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Ed Hudgins

The Pope vs. Islam: Who Stands for Reason?

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The Pope vs. Islam: Who Stands for Reason?

by Edward Hudgins

In a long, scholarly dissertation on “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections,” Pope Benedict quoted a Byzantine emperor as saying “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.” While the Pope was not endorsing this view of Islam, Muslims across the world immediately took to the streets in violent, murderous rampages to prove the old emperor right.

As a matter of record, whatever else he was, Mohammad was a man on horseback with a sword who killed people to spread his faith. Of course, during much of its history Christians spread their faith through similar means as well. The example of the sword-wielding Mohammad clearly inspires those Muslims in the streets today demanding death to the Pope, those who demanded the death to the Danish cartoonists who depicted their prophet, those who are calling for the death of the West and the imposition on all of Islam and its totalitarian Sha'ria dictates, and those who are butchering by the thousands one another and anyone else with whom they disagree in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So why are these Islamists not happy that the Pope, perhaps inadvertently, has captured the spirit of their culture so well?

Perhaps it's just the description of these actions and attitudes as "evil" that bothers them? Of course, one wonders whether, when evil individuals are acting in an evil manner -- when a concentration camp commandant is marching Jews to gas chambers or a jihadist is blowing up innocent children -- they think of themselves as "evil"? The key here is that they don't think. They use ideologies and religions that explicitly reject reason and thinking to block out from their minds the nature and full context of what they're doing. They thus fly into emotional rages when someone tries to shine the light of clear thought into their self-generated mental and moral fog.

After all, in the Netherlands Theo van Gogh produced a short film with actual footage of Muslim women being beaten on their naked backs on which passages from the Koran had been scrawled as the Muslim religious fanatics who were tormenting them read out loud those passages that seems to justify this treatment. Rather than thanking van Gogh for spreading their self-professed belief about how women should be treated, Islamists murdered him.

We always hear the objection that most Muslims don't endorse beating women, killing the Pope or putting to the sword all who don't accept Allah. True! But in the Middle East and among Muslims in Europe especially, these attitudes are what bring Islamists into the streets. Why aren't there far more counter-demonstrators calling for tolerance? After all, in America if ten neo-Nazis stage a rally, a hundred anti-Nazis will be there to counter them. If moderates in these countries fear violence against themselves because they call on all individuals to respect one another's liberty to think as they wish, that fact is a statement about Muslim culture that screams as loud as the fanatics in the streets.

The Pope's address does deserve attention, but not based on the rage it motivates among Islamists. In his talk Benedict makes another try at the millennia-old task of squaring reason with faith. He acknowledges the importance of reason in human life. He also maintains that experimental science cannot help us with many of our most important problems, for example, our search of meaning in our lives. He rejects the notion that the "subjective" conscience of each individual should be the sole arbiter of what is ethical. The reason for this rejection is that such an approach would rob ethics -- and religion -- of its power to create a community. The implication is that faith is fundamental part of the path to ethics and community.

But what the Pope fails to appreciate is that one can have an objective ethics based on our nature as rational creatures with free will. We discover our ethical standard through reason, not the application of reason that is most useful for experiments in science laboratories but through the application of logic to observable facts of reality. Further, the ultimate purpose of ethics is to help each individual to live a happy and flourishing life and to define the relationship between individuals within a community, a relationship based on mutual respect of the liberty of others.

It is just this concern with community first -- which can subject and subsume the individual -- and reliance on faith -- the notion that something in addition to our reason and observations is needed to determine the standard of values and right and wrong -- that the Islamists take to their logical conclusion.

The Pope wants to reason with them but they have rejected reason. The Pope wants to argue that neither Islam nor Christianity should endorse violence but Islamists don't argue, they take up the sword. There is indeed a tradition in Islam that looks to rational thought; indeed, it was civilized Muslim scholars who re-introduced the works of Aristotle into backwards, Dark Age Christian Europe nearly a millennium ago. But too few of the Muslim scholars in that tradition today influence the culture of their co-religionists.

The Pope is discussing the right issues. The nature and direction of our world today is the result of the conflict between reason and individualism on the one hand and faith and collectivism on the other. But what all must understand is that the problems in today's world are caused by the latter and can find their solution only in the former.


Hudgins is the executive director of The Atlas Society and its Objectivist Center, which celebrate human achievement.

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The Pope vs. Islam: Who Stands for Reason?

