Reason and Religion

Reason and Religion

All but lost amid the protest to Pope Benedict XVI's speech in September 2006 was the complex point he was trying to make.

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The source: “Socrates or Muhammad? Joseph Ratzinger on the Destiny of Reason” by Lee Harris, in The Weekly Standard, Oct. 2, ­2006.

All but lost amid the firestorm of responses to Pope Benedict XVI’s September 12 speech about faith and reason was the argument he was trying to advance. Muslims, along with major news outlets, focused most of their attention on a small section of the speech, in which the pope quoted Manuel II Paleologus, 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.”

The pope did not mean to ­in­flame—­or even to ­address—­Muslims, says Lee Harris, the author of Civili­zation and Its Enemies (2004). Rath­er, he was taking aim chiefly at secular thinkers in the West, by pointing out the severe limitations of modern ­reason—­scientific reason, which excludes whatever is not scientifically provable from “the universe of rea­son.”  Modern reason has nothing to say on questions of ethics and reli­gion, and no response to offer Islamic radicals because matters of faith be­long to the irrational. In the ­pre-­Enlighten­ment world, the pope relates, reason emanated from the questioning model established by Socrates, and it was possible to confront issues in ethics, just as Manuel II did over the relative merits of Christianity and Islam. “To convince a reasonable soul,” the emperor asserts, “one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind.” Reason will yield the answer as to which faith is the truer ­one.

The pope’s larger point is precisely that reason has strayed so far from its roots that it has lost the ability to render such judgments. It is profoundly significant to the pope that the Greek word logos means both “reason” and “­word”—­as in “In the beginning was the Word . . ­.”—and that this conjunction forms, in the pope’s view, “an encounter between genuine enlightenment and religion. From the very heart of Christian faith . . .  Manuel II was able to say: Not to act ‘with logos’ is contrary to God’s nature.”

The pope recognizes that this same conjunction of Greek thought and religious faith that led to the Enlightenment in the West also spawned philosophers such as Immanuel Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, 1781). Under Kant’s withering gaze, Harris writes, “all religious faiths are equally irrational, all systems of ethics equally unverifiable.” The pope finds this state of affairs not only unac­cept­able but even “danger­ous . . . for humanity.” He has no desire to reject modernity, but asks, “Can modern reason really stand on the sidelines of a clash between a religion that commands jihad and a religion that forbids violent conversion?”

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