Angry at the pope

I read the speech that in September 2006 caused world-wide indignation among Muslims. Pope Benedict XVI, while on a visit to the university of Regensburg in Germany, had the audacity to quote a Mediaeval Byzantine emperor 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 pope clearly, and twice, indicated he thought these words ‘unacceptably brusque’, and ‘forceful’, even before quoting the emperor, so there could be no doubt about the pope’s own position on this issue: he did not agree with the quoted emperor. The rest of his speech did not at all elaborate on the emperor’s statement, but on the footnote that the editor of the Mediaeval text had put in it as a comment on the emperors line of thoughts. Still, quite a few Muslims took offence.

I don’t think this was just a case of misunderstanding or poor comprehension on the part of some Muslims. There’s a deeper reason they were offended by the pope. Not because he insulted Islam. He clearly didn’t, and even for the bad listener he made it absolutely clear this was not his intention.

The reason is the pope’s position on the question of whether God is a reasonable being and his views on interreligious dialogue. It was the very core of his speech. The emperor’s insult was only what led him to think what he was talking about in Regensburg: can we have a reasonable interreligious discourse among humans when we operate on the presumption that God is not reasonable? Can we live together at all, adhering to differing faiths, in peace, as long as anyone believes God is not reasonable?

The answer is: we cannot. And the pope put his finger exactly where it itches, because in Islam, God is not necessarily reasonable and just. He is above all sovereign and independent and not bound to anything. This means God may not be bound to reason and justice. Quite the opposite: justice might simply be whatever God wants. It was this observation that the pope found in the footnote, and that got him thinking. The footnote quoted ibn Hazm who went as far as to claim that God was not even bound to His own word, an extreme case of voluntarism, especially for a Muslim, as the Qur’an is believed by them to be His Word.

When you read the speech, the pope’s point is made obliquely. His direct point is that our modern western idea of ‘reason’ has become so narrowed down to ‘hard science’ that we are excluding theology, philosophy and large parts of the scholarly traditions of the world, notably from deeply religious parts, from the realm of scholarship. The west in this way makes a dialogue with other cultures impossible. Implicitly he seems to blame the west for frustrating intercultural dialogue with the Islamic world. In a sense he’s on the side of the Muslims.

But at the same time he emphasises that acting contrary to reason contradicts the essence of God, and he concludes that we should invite other cultures to a dialogue based on that broad idea of ‘reason’. But this means there are always two sources of knowledge about God: revelation and reason. For Muslims this cannot mean anything else but the possibility of questioning your faith. Even God Himself can become the object of questions, even arguments. Ever since Genesis 18:22, Judaism and Christianity have had a long tradition of arguing with God, but for a lot of Muslims this is still uncharted territory.

There is an exception to be made. Above I talked about ‘Islam’, where I should have said ‘Sunni Islam’. In Shia Islam, God is considered just and reasonable. I think nobody has ever told the pope that he’s Shi’ite…


17 Responses to “Angry at the pope”

  1. The Pope quotes an extremely critical passage then all he says is that it is “unacceptably brusque”, and “forceful”. That hardly sounds like he really disagrees with it at all! And if he did why quote it? Are you sure he wasn’t trying to criticise Islam but then cover that criticism using such a vague dismissal of it? That would be the way I would see it. Note that I haven’t heard or read the speech (I don’t know much German).

    Debating whether God is reasonable is pointless because gods only exist in people’s minds. Therefore every god is different (as well as not really existing) and debating a subjective, fictitious entity’s characteristics is about as much use as debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin!

    Regarding arguing with god: yes that passage has always been one of my favourites! I know Jews have had the tradition of that sort of debate but do Christians really? Also, God is a bit inconsistent: he allows some people to be quite “cheeky” to him but “smites” others for the most minor indiscretion. Seems to me it’s best just to do what he tells us to!

  2. shirhashirim Says:

    If a pope uses the word ‘unacceptable’, you bet he’s in disagreement. I didn’t mention this in my post but he also quoted a quranic verse that clearly contradicted the emperor’s stance. Instead of opting for ignorance as an explanation, he then proceeded to claim that the emperor must have know this. So he bacisally accused the emperor of speaking against his better judgement. To me it was quite clear that he took every precaution to make sure that no one would think he agreed with the emperor’s words.

