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Ayatollah Benedict attacks Islam and reason

25 September 2006. A World to Win News Service.

Given how much commentary Pope Benedict XVI’s recent remarks have produced, it is amazing how few commentators seem to have carefully read them, or if they have, what powerful political and philosophical blinders have prevented them from seeing what is there.  

That the pope attacked Islam is undeniable. In fact, it may have been a conscious provocation, meant to trigger an “unreasonable” reaction from defenders of Islam and thus demonstrate Benedict’s central point in his speech: that his religion, and his religion alone, is consistent with reason. Most responses to this speech have been restricted to a for-or-against Islam framework and avoided dealing with the deeper issues about truth, reason and religion – all religions. 

Why, except as a deliberate insult, would have Benedict started by quoting, without commentary, a 14th-century statement by a Christian emperor at war with Islam who 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”?  

What makes this statement so objectionable is not that it offends Moslems or even just that it was meant to do so but that it’s not true. Spreading the faith by the sword was not introduced by Islam, nor is there anything more violent about it than Christianity or Judaism. The sword spread the Catholic faith – from the wars to establish Papal authority and the ethnic cleansing of rival Christian communities such as the Albigensians in medieval France, to the forced conversions of Moslems and Jews in Spain and Portugal and the Inquisition’s burning as “heretics” those who sought a more scientific understanding of the world and a more just world than offered by Catholicism. The Roman religion would be practised by far fewer people today if, for instance, the Spanish conquerors had not used their steel to impose it in the Americas and the Philippines. The theory and practice of the use of violence for religious aims goes back to the Old Testament, which Judaism, Christianity and Islam have in common. In the Christian New Testament (Matthew), Jesus proclaims, “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth. I have come not to bring peace but a sword.” So it is the height of intellectual dishonesty and moral hypocrisy for the pope to accuse Islam of inventing something “new” in this regard.  

There are clear and very seriously harmful political motives behind this speech that many insiders did get. The Vatican correspondent for the American National Catholic Reporter, among other Church experts, linked this speech to the pope’s recent removal of “the Vatican’s leading dove in its relationship with Muslims,” his March closed-door and still secret speech to all 179 of his cardinals that reportedly focused on Islam, and his opposition, on religious grounds, to Turkish membership in the European Union. Compared to his predecessor John Paul II, that correspondent wrote, this pope “is more of a hawk on Islam”. In Benedict’s own words, his public stance toward Islam will be, first and foremost, not conciliatory in the manner of John Paul, but “frank” – which means openly critical of Islam as a religion.  

The New York Times wrote that Benedict’s September speech “marked a turning point in this papacy, and perhaps a historical moment of clarity:  that just as his predecessor, John Paul II, played a key role in ending communism, supporters say that Benedict’s role may be to speak out against radical Islam.”  

A correction has to be made to this nonetheless surprisingly revealing statement. First, John Paul played no role in “ending communism” – the USSR had ceased to be socialist decades before the Soviet imperialist bloc collapsed in 1989. But that “NATO pope” did play an important role in the US triumph against it chief rival – and it should be pointed out that the US encouraged and hired Islamic fundamentalist forces in the crusade against “godless communism”. Now American imperialism seeks to advance its interests in the post-Soviet era by reconfiguring the third world to allow more direct political control and therefore more profitable conditions of investment. Benedict, it seems, seeks to play a similar role in the crusade Bush has launched against what he has taken to calling “Islamic fascism”. It remains to be seen to what degree Benedict will represent sometimes conflicting European interests within this overall US-led project, but this is the project the Papacy is backing.  

The drum rolls of propaganda, from politicians and some intellectuals as well, that what is driving the conflicts in today’s world is a “clash of civilizations” between the advanced West and barbaric East, arises from and serves these imperialist aims. As has become apparent with the growing difficulties faced by the US and its allies (or allied rivals) in the so-called Greater Middle East, this project is not going to be easy. Yet those difficulties do not mean that these imperialists will back off from their aims. The imperialist powers will not be able to get through this period successfully if their peoples are convinced that the only meaning of these conflicts is “blood for oil”.  

In some ways, and for his own reasons, the pope has gone farther than Bush in his attacks on Islam. While Bush finds it useful, sometimes, to distinguish between the Islam he likes (of the despicable dark-age regimes the US has installed or supports in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc.) and Islamic forces that the US now finds an obstacle to its interests, the pope is saying that spreading the faith by violence and not reason is not just the signature of “radical Islam” but an essential part of Islam itself.  

This pope has been taking pains to address Church cadre. That’s one reason why his speeches are written in such a densely academic style, with so much specialized vocabulary. He wants to win over intellectuals and other “opinion makers” to unite the Church against the many progressive Catholics who strongly oppose his attempts to defeat the more liberal, ecumenical and self-proclaimed humanist postures that once felt at home in the Church, and impose a backward forced march in theology and practice. Further, because of his more European audience, the particularities of European societies and the needs of European imperialism, he does not preach the same kind of rabidly know-nothing religious fundamentalism as Bush and his ilk. But although he criticizes Protestantism and defends his own brand of Christianity against it, his arguments are no less aimed at re-establishing the supremacy of religion in Western society. As the former Catholic priest James Carroll wrote in the Boston Globe, “Benedict is defending a hierarchy of truth. Faith is superior to reason. Christian faith is superior to other faiths (especially Islam). Roman Catholicism is superior to other Christian faiths. And the pope is supreme among Catholics.”  