In the interest of "compare/contrast", I thought I'd post this interesting analysis on the same topic from George Friedman of Stratfor...



Faith, Reason and Politics: Parsing the Pope's Remarks

By George Friedman

On Sept. 12, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on "Faith, Reason and the University" at the University of Regensburg. In his discussion (full text available on the Vatican Web site) the pope appeared to be trying to define a course between dogmatic faith and cultural relativism -- making his personal contribution to the old debate about faith and reason. In the course of the lecture, he made reference to a "part of the dialogue carried on -- perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara -- by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both."

Benedict went on to say -- and it is important to read a long passage to understand his point -- that:

"In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that Sura 2,256 reads: 'There is no compulsion in religion.' According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Quran, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the 'Book' and the 'infidels,' he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness which leaves us astounded, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: '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, after having expressed himself so forcefully, 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,' he says, '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 ...'

"The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: 'For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent.'"

The reaction of the Muslim world -- outrage -- came swift and sharp over the passage citing Manuel II: "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." Obviously, this passage is a quote from a previous text -- but equally obviously, the pope was making a critical point that has little to do with this passage.

The essence of this passage is about forced conversion. It begins by pointing out that Mohammed spoke of faith without compulsion when he lacked political power, but that when he became strong, his perspective changed. Benedict goes on to make the argument that violent conversion -- from the standpoint of a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, and therefore shaped by the priority of reason -- is unacceptable. For someone who believes that God is absolutely transcendent and beyond reason, the argument goes, it is acceptable.

Clearly, Benedict knows that Christians also practiced forced conversion in their history. He also knows that the Aristotelian tendency is not unique to Christianity. In fact, that same tendency exists in the Muslim tradition, through thinkers such as al-Farabi or Avicenna. These stand in relation to Islam as Thomas Aquinas does to Christianity or Maimonides to Judaism. And all three religions struggle not only with the problem of God versus science, but with the more complex and interesting tripolar relationship of religion as revelation, reason and dogmatism. There is always that scriptural scholar, the philosopher troubled by faith and the local clergyman who claims to speak for God personally.

Benedict's thoughtful discussion of this problem needs to be considered. Also to be considered is why the pope chose to throw a hand grenade into a powder keg, and why he chose to do it at this moment in history. The other discussion might well be more worthy of the ages, but this question -- what did Benedict do, and why did he do it -- is of more immediate concern, for he could have no doubt what the response, in today's politically charged environment, was going to be.

A Deliberate Move

Let's begin with the obvious: Benedict's words were purposely chosen. The quotation of Manuel II was not a one-liner, accidentally blurted out. The pope was giving a prepared lecture that he may have written himself -- and if it was written for him, it was one that he carefully read. Moreover, each of the pope's public utterances are thoughtfully reviewed by his staff, and there is no question that anyone who read this speech before it was delivered would recognize the explosive nature of discussing anything about Islam in the current climate. There is not one war going on in the world today, but a series of wars, some of them placing Catholics at risk.

It is true that Benedict was making reference to an obscure text, but that makes the remark all the more striking; even the pope had to work hard to come up with this dialogue. There are many other fine examples of the problem of reason and faith that he could have drawn from that did not involve Muslims, let alone one involving such an incendiary quote. But he chose this citation and, contrary to some media reports, it was not a short passage in the speech. It was about 15 percent of the full text and was the entry point to the rest of the lecture. Thus, this was a deliberate choice, not a slip of the tongue.

As a deliberate choice, the effect of these remarks could be anticipated. Even apart from the particular phrase, the text of the speech is a criticism of the practice of conversion by violence, with a particular emphasis on Islam. Clearly, the pope intended to make the point that Islam is currently engaged in violence on behalf of religion, and that it is driven by a view of God that engenders such belief. Given Muslims' protests (including some violent reactions) over cartoons that were printed in a Danish newspaper, the pope and his advisers certainly must have been aware that the Muslim world would go ballistic over this. Benedict said what he said intentionally, and he was aware of the consequences. Subsequently, he has not apologized for what he said -- only for any offense he might have caused. He has not retracted his statement.

So, why this, and why now?

Political Readings

Consider the fact that the pope is not only a scholar but a politician -- and a good one, or he wouldn't have become the pope. He is not only a head of state, but the head of a global church with a billion members. The church is no stranger to geopolitics. Muslims claim that they brought down communism in Afghanistan. That may be true, but there certainly is something to be said also for the efforts of the Catholic Church, which helped to undermine the communism in Poland and to break the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe. Popes know how to play power politics.

