was supposed to be helping orphans in another country, and found out that that charity was shooting the orphans in the head to "free them from their misery" instead of doing something to actually help them, you'd be against it, I assume. That is the equivalent, according to Catholic moral teaching, in both gravity and character, to what certain pro-abortion charities are doing. And Christians, who are almost as confused as you, are helping these charities, not realizing that what they are doing actually harms the whole human person...but then again you guys are probably still materialists so you won't understand what I mean by that. The activists who support these charities are either willfully complicit or equally confused, so we pray for them too.

    The reason the investigation is kept secret, which I would expect a "rationalist" would understand, is that people are irrational and will automatically believe any accusation they hear whether true or false, depending on how they feel at the moment. So you keep the investigation secret in order to prevent the innocent priests (you know, the 98% of them who are innocent?) from getting unjustly crucified by idiots who presume to know what they have no way to know.

    "Dictatorship of relativism" is not an oxymoron for the same reason that "freedom of speech" is not. If everyone weighs every opinion with equal weight, there is no opinion that, however true and right, will ever be considered better. The conclusion of the conversation is always "well, that's YOUR truth, but mine is different", and thus men are turned into stubborn, irrational asses who can't be bothered to discuss the existence of some "humanity", let alone better its lot in any rational way.

    Lastly, as to Kant: There's more than one way to attribute something to someone: as a quality, or as a result. No, Kant was not himself a relativist, but the categorical imperative, founded in act upon nothing other (and I do mean nothing, considering his stance on inclinations) than some abstract "will to duty", was a hair shirt for its followers, because there's no point in doing it. The second you enjoy it, it's amoral. Nietzsche saw this in, of all things, Anti-Christ, and perceptively diagnosed (quite by accident) the problem with the state at the time of academic moral theology, that it was based on Kantian legalism. We have since excised the legalism from the manuals and moved back into Aristotle and Thomas' natural law theory, with which we are very happy.

    But, of course, you PROBABLY, being an Enlightenment buff, fancy Aristotle to be quaint but outdated, and if this is the case, do come back and try and talk once you've graduated from intellectual high school and maybe we can talk then. However, if this is delightfully not the case, and you think you can respond to my claims with the reason you so faithfully profess on your blog title, and not a Hitchensian or Dawkinsian sneer or ad hominem argument, then, you know, I'd be happy to answer any questions.

  17. Professor, being a philosopher who, I assume, instructs the young, you should know better than to twist words out of their context. A thing can be of some origin without having the character spoken of by that origin.

    For example, a child may speak against his parents, but this does not mean that he didn't learn to speak FROM his parents. Or a man may act like a Frenchman; but for all you know he could secretly be a Spaniard. If this were not the case, espionage would be a very silly endeavor.

    Likewise, while Benedict would not for an instant claim that the Enlightenment was Christian in character, the claim that it was Christian in origin is both technically, historically and semantically correct. Descartes was a very independent man, it's true, but he was also a Catholic, more or less devout depending on who's talking and which biography you read, but a Catholic. Furthermore, Isaac Newton was a Christian; hence the General Scholium at the end of his Principia, which, while it may assert that God has a body and His body is gravity, nevertheless must assert God to do so. Berkeley was an Anglican Bishop. Burke was an Anglican accused often of having Catholic sympathies. While one might try and argue that in the Discourse on Method Descartes was esoterically promoting atheism, the history of their lives is at least enough to say that they were educated in the Christian manner.

    Kant and Kierkegaard were both Lutheran pietists; Hegel and Nietzsche were educated in Catholic legal studies...practically ninety percent of the big name Enlightenment philosophers were either Christian or educated by Christians or both. And since to "be" Christian here means to be raised thus, that means all of them had at least their early education in a Christian household.

    I'm not going to get into the case of Bruno, who was not burned at the stake for his science but for being a resoundingly crappy Dominican (I study with them, and let's just say you won't see many pantheist Dominicans, because you'd have to be addle-pated in the extreme to conclude pantheism from anything we now say about God, rationally.) As for Galileo, the fact that you bring him up indicates that while you might fancy yourself a philosopher, I really hope you don't consider yourself a historian.

  18. In 2 1/2 years, Tsunami hasn't gotten an answer to his devastating rebuttal. Not a peep by either the pseudo-philosopher Pigliucci or his followers. Tsunami, I salute you. You've reduced this philistines to silence. No small feat.


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