Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Pope, Islam and the Enlightenment

Pope Benedict XVI, previously known as Joseph Alois Ratzinger, gave a lecture approximately two weeks ago at University of Regensburg, in Bavaria, Germany in which he made reference to a quote by the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. Quoting the emperor, he said:

“Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find
things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the
faith he preached.”

The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the
faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with
the nature of God and the nature of the soul.

“God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to
God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead
someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without
violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a
strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person
with death....”

As you are probably aware, there have been riots in various Muslim countries and a nun was killed in Somalia in reaction to the comments. The Pope has issued an apology for those taking offense and defended himself by saying he was only quoting what someone else had said.

I feel American writers are usually very namby-pamby when it comes to saying anything that might be construed as critical of the Catholic Church in general and the Pope in particular. It seems British writers are more willing to get right to the point when addressing topics relating to religion. Therefore, I’m sharing the views of two Brits below.

Christopher Hitchens is never one to suffer fools. He writes,

Attempting to revive his moribund church on a visit to Germany, where the
Roman congregations are increasingly sparse, Joseph Ratzinger (as I shall always
think of him) has managed to do a moderate amount of harm—and absolutely no
good—to the very tense and distraught discussion now in progress between Europe and Islam. …

After the most perfunctory introduction, Ratzinger goes straight to his
choice of quotation, which is taken from 14th-century Byzantine Emperor Manuel
II. This potentate supposedly once engaged in debate—the precise time and place
is unknown—with an unnamed Persian. The subject was Christianity and Islam. The Byzantine asks the Persian to "show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." (On the face of it, not a very open-ended inquiry.) But, warming to his own theme, the purple-clad monarch of Constantinople allegedly added that "to convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death."

Now, you do not have to be a Muslim to think that for the bishop of
Rome to cite this is the most perfect hypocrisy. There would have been no
established Byzantine or Roman Christianity if the faith had not been spread and
maintained and enforced by every kind of violence and cruelty and coercion. To
take Islam's own favorite self-pitying example: It was the Catholic crusaders
who sacked and burned Christian Byzantium on their way to Palestine—and that was only after they had methodically set about the Jews, so the Muslim world was
actually only the third victim of this barbarity. …Yet of all the words he could
have chosen, to suggest that religion might wish to break its old connection
with conquest, intolerance, and subjugation, Ratzinger had to select an example
that was designed to remind his hearers of the crudest excesses of the medieval
period. His mention of Manuel II was evidently not accidental or anecdotal. He
refers to him repeatedly and returns to him again in the closing paragraph, as
if to rub it in.

The Muslim protesters are actually being highly ungrateful. When the
embassies of Denmark were being torched earlier this year, Rome managed a few
words of protest about … the inadvisability of profane cartoons. In almost every
confrontation between Islam and the West, or Islam and Israel, the Vatican has
either split the difference or helped to ventriloquize Muslim grievances. Most
of all, throughout his address to the audience at Regensburg, the man who
modestly considers himself the vicar of Christ on Earth maintained a steady
attack on the idea that reason and the individual conscience can be preferred to
faith. He pretends that the word Logos can mean either "the word" or "reason,"
which it can in Greek but never does in the Bible, where it is presented as
heavenly truth. He mentions Kant and Descartes in passing, leaves out Spinoza
and Hume entirely, and dishonestly tries to make it seem as if religion and the
Enlightenment and science are ultimately compatible, when the whole effort of
free inquiry always had to be asserted, at great risk, against the fantastic
illusion of "revealed" truth and its all-too-earthly human potentates. It is
often said—and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate—that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. Now its new reactionary leader has really "offended" the Muslim world, while simultaneously asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon—reason—that we possess in these dark times. A fine day's work, and one that we could well have done without.