Thus, there are at least two ways to view Benedict's speech politically.

One view derives from the fact that the pope is watching the U.S.-jihadist war. He can see it is going badly for the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He witnessed the recent success of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas' political victory among the Palestinians. Islamists may not have the fundamental strength to threaten the West at this point, but they are certainly on a roll. Also, it should be remembered that Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, was clearly not happy about the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, but it does not follow that his successor is eager to see a U.S. defeat there.

The statement that Benedict made certainly did not hurt U.S. President George W. Bush in American politics. Bush has been trying to portray the war against Islamist militants as a clash of civilizations, one that will last for generations and will determine the future of mankind. Benedict, whether he accepts Bush's view or not, offered an intellectual foundation for Bush's position. He drew a sharp distinction between Islam and Christianity and then tied Christianity to rationality -- a move to overcome the tension between religion and science in the West. But he did not include Islam in that matrix. Given that there is a war on and that the pope recognizes Bush is on the defensive, not only in the war but also in domestic American politics, Benedict very likely weighed the impact of his words on the scale of war and U.S. politics. What he said certainly could be read as words of comfort for Bush. We cannot read Benedict's mind on this, of course, but he seemed to provide some backing for Bush's position.

It is not entirely clear that Pope Benedict intended an intellectual intervention in the war. The church obviously did not support the invasion of Iraq, having criticized it at the time. On the other hand, it would not be in the church's interests to see the United States simply routed. The Catholic Church has substantial membership throughout the region, and a wave of Islamist self-confidence could put those members and the church at risk. From the Vatican's perspective, the ideal outcome of the war would be for the United States to succeed -- or at least not fail -- but for the church to remain free to criticize Washington's policies and to serve as conciliator and peacemaker. Given the events of the past months, Benedict may have felt the need for a relatively gentle intervention -- in a way that warned the Muslim world that the church's willingness to endure vilification as a Crusader has its limits, and that he is prepared, at least rhetorically, to strike back. Again, we cannot read his mind, but neither can we believe that he was oblivious to events in the region and that, in making his remarks, he was simply engaged in an academic exercise.

This perspective would explain the timing of the pope's statement, but the general thrust of his remarks has more to do with Europe.

There is an intensifying tension in Europe over the powerful wave of Muslim immigration. Frictions are high on both sides. Europeans fear that the Muslim immigrants will overwhelm their native culture or form an unassimilated and destabilizing mass. Muslims feel unwelcome, and some extreme groups have threatened to work for the conversion of Europe. In general, the Vatican's position has ranged from quiet to calls for tolerance. As a result, the Vatican was becoming increasingly estranged from the church body -- particularly working and middle-class Catholics -- and its fears.

As has been established, the pope knew that his remarks at Regensburg would come under heavy criticism from Muslims. He also knew that this criticism would continue despite any gestures of contrition. Thus, with his remarks, he moved toward closer alignment with those who are uneasy about Europe's Muslim community -- without adopting their own, more extreme, sentiments. That move increases his political strength among these groups and could cause them to rally around the church. At the same time, the pope has not locked himself into any particular position. And he has delivered his own warning to Europe's Muslims about the limits of tolerance.

It is obvious that Benedict delivered a well-thought-out statement. It is also obvious that the Vatican had no illusions as to how the Muslim world would respond. The statement contained a verbal blast, crafted in a way that allowed Benedict to maintain plausible deniability. Indeed, the pope already has taken the exit, noting that these were not his thoughts but those of another scholar. The pope and his staff were certainly aware that this would make no difference in the grand scheme of things, save for giving Benedict the means for distancing himself from the statement when the inevitable backlash occurred. Indeed, the anger in the Muslim world remained intense, and there also have been emerging pockets of anger among Catholics over the Muslim world's reaction to the pope, considering the history of Islamic attacks against Christianity. Because he reads the newspapers -- not to mention the fact that the Vatican maintains a highly capable intelligence service of its own -- Benedict also had to have known how the war was going, and that his statement likely would aid Bush politically, at least indirectly. Finally, he would be aware of the political dynamics in Europe and that the statement would strengthen his position with the church's base there.