    I think even without God it is extremely important to discuss the question the pope raised. You’d have to rephrase the question a bit, but it would still be a pertinent one.

    The stories are inconsistent, yes, that’s because they’re stories, they’re not supposed to be consistent.

  3. I haven’t read the speech so I will take accept your opinion on this one. I don’t have any great philosophical stance on the subject.

    I’d like to know how you would re-phrase the question. Are you thinking along the lines of what some leading scientists have said: do we have the right to assume the universe should make sense to us?

    It seems to me that, assuming these religious books are supposed to offer guidance on morality, that inconsistent stories are dangerous. Is that not one of the reasons that people use religion as an excuse to commit atrocities?

  4. shirhashirim Says:

    I agree, inconsistent stories are dangerous. But it’s the consistent stories that give me the creeps…

  5. I’m intrigued. What is the “creepiest” consistent story you know?

  6. shirhashirim Says:

    Actually I wasn’t thinking about any creepy story in particular, but about a Dutch writer who once observed that the stories that Islamic fundamentalists based their world view on were so shockingly consistent. He put into words what I had noticed myself.

    It’s never one single story btw. It’s the relationships between multiple stories…

  7. I’m sorry but I find this is typical of stories supporting religion. Vague statements are made about the validity, accuracy, etc of a belief system but when challenged to give a single example there is nothing there, or the examples are easily dismissed. Also, internal consistency is no guarantee of any inherent value. I can invent some internally consistent stories which are completely worthless.

  8. shirhashirim Says:

    That is exactly what I meant. Consistency in and by itself need not mean anything.
    It doesn’t only happen in religions though. Political ideologies have a reputation to defend in this regard too. And then there’s various conspiracy theories in a wide field of subjects (9/11; Roswell), fringe views on history (e.g. von Däniken, Carotta), alternative views on medicine and food production.
    And let’s not forget psychiatric patients suffering from delusions. I have never met people who were that good at consistency.

  9. OK, so we agree that internal consistency is almost meaningless although it does indicate a certain attention to detail on the part of the person inventing the story (assuming it isn’t true because true stories are also internally consistent – but they’re externally consistent as well) So knowing this, why do consistent stories give you the “creeps”?

  10. shirhashirim Says:

    Exactly because I disagree with you on the second point: true stories are not necessarily consistent. And they don’t need to be. Actually, I think true stories need to be a bit inconsistent because reality is.
    Consistent stories tend to gravitate around creepy ideas. I’m thinking about various conspiracy theories rather than religions right now. To me a lot of consistency works as a kind of warning sign. Like logic.
    I think it was Chesterton who said that logic was the hallmark of the madman, but it was my dad who first pointed it out to me.

  11. Of course true stories are consistent, how could they not be? If one part contradicts another then one of them must be untrue. Or am I missing something? Can you give an example of a true story which is inconsistent?

    Consistent stories gravitate around creepy ideas? Yeah I think a lot of (untrue) conspiracies are consistent and maybe that makes them creepy. To me it doesn’t, of course, because I understand how conspiracies work.

    Chesterton might have said that but who cares? Do you have any real reason to think there is any truth in it? Maybe a sort of twisted parody of real logic but I can’t see how refusing to accept real logic can be a bad thing (assuming you are working in an area where you want the truth instead of an area where you want an amusing fiction: like religion!)

  12. shirhashirim Says:

    You’ve obviously never met a real madman. Chesterton wasn’t deducing this from any reason that inevitably led to this conclusion. He merely put an observation into words. The religious idiots you meet are still relatively sane.

    It’s the same with true stories. I’ve never bothered about how they could or could not be consistent or whether it was theoretically possible for them to be inconsistent. I merely stated an observation.

    But I agree it is odd: you’d expect truth to be correlated with consistency and logic. I suspect this is not entirely the case because of the reason I already indicated: reality is not consistent, nor logical.

    My personal favorites are black matter and the square root of minus one.