Johann Hari considers not only what the Pope said in Bavaria but the impact of his anti-Enlightenment messages are having on the Third World, in particular as it pertains to birth control and AIDS prevention. He writes,
Both Joseph Ratzinger and the Islamists calling for his decapitation
believe they have direct access to an invisible supernatural being called “God”.
Both believe this God wills them to make decisions that have led to the horrific
deaths of tens of thousands of people. Both believe this God finds secular
democratic Europe disgusting, an atheistic bog dominated by a “culture of
death.” Both hate feminism and gay rights and sexual freedom. Both believe they
are infallible, and that the billions who refuse to follow them are incurring
the wrath of the Creator of the Universe. The only real difference is the name
they give to this creature, and a few added textual tweaks on either side.

The tragedy is that when there are so many good reasons to hate Joseph
Ratzinger, this week’s rioters have chosen one of the few bogus ones. For over a
decade now, he has been one of the primary defenders of priests who go to the
poorest, most vulnerable people in the world and tell them condoms are the cause
of AIDS. In the past year, I have sat in two Catholic churches thousands of
miles apart and listened while a Catholic priest told illiterate people with no
alternative sources of information that condoms come pre-infected with AIDS and
are the reason people die of it. In Bukavu, a crater-city in Congo, and in the
slums ringing Caracas, Venezuela, people believed it. They told me they “would
not go to Heaven” if they used condoms, and that condoms contain tiny invisible
holes through which the virus passes – the advice their priest had doled out.

I did not stumble across a pair of freakish exceptions. A slew of human
rights groups have documented how these lethal lies have been orchestrated by
the Vatican itself, with Ratzinger humming along in the background. The
president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso
Lopez Trujillo, said, “The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the
spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed
by the condom.” These people have not been sacked by Ratzinger; many have been promoted.

… there is a deeper philosophical repugnance to Ratzinger lying beneath
these individual decisions. His recent lecture was devoted to the premise that
the free pursuit of reason will lead all people to a rational belief in the
Christian God described in the Bible. (You know – the God who explicitly
supports slavery, commits genocide against the Amelkites, stones prostitutes,
and feeds small children to bears). The Christian God is Reason Personified,
while the Muslim God is “beyond reason” – hence the fuss. But this
intra-superstitious squabble is not the real outrage.

However much he swears it is not, this argument is deeply
anti-Enlightenment. The central insight of the Enlightenment is that there are
two fundamentally different ways to understand the world. One is divine
revelation, where a being contacts you from another realm and discloses some
truth. (Another word for this is ‘hallucination’). The second method is reason –
observing the world empirically, and drawing conclusions from the things we
observe. The ultimate expression of reason is the scientific method. These
approaches are fundamentally contrasting, and you cannot simply weld them
together with contorted theological trickery.

By claiming that divine revelation leads to reason – indeed, is its central
underpinning – Ratzinger is subtly attacking the core principles of the
Enlightenment. There is nothing we can observe in the world that leads us
rationally to conclude a magical creature created it. But Ratzinger wants to be
able to claim the fruits of the Enlightenment, like science, without following
its basic principles. Whenever people do try to stretch reason to accord with
faith – as he demands – they invariably produce contorted, corrupted unreason
like the absurdity of ‘intelligent design theory’ (which should be dubbed
Creationism 2.0).

Of course, none of Ratzinger’s lies justify threats of violence against
him. For decades now, he has been saying atheists have “no morality” and are
“depraved”, and that homosexuality is “an objective disorder” and “evil” – far
worse insults than last week’s cagey, quickly-retracted half-slur on Muslims –
and it never occurred to us to respond by attacking Catholic children or nuns
working with the starving. We mocked the sex advice of an elderly virgin, gave
money to aid agencies trying to correct his poisonous lies, and got on with our
lives. The cool balm of reason is the way to put down God’s most rabid
Rottweiler – not the furious fire of a parallel fundamentalism.

You may read Hitchens here and Hari here in their entirety.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? 13: Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. 14: If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. 15: For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. 16: Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. 17: If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. 18: I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me. 19: Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he. 20: Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. John 13:12-20