Monday, September 18, 2006

The Pope and Civilization

Recently the Pope insulted Muslims - he quoted a Byzantine emperor describing some teachings of the Prophet Mohammad as 'evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached'- setting off riots and such. This follows in the wake of much demonizing of Muslims in the US media.

Juan Cole's reaction (posted today - 9/18):

Some Western observers think that this episode was the Pope's play for moral authority at a time of a clash between Islam and the West.

I think that is right. Benedict was trying to stake out a position that Western godless atheism is actually unreasonable, and that hard line coercive religion that disregards reason is wrong (he incorrectly identified this position as that of Muhammad and the Quran). Thus, the Catholic Church, with its reasoned faith, becomes the ideal, avoiding the errors of the two extremes (Western secularism and Islam). To accomplish this positioning, Benedict XVI had to reduce to cardboard figures all three traditions-- Western rationalism, Roman Catholicism, and Islam.

Christianity hasn't always stood for sweet reasonableness and the harmony of faith and science and the primacy of the individual conscience. One of the reasons we know so little about Mayan history is that Catholic authorities had Mayan papyrus rolls, which contained extensive hieroglyphic records, burned as works of the devil. It wasn't as if the Mayans were given a choice about remaining pagan or converting to Christianity. And there was the forcible conversion to Christianity of large numbers of Muslims and Jews in Spain after the Reconquista from 1492.

Nor have all Christian theological streams concluded that human reason can comprehend God's reason.

There have been times and places where Islam was more tolerant than Christianity. And significant Muslim theological traditions, though not the majority, have held a vision of God as in accord with human reason very similar to the one embraced by the Pope...

The problem with the Pope's Regensburg lecture is that it laid out three intellectual traditions as unchanging, undifferentiated essences and then contrasted them with one another, to the edification of his own position. There aren't any essences.

It is always better to put forward the virtues of your tradition on their own, without attempting invidious comparisons with, and put-downs, of others...


It is the easy thing to see what the problems of others religions are. The fundamentalists who think the world is 6000 years old - there are a lot of problems with that. Or the Islamic "laws" that make it impossible to prosecute rape:

So, under Hudood, if a rape victim fails to present four male witnesses to the crime, she herself could face punishment.

This has made it almost impossible to prosecute rape cases.

According to the country's independent Human Rights Commission, a woman is raped every two hours and gang-raped every eight hours in Pakistan.

(This isn't much different than the case of women raped in the US military - where if the military does not find there is proof of sexual harassment/rape - the women are punished).

It is often the secular groups who challenge such thinking the most - as in the Pakistan case. Where we have a world where the religious groups are the ones pushing for wars and condoning torture and such - it is the secularists (or at least the liberally religious) who can appear the most moral. Even as the media pushes the opposite viewpoint.

Yet while there are plenty of secularists who are for human rights and environmental protections - there are many who don't give a damn and are just out for themselves. "There aren't any essences" - as Cole says. Nobody has the right to moral authority based on being religious or not. But people who justify war and torture - clearly on false pretences*** - certainly do not.

As far as I'm concerned anyone who believes President Bush when he says that there is a "struggle for civilization" (that is outside of the Bush Administration's own creation) - has abandoned reason. There is a war because Bush and company created a war.

Ghandi illuminates the Eastern reaction to Western arrogance:

In reply to a reporter's question "What do you think of Western Civilization?"

Ghandi said, "I think it would be a good idea!"

***Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of the most ardent protectors of the administration, was forced to release a report documenting once and for all that there was zero connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and that the administration had stupidly relied on self-serving ``intelligence" claims from exile Iraqi pretender Ahmad Chalabi and his henchmen. This report was released over the objection of the committee's chairman, Pat Roberts, an ardent administration apologist, because two other Republican moderates, Senators Chuck Hagel and Olympia J. Snowe, voted with committee Democrats that the information be made public.

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