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Something on the Pope’s speech (and it’s not about Islam!) September 18, 2006

Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.

… well, mostly not about it. It would be a little odd to comment on the recent controversy and not admit that the reaction (or, at least, the reaction we’re presented with – how widespread it is is something I’d need to be convinced of) is a ludicrous overreaction, as are the predictable calls for an apology.

It’s also worth considering how strange it is that the Pope would use a quote about Islam when referring to the tendency to spread religious belief through violence in the late Middle Ages, rather than referring to the record of his own co-religionists at the time. Perhaps pursuing that avenue of investigation might strike a little too close to home for a former head of the Inquisition.

No, much like the Satanic Verses affair, in this case the actual content of the entire speech, and the Pope’s attempt to ‘raise the question of God through the use of reason’ is far more interesting than the sadly predictable uproar surrounding one aspect of it.

What Benedict essentially argues, via some lengthy digressions on the hellenization of Christian doctrine, is that religious belief is not only compatible with reason, but that reason alone is incapable of providing a basis for ‘the dialogue of civilisations’.

Much of the piece is, in fact, taken up with denigrating those who reject the supernatural, religious claims making the quotation from Manuel II Paleologus stand out all the more, as it seems to have little to do with the overall theme.

Benedict’s remarks, strangely enough, are actually quite similar to a recent piece by John Waters in the Irish Times (sub req’d.), where he too tries to both reconcile religious faith with rationality, while at the same time denigrating the claims of a secular worldview.

The difference between the two authors, of course, is that while Benedict seems confident in his position and makes a reasonably coherent case, Waters appears to be throwing together catchphrases he’s picked up over in Rimini, but which he hasn’t subjected to anything even approaching a critical analysis. In one of the more bizarre passages in a profoundly bizarre piece, he writes:

Giussani challenges the assumption that faith and reason follow parallel lines, insisting they are one and the same. Faith exalts rationality because it answers the cry of the human heart for truth, beauty, justice and love. Faith and reason are one because the human longing for perfection has but one answer: God – our identity and our destiny. There are no questions, says Giussani, without answers. Faith is the highest form of rationality because happiness is synonymous with eternity. To speak of God is the most rational thing in the world.


In many ways, this is along the lines of what Benedict argues.

It’s hard to see, on one level, how the assertions of Catholic teaching can be reconciled with rational enquiry unless we understand that what the Pope is referring to when he talks about reason (the good kind, the kind he likes) is not necessarily the same as everyone else’s understanding. He’s referring to Reason, rather than reason, a Platonic, semi-mystical attribute which almost resembles some kind of divine spark enabling us to comprehend the Truth (which, as John Waters helpfully reminds us, is God). It’s like a little piece of God in all of us, handily enough, and is what he means when he talks about God as Logos, or the Word, and when he writes

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 programme 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.


To which Mandy Rice-Davies might reply ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?’. If Reason comes from God in the first place, then obviously it would compatible with faith.

In a deeply disingenuous move, the Pope doesn’t contrast this supernaturally-motivated rationality with the kind of reason many of us would recognise: a sceptical but open-minded approach to debate, a willingness to be convinced by argument and evidence but a refusal to take something on blind faith. No, for Benedict, it’s a choice between religion and (boo! hiss!) ‘science’:

First, only the kind of certainty resulting from the interplay of mathematical and empirical elements can be considered scientific. Anything that would claim to be science must be measured against this criterion. Hence the human sciences, such as history, psychology, sociology and philosophy, attempt to conform themselves to this canon of scientificity.

This simply isn’t true. The definition of science he’s using to has a very limited application, referring really only to the natural sciences. The ‘human sciences’ as he describes them, do not attempt to emulate that kind of ‘scientific’ approach. Rather, they recognise that the nature of a statement like ‘The Mona Lisa is a very pretty picture’ is categorically different from a statement such as ‘2+2 = 5’ or ‘The boiling point of water is 100 degrees celsius’. The fact that one statement may be objectively true, and be proven to be so, while another one cannot be, doesn’t make the latter somehow flawed. It just recognises that the kinds of claims which can be made in one discipline will differ from those made in another, an area looked at by the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations.

Why Benedict needs to equate secular, rational enquiry with a Popperian scientism becomes clear when he goes on to talk about ethics. He writes:

But we must say more: if science as a whole is this and this alone, then it is man himself who ends up being reduced, for the specifically human questions about our origin and destiny, the questions raised by religion and ethics, then have no place within the purview of collective reason as defined by “science”, so understood, and must thus be relegated to the realm of the subjective. The subject then decides, on the basis of his experiences, what he considers tenable in matters of religion, and the subjective “conscience” becomes the sole arbiter of what is ethical.