The question is how far Benedict is going to go with this. His predecessor took on the Soviet Union and then, after the collapse of communism, started sniping at the United States over its materialism and foreign policy. Benedict may have decided that the time has come to throw the weight of the church against radical Islamists. In fact, there is a logic here: If the Muslims reject Benedict's statement, they have to acknowledge the rationalist aspects of Islam. The burden is on the Ummah to lift the religion out of the hands of radicals and extremist scholars by demonstrating that Muslims can adhere to reason.

From an intellectual and political standpoint, therefore, Benedict's statement was an elegant move. He has strengthened his political base and perhaps legitimized a stronger response to anti-Catholic rhetoric in the Muslim world. And he has done it with superb misdirection. His options are open: He now can move away from the statement and let nature take its course, repudiate it and challenge Muslim leaders to do the same with regard to anti-Catholic statements or extend and expand the criticism of Islam that was implicit in the dialogue.

The pope has thrown a hand grenade and is now observing the response. We are assuming that he knew what he was doing; in fact, we find it impossible to imagine that he did not. He is too careful not to have known. Therefore, he must have anticipated the response and planned his partial retreat.

It will be interesting to see if he has a next move. The answer to that may be something he doesn't know himself yet.

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Distribution and Reprints

This report may be distributed or republished with attribution to Strategic Forecasting, Inc. at

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Since the Pope is such a high-profile voice, even a small step in the direction toward reason is a blessing.

If one can accept a sort of package deal of putting faith/reason on one side and calling it "intellect" and putting force on the other side, I find that I like what the Pope said. He essentially said that force must be abandoned as a form of intellectual persuasion. This is what Christianity did and now this is what Islam must do.

I also agree with the analysis by Friedman that Christian posted. The Pope knew this would ignite a violent reaction. It illustrated his message in a pretty eloquent manner. One way to stop foolishness is to trick the fool into being obvious before a large audience, and then let others call him a fool.

I like your point about how a person doing evil gets infuriated when his acts are brought to the light of reason in his own mind. This is an important theme that pro-reason intellectuals need to exploit mercilessly.

Every time the hypocrisy is brought to light of how an Islamic believer beaten into belief is not really a believer, but merely a person subdued - thus no real persuasion took place (thus to the religious, Allah was not really served well), there is the possibility of one or more Muslims having the seed of doubt grow in their souls. Before the faith versus reason issue will have any impact at all on Islam, Muslims must go through the step of analyzing the issue of force as a form of intellectual persuasion and reject force once and for all. Keeping the flame alive on this force/intellect issue is what I see as one of the main tasks of today's intellectuals in the war of ideas against Islam. This is a far more effective and noble enterprise than constantly denouncing Islam as evil at this stage, which only preaches to the choir.

A highly religious Islamist adult will not be persuaded by Rand's books to abandon his religion, but he can be persuaded by the first stirring of reason in his soul: that it is better for a man to believe of his own will than to be beaten into submission (i.e., in his mind, that persuasion is for the greater glory of Allah, while beatings and fear do not really serve Allah). Once that seed starts growing, together with the seed of doubt about the evil of violence, his children can be persuaded better by reason.

I am glad I read your article because it prompted me to clarify my own thinking in terms of what needs to be done. More stories need to be told and retold like the plight of Theo van Gogh. More productions like he made need to be done.

On a side note, what I find ironic is that the Pope apparently fortified his position by bringing reason back on the table, but in the medium/long-term, I think he might be in for a surprise at how this plays out. If he asks the faithful to use more reason, they just might take his advice.


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Christian -- Thanks for posting the thoughtful Friedman piece. And MSK -- thanks for your remarks. I always think it's good to accentuate and play up the positive. If the Pope wants to strongly promote the pro-reason side of the Catholic tradition, that's good. I believe this was just the process -- promoting Thomist philosphy -- that helped usher in free thinking and the Renaissance.

In the case of Islam, I think the more rational Muslims who are closer to the Enlightenment tradition ultimately will need to counter their-irrational co-religionists since the irrationalists are not likely to listen to the Pope. Yes, it could be dangerous, but this points to the seriousness of the situation.

I'm thinking a lot about culture as the most important influence on the ideas and attitudes of most people. Culture is different from the fomal beliefs of a religion; after all, Catholics with an Augustinian outlook and with a Thomist outlook might practice their religions in very different ways and thus create very different worlds. Culture is also tougher to influence and change. But in the long run culture is crucial for a free, rational society.

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