A jihad on secularism

Benedict has fired a warning shot across the bow of the Enlightenment Project, but its crew was asleep.
Michael Cook | Sep 22 2006 | comment  



Despite the torrent of words, the riots, the burnt churches, and the slaughter of an aged nun and her bodyguard which followed Pope Benedict XVI's address at the University of Regensburg, hardly anyone seems to have read it. Or rather, the mobs and the media have read one paragraph in which he quotes, without endorsing, words of a 14th century Byzantine emperor: "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."

In fact, the real targets of his understated but aggressive attack appear to have snored right through it: the professors in the audience. They are the ones who should have howling in the streets. Muslims should rejoice at finding an ally in spurning the corrosive values of modernity. Had they read the address attentively they might have linked arms with Benedict to wage jihad – an intellectual jihad -- on the secularism which is threatening Christians and Muslims alike.

The Pope’s speech was a masterful diagnosis of the malaise of Western culture which, in his words, is leading to "disturbing pathologies of religion and reason". If anyone should feel threatened, it is the apparatchiks in Brussels who tried to redraft the European Union's constitution to exclude Christianity. Like John Paul II, Benedict insists that European culture is unintelligible without its founding faith. The convergence of the Jewish Bible and Greek philosophical inquiry, together with Roman law, he insists, "created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe".

Both Benedict, as head of a Church which claims the loyalty of a fifth of the planet, and pious Muslims, which represent another fifth, are distressed at seeing God banished from public life by secularism. But instead of sending out his Swiss guards as suicide bombers, Benedict, quite sensibly, is trying to understand it. In fact, the central theme of his address was to warn secularists that denying the claim of religion to take its place in the public square will ultimately be self-destructive.

These ideas are hardly original. Much of what Benedict said in Regensburg echoes John Paul II’s magisterial encyclical Fides et Ratio. But since the substance of his speech has been largely ignored in media coverage, perhaps because it contained the names of too many Dead White Males, they deserve, and repay, careful attention.

The Enlightenment project

The boast of the Enlightenment, the dominant ideology of the last two centuries, is that the claims of science are rational because they are verifiable by observation and experiment. Whatever cannot be measured and calibrated must be dismissed as superstition or mere personal taste. A clear recent instance of this has been thrown up in the debate over the use of embryonic stem cells. The nub of this is whether a human embryo is a human being. But this is a non-issue, according to stem cell researchers. You can’t see human-ness, so it is beyond the scope of rational debate.

This sort of agnosticism is not merely absurd, Benedict contends; it is literally unreasonable: "The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby." His address criticises this "reduction of the radius of science and reason" on two grounds. The first is a warning: he points out that a rationality which cannot satisfy legitimate aspirations for transcendence is in deep trouble. And not just over embryos.

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.

A madrasseh inIn other words, the philosophy of the Enlightenment is utterly incapable of confronting the crisis of Islamic terrorism. There is a dialogue in the recent film Syriana which vividly illustrates the Islamic perspective on this. In an unnamed Gulf state a madrassa cleric is instructing young men (two of whom become suicide bombers):

 They will try... to make Muslims who speak about religion appear to be fanatics or backward people. They will tell us the dispute is over economic resources or military domination and if we believe that we play right into their hands, with only ourselves to blame. No. The divide between human nature and modern life cannot be bridged by free trade. No. It cannot be cured with deregulation, privatisation, openness or lower taxes. No.The pain of living in the modern world will never be solved by a liberal society. Liberal societies have failed. Christian theology has failed. The West has failed. The divine and the worldly are but a single concept and that concept is Koran. No separation of religion and state -- Koran. Instead of Kings legislating and slaves obeying -- Koran.

This is only half true, of course. The Enlightenment’s liberal society has failed, but not Christian theology. In the philosophical synthesis which prevailed in Europe until Luther, reason was deemed capable of examining and appreciating spiritual realities. And as rationalistic philosophy becomes more decrepit, it is once again gaining ground, thanks in part to the efforts of John Paul II and his German successor.

 Can science explain itself?

Part two of Benedict’s critique is a question. What justifies scientists’ confidence that nature follows rational laws? The assumptions underpinning science are ultimately inexplicable without resorting to philosophy, he argues. The world of the Enlightenment is incoherent, because it cannot explain why nature operates "reasonably".

 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.

In his speech Benedict fondly recalled the "profound sense of coherence within the universe of reason" that he felt when he was a lecturer at the University of Bonn. Those days are long gone. In fact, even back in 1959 the university crisis was evident. The British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow had identified the malaise in his influential book The Two Cultures, in which he observed that the physical sciences and the humanities could no longer talk to each other. Already it was becoming impossible to assert that there were objective moral truths. Nowadays the truth of this is almost beyond dispute. Moral standards are deemed to be socially conditioned and changeable by any democratically elected legislature.

In no place is the failure of the Enlightenment project more obvious than in the place where it began – in Western universities, which is no doubt why Benedict chose to launch his manifesto there. The acid of post-modernism has eroded students’ respect for the Enlightenment values of truth and free inquiry. Scepticism is the reigning ideology nowadays amongst academics, especially in the humanities. Such is the suspicion of rational thought that the glory of Enlightenment science, the Principia Mathematica, has been derided, in a notorious book, as "Newton’s rape manual".

A message for Muslims

Where does Islam fit into this critique? What cryptic message was Benedict sending when he bookended his speech with allusions to an obscure and tendentious dialogue between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian sage?

The pundits say that he was rebuking Islam for attempting to win converts with swords and suicide bombers. Obviously, but he had a more ambitious goal as well: to persuade thoughtful Muslims that the ravages of modernity and terrorist violence ultimately spring from the same root -– a stunted understanding of the scope of human reason. The terrorists, Benedict suggests, believe in "a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God." Similarly, followers of the Enlightenment assert that one can say nothing meaningful about God and nothing certain about morality.

What is the solution? "The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur": an inspiring goal indeed. Whether Benedict has come in time to rescue reason from its tormenters is another thing. I hope so.

Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.



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