In this way, though, ethics and religion lose their power to create a community and become a completely personal matter. This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see from the disturbing pathologies of religion and reason which necessarily erupt when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate.


Of course, he’s correct in one sense. Ethical statements can never be proven to be ‘scientifically’ true. And (as I touched on in a previous post on Peter Singer) it’s very difficult to see how there can be any fundamental basis for ethics without some sort of transcendental catch-all like ‘God’ playing a role.

But that doesn’t mean that ‘God is an answer’, as Waters asserts, any more than ‘because I said so’ is. And it’s certainly stretching his case to imply that a faith-system like Catholicism has the ‘power to create a community’ in a way that secular rationalism doesn’t unless, of course, one accepts that the truth-value of a religious claim is irrelevant. Surely if there is no God, then attempt to ‘construct an ethic’ from a religious position is going to be as inadequate as attempts to use evolution, psychology or sociology. And equally, accepting the existence of God simply in order to provide a transcendental basis for morality becomes little more than an exercise in wishful thinking.

In fact, that’s why reason, or reasoned debate, has far more potential for reaching agreement on an issue, including an ethical one, than any religious belief. Reason, in this sense, is not a faith in the same way as Catholicism might be. Rather, it’s better understood as a methodology, a set of ground rules for debate and enquiry.

If I make a particular claim, I should be prepared and able to support it with some kind of evidence or argument. And if I cannot do so when challenged, I should be prepared to concede that an opposing view may, in fact, be the correct one. This applies equally to ethical arguments. Once one can find some kind of common ground with one’s opponent, such as, for example, the Golden Rule (which isn’t an exclusively religious injunction) It is for this reason – the willingness to be convinced otherwise based on something other than one’s own opinion – that it’s dishonest of Benedict to claim that the absence of God leads to a pure subjectivism with the individual conscience being the sole arbiter of all things.

Contrast that with the religious mentality. Religious belief, contra Benedict, is a refusal to engage in argument (or, at least, to accept the possibility that an opposing argument may be true). It represents the abdication of reason, rather than its expansion. If secular ethics requires at least some element of subjective judgement then surely so too does the acceptance of one religious belief over another. As Kierkegaard argued in Fear and Trembling (in his meditation on the story of Abraham and Isaac) religious belief always, fundamentally, requires a ‘leap of faith’ and such a leap is necessarily an irrational one. Yet this, the core aspect of religious belief is something that the Pope prefers not to address in the speech.

Which, in a sense, brings us back to the issue of Islam. If religion itself is, essentially, irrational then how can one rationally distinguish between one religion and another? (i.e. is one religion somehow ‘better’ than another) How can there be any ‘dialogue of cultures’ if ‘culture’ is taken to mean ‘religious faith’ (as seems to be the case in Benedict’s comments)? Dialogue requires the kind of secular rationality described above, the willingness to accept that someone else could be right. If one believes that it’s reasonable to make the ‘leap of faith’ in relation to, say, Catholicism, then why not take the same approach to Islam, or some other dogma? Or, to put it another way, even if we accept the points of the most vehement critics of Islam – that they want to enslave us all, that they view women as chattel, that it’s an inherently violent faith etc. etc – surely these are only negative if the religion itself is untrue.

The same applies to Catholicism. I recall ten years ago, at the time of the Divorce Referendum, people making the point that although they were Catholics, they ‘couldn’t believe’ that God wouldn’t want people to be able to get remarried after marital breakdown. I found this extremely hard to grasp. I mean, if you’re happy to buy into virgin birth, resurrection from death and consubstantiation, then a rather narrow-minded deity isn’t that much of a stretch, is it?

All religious injunctions, therefore, are equally irrational no matter how acceptable the consequences might be from a religious perspective. The problem with the statement ‘God says that women shouldn’t be allowed to leave the house’ or ‘God says you shouldn’t use contraception’ isn’t how it impacts on people’s welfare – it’s the fact that someone believes that ‘God said it’ in the first place.

And there’s no arguing with that!


1. Jena - September 19, 2006

Kierkegaard’s F&T doesn’t say anthing about irrational beliefs. Read it again; Silentio says reason plays very much a role in religion, but not THE role.


2. Pidge - September 19, 2006

But smiffy, the Bible says that God exists.

Come on, it’s the BIBLE! Come on!


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