It didn’t particularly insult Islam, but the Pope’s lecture was dire anyway

I always say there’s no better way to spend a Saturday morning than to read a lecture given by the Pope. A recent speech has caused something of a fuss by mentioning Mohammed in relation to violence. It is apparently a huge shock that the Pope doesn’t like Islam much. It’s not like he’s head of a Church who think they have the monopoly on the truth and all other religions are wrong, or anything.

The pertinent point about Mohammed is made in setting up the idea of the argument between religion and reason. It’s not really making any statements about Islam, and actually works ok as a point, but let’s not pretend there aren’t thousands of other ways of introducing the idea. No matter what I may suspect about the critical faculties of the Vatican, there’s no way nobody realised that mentioning Islam in this context would cause a stir. It’s hard to see it as anything but deliberate.

Much of the reaction is because of the ‘offensive’ nature of the remarks. As articulated by the Labour Humanist, the demands for an apology are stupid. It’s a point of view; if you disagree you should argue with the idea, not the person’s right to say it. Some are complaining about the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church making comments about violence and religion, but that’s also silly – hypocrisy is always a crap argument as it says nothing about the question itself.

But the rest of the lecture is fascinating to read as an insight into the mind of a high-ranking religious official. Half of it is a description of the philosophical insanity that results from trying to insert unjustified faith into a rational worldview, and then comes a full-on attack on the idea of scientific reasoning. It reads like the ramblings of a madman. How else to explain this kind of thing:

In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata. Beyond this is the realm of God’s freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done. This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of 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, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions. As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which – as the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 stated – unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language. God does not become more divine when we push him away from us in a sheer, impenetrable voluntarism; rather, the truly divine God is the God who has revealed himself as logos [reason] and, as logos, has acted and continues to act lovingly on our behalf. Certainly, love, as Saint Paul says, “transcends” knowledge and is thereby capable of perceiving more than thought alone (cf. Eph 3:19); nonetheless it continues to be love of the God who is Logos. Consequently, Christian worship is, again to quote Paul – “8@(46¬ 8″JD,\””, worship in harmony with the eternal Word and with our reason (cf. Rom 12:1).1

During GCSE maths my teacher wrote down a formula and using valid mathematical logic ‘proved’ that 2=3. He asked us to show him why it was wrong, which stumped even the best in the class. It turned out that the initial formula he’d given us was simply incorrect. Garbage in, garbage out. Working from a baseless premise results in the above nonsense. The time and effort put into jumping through philosophical hoops to try to link conjecture with the real world just results in statements that sound profound but in fact mean nothing at all. “between God and us…there exists a real analogy, in which…unlikeliness remains infinitely greater than likeliness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language’. What? What on earth could that possibly mean?

After this we’re off into more standard territory, which really boils down to tantrum.

This gives rise to two principles which are crucial for the issue we have raised. 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. A second point, which is important for our reflections, is that by its very nature this method excludes the question of God, making it appear an unscientific or pre-scientific question. Consequently, we are faced with a reduction of the radius of science and reason, one which needs to be questioned.

Pre-scientific? Anyway, this is followed by:

[I]f 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.

Stalin. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. No mention of the entire middle east, where the complete opposite is true. A return to good old-fashioned authoritarian morality is what we need. We can’t have people thinking for themselves, or using levels of human happiness to inform their morality. Far better to be told what to do by an inconsistent, morally-bankrupt-by-any-standards, made-up deity.

And finally, in the conclusion, we come to the throwing-the-toys-out-of-the-pram moment:

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. For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.

Hasn’t philosophy been dealing with this for hundreds of years anyway? Hume? Russell? This is really just having a strop that unjustified faith has been rejected by modern philosophy and that the scientific method doesn’t allow people to make shit up and say it’s true. Why aren’t people paying attention to me?! There’s no need for me to provide evidence, because there just isn’t! Anyway, religious tradition = data!

It’s like me demanding the entire idea of empirical evidence be dropped because I can’t prove there’s a dragon in my garage. No matter how broad, ancient or popular the idea, you still have to provide evidence. Science is a truth machine open to all, not a dogmatic cult, and you can’t rewrite the rules just because it suits you.

  1. I don’t know what the “8@(46¬ 8″JD,\” is all about. I guess the pdf couldn’t format something properly, unless it’s a way of referencing that I’ve never seen before. []