  13. Yes, I guess I never have met a “real mad man”. I have met people who were quite delusional in some aspects of their lives but I guess that falls well short of genuine insanity! Sorry but I’ve forgotten how that is relevant to the discussion, but let’s continue…

    I think reality is entirely consistent and logical. Even weird stuff like quantum physics and relativity (as well as the more mundane subjects of dark matter and i) are entirely logical and consistent otherwise the mathematics we use to describe them wouldn’t work.

    Remember that just because something seems odd to a non-expert doesn’t mean it isn’t consistent and logical.

  14. shirhashirim Says:

    It doesn’t just seem odd to the non-expert. It is odd even to the expert. Niels Bohr is much more an expert than I am and I think he’s the one who said ‘if you’re not confused, you haven’t understood’ about quantum physics.

    I don’t think reality is consistent, nor is it entirely logical. And even if it were, we’re by far not far enough to be sure about it.

    That last line is a statement of faith, true, but it is no more a statement of faith than yours.

    I think things sometimes only work because we’ve stumbled upon something that somehow conforms well enough with what we know about reality. We call that ‘i’, dark matter, the luminiferous ether, quantum physics, waves & particles or the Higgs boson. Ultimately they’re just stories. Damn good ones too. I still hope to one day teach myself to make sums with ‘i’, just for the heck of it, and then build my own radio…

    And why did I not come up with Schodingers cat? It was invented to ridicule quantum physics. Now it’s used to clarify it. Just a side note.

  15. Yes, good point about Bohr. I agree. However, even though the theory is counter-intuitive, there is consistency and logic in quantum physics or the maths that Bohr and others developed wouldn’t work.

    I disagree with your statement about faith. Do you or do you not agree that the maths behind quantum physics works? I have reason to think reality is consistent (the fact that the maths works) but do you have any good reason to believe the opposite?

    You seem to follow some sort of postmodernist philosophy which I reject. Even if you do want to say all theories are just stories you could still say some stories are qualitatively better than others.

    I don’t think Schrodinger’s cat was designed to ridicule quantum physics. It was a genuine thought experiment. Maybe a better choice would be the term “Big Bang” – that *was* originally intended to be a name which ridiculed the theory but it just caught on!

  16. shirhashirim Says:

    Of course I don’t have my sources at hand, but I’m quite sure I heard Erwin Schodinger invented the story about his cat to illustrate his disagreement. Apparently he later changed his mind. I didn’t know that about the big bang!

    When I asked my maths teacher about the square root of minus one she told me it was actually just as easy as getting used to negative numbers. Still, even though I’ve been using negative numbers ever since I have a bank account, I keep thinking there’s something fishy about them. Sure, it’s perfectly logical (but logic is a kind of maths too) and it works perfectly (at least for my bank), no problem there.

    But while a meadow with 20.000 cows is more crowded than a meadow with 2 cows in it, a meadow with -20.000 cows in it is no emptier than one with -2 cows in it. Likewise, the square root of minus one cannot exist by definition, but you can’t build a radio without using it. I’m told the same thing happens in quantum physics, about which I know nothing more than Bohr’s remark and Schrodinger’s cat 🙂

    I’m perfectly willing to believe reality is logical and consistent, but as long as things like these keep coming up, I think we’ve not found it yet and we’re just working with approximations and models.

    After Newton we thought we’d figured it out and the universe was perfectly logical. After Einstein we still thought the same, even though quite a lot changed (or so I understand). So who knows what’s going to change our view again after we find that Higgs boson. I wouldn’t be surprised if that sequence actually turned out to be infinite…

  17. I looked up the origins of the thought experiment and you seem to be right: it was intended to criticise the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum theory. I don’t know if this necessarily means that quantum theory is illogical or inconsistent though, just that it is unintuitive, which is something completely different.

    I disagree. I think the meadow with -20000 cows is more empty than the one with -2. You can put 20000 into the first one and it still isn’t crowded (it’s empty) but the second would be crowded. Think of your bank account in a similar situation.

    Why can i not exist by definition? Clearly it does and its reality is demonstrated by the fact that it is necessary to solve real world problems. Again you seem to be getting unintuitive things mixed up with illogical things. The two aren’t the same.