The key idea in Benedict’s speech is the relationship he describes between faith and reason. In Islam, he claims, “God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality… Were it God’s will, we would even have to practice idolatry” (worship idols, which, for monotheists, means going against god). In other words, Benedict is saying that for Islam – and, explicitly elsewhere in the speech, Protestantism – belief in God does not come from reason and is opposed to reason. Ironically, what he says here is true: the insulting and sectarian part is where he says that Catholicism is different.  

In contrast to Islam and Protestantism, he argues, where faith is separated from reason, the defining characteristic of Catholicism is “a profound encounter of faith and reason” in which “not to act with logos is contrary to God’s nature” because “logos is God.” In Greek, logos has two meanings: “reason” (logic) and “word”. Catholic theologians use this as a shorthand reference to the argument that mankind was given reason to know the word of god – that reason comes from god and will return us to god.  However, just employing the same word for reason and god doesn’t make them the same thing. If we try to reason this out, it doesn’t work at all. What in reason would lead anyone to believe in Benedict’s god, instead of some other – or none at all? For the purposes of brevity here, rather than arguing against the existence of god, it’s enough to say anyone making such a claim has a responsibility to prove it. In fact, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all take refuge, as Benedict himself does in this speech many times, in “revelation”, faith and other categories opposed to reason.  

Later he lets the cat out of the bag when he says, “the Christian faith, in particular, is a source of knowledge” about the real god, as opposed to earlier religions whose gods were “merely the work of human hands.” Why not consider any kind of faith in anything at all as equally legitimate? Here Benedict’s real argument is all but openly stated: the existence of my god is compatible with reason and yours isn’t because my god really exists and yours doesn’t. This circular argument that is his real foundation has not attracted as much attention as the anti-Islam quote with which the speech begins, but it is even more of an attack on Islam and other religions – and on reason itself, which he distorts in the guise of praising it.  

Before getting to that point, we have to deal with Benedict’s claim that Christianity is what defines Europe. He argues that Christianity alone is the heir to the Greek spirit of philosophical enquiry. (His is a very selective view of Greek philosophy, focusing on thinkers whose ideas Christianity later found useful, and not the materialist and dialectical strains opposed to the idealist or religious outlook). This is false. During the faith-based Dark Ages when the Catholic Church rose to its greatest power, not only Greek philosophy, but Greek science as well were suppressed and became unknown in Europe. But science and philosophy thrived in the Middle East among Moslems and the Jews who lived among them. In this sense, the Moslem Middle East was more “civilized” than Catholic Europe. In fact, when Europeans discovered basic Greek works on astronomy, medicine, philosophy and so on, a thousand years after Catholicism acquired political power, it was because they had been preserved in the Middle East. Greek thought influenced Islam, and Islamic thought very much influenced modern Catholicism. They have not, historically, been two entirely different civilizations. Further, as the writer Carrol emphasizes, the idea that Christianity and specifically Catholicism “created Europe” has a nasty whiff of anti-Semitism, especially coming from a pope who has refused to acknowledge the Catholic roots of the European persecution of the Jews. You also can’t help but wonder if Benedict means “Europe for the Europeans” – not Islamic immigrants.   

There is a fact that both Benedict and Bush and their intellectual apologists feel is their strongest argument: with the triumph of capitalism in Europe, the paths and fortunes of East and West diverged. But if Christianity is the reason for the West’s development, then what explains the success of capitalism in Japan? The flourishing of science and reason in Europe came about despite and in opposition to the Catholic Church, which persecuted those who argued that the world is knowable through reason, observation and experiment – and which continues to limit the practice, authority and spirit of science (including medicine and medical research) today. The overthrow of feudalism and its barriers required the overthrow of the system of faith on which it was based – at least some of it. Benedict criticizes the Protestant Reformation for separating the domains of faith and reason, but this separation served the rising capitalist class by allowing the capitalists to both make use of science and its fruits and preserve religion, not only for themselves, but for the masses who could not be ruled without it.  

As Marx pointed out, the same “rosy dawn of capitalism” that brought about the Enlightenment also saw Europe turn Africa into a hunting ground for slaves, imprison the native population of South America in the gold and silver mines and loot Asia. Capital, he said, arose “dripping with blood from every pore.”  That was a major source of the development that marks the difference between East and West and “created Europe,” in Benedict’s terms. 

The Enlightenment, a period in the 18th century when much of today’s modern thinking, including the scientific method, was formulated, is problematical for Benedict. He acknowledges “The positive aspects of modernism… we are all grateful for the marvellous possibilities that it has opened up for mankind and for the progress in humanity that has been granted to us.” He likes the wealth and power it has brought the West. He even praises the “scientific ethos… the will to be obedient to the truth…one of the basic tenants of Christianity.”  He forgot, of course, to include the word “not” in that sentence, but that is what he meant, because he immediately goes on to use a definition of truth that is opposed to the scientific outlook. His aim, he says, is “to broaden the concept of reason and its application. While we rejoice in the new possibilities open to humanity, we also see the dangers arising from the possibilities and we must ask ourselves how we can overcome them. We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable”.   

The problem is that the empirically verifiable does pose limits to reason. Empirical verification (proof through experience in the broadest sense) is what marks the difference between imagination, no matter how valuable it might be, and fact, ideas that have proven to be true. Benedict’s philosophical slight-of-hand trick draws on a problem that no outlook was able to resolve before the development of Marxism: the question of knowledge, specifically how we can know whether or not our ideas are true. Logic is only part of reason. It can lead us to knowledge of reality, but only if it is applied to the concrete study of and interaction with the world. On the basis of our perceptual knowledge of matter, we develop abstract understanding, and these ideas are in turn tested, refined or discarded based on practice in the material world. Marxist dialectical materialism holds that nothing exists but matter in motion, and that our knowledge of it develops though the back and forth motion between direct perceptual knowledge and abstract ideas. This process is inexhaustible because our knowledge of reality is always relative and incomplete, and because reality itself is always changing. 

The idea of god, by definition, cannot be proven true or false because it can never be seriously tested or in any other way held up to the objective ruler of reality. No matter how much the theologians Benedict cites may have tried to work out ideas in accord with reason in the limited sense that they seem logical (which is definitely not true of Christianity and its scriptures overall), their logic was always based on starting points not based on reason or testable through reason. Reason and faith are mutually incompatible.  

Benedict criticizes the way that capitalism, historically, tried to have its science and religion too by dividing questions of faith and questions of knowledge into separate realms not only to attack Protestantism, but more importantly because he fears that once that has been done, then the whole central place of faith in thought and the organization of society falls inevitably apart. This, in his view, has happened as a result of modernism, and explains the chaos and misery of Western societies. The consequence, he says, of such a direct connection between the individual and god is that each individual decides “what he considers tenable in matters of religion” and becomes “the sole arbiter of what is ethical.” He warns, “This is a disturbing state of affairs for humanity” when “religion becomes a personal matter” and ethics are derived from reason and not religion.  

Actually, it would be very liberating if religion were a purely personal matter. This is not a settled question in an America in grave danger of theocratic rule, just to give the most globally dangerous example, not to mention most of the rest of the world, exactly because religion is so tied up with exploitative and oppressive rule. It will be even better when people voluntarily decide to leave behind religion and all forms of superstition and irrationality.  As for ethics, humanity has suffered far too long from the ethics supported by religion and its justification of exploitation and oppression. Questions of ethics and the common values that bind a society together deserve deeper focus on another occasion, but to paint it in broad strokes for now, why can’t what is best for the emancipation of humanity and the flourishing of individuals within that context be the basis for a far better ethics?  

While Benedict claims he is not “putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment”, he is warning about the consequences of modernism and trying to undo the parts of it that he sees as a problem, even the separation of church and state (religious authority and political authority). Is his vision of a technologically advanced but faith-based and faith-ruled society very different, in essence, from that of Bush – or Iran’s ayatollahs for that matter?  

People like Bush and Benedict can defend some things about the Enlightenment even while attacking its most positive aspects because of the contradictory nature of the Enlightenment itself. Looking at it from a far different angle, Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, one of the rare Marxist leaders since Marx and Engels to write extensively on religion, points out that that the thinking that triumphed in that period has to be divided in two: “Marxism agrees with that aspect of the Enlightenment that says that the world is knowable, that people should seek to understand the world (or reality generally) in all its complexity, and that they should do so by scientific methods… What (Marxism) disagrees with is… the notion that… ‘the truth shall set you free’… (which) goes along with this idea that science will re-make the world by mere force of its ‘truths.’” While “eventually the Catholic Church relented on its differences with Galileo… there are also many, many profound truths that the Catholic Church and other religious institutions and authorities still do not acknowledge – not the least of which is that God does not exist! So, it’s not just a matter of what is true; there is also the fact that social struggle – and in class society, class struggle – has to take place in order for ideas, even ones that represent profound truths, to become ‘operative’ in society, to be taken up and applied by society as a whole. And this gets back to Marx’s insistence that the point is not merely to understand the world but to change it… And more particularly, we oppose the use of the Enlightenment, and the scientific and technological advances associated with it, as a way of effecting and justifying colonialism and imperialist domination in the name of the ‘white man’s burden’ or the alleged ‘civilizing mission’ of the ‘more enlightened and advanced’ imperialist system, and so on.” 

(“Marxism and the Enlightenment”, Observations on Art and Culture, Science and Philosophy, Insight Press, 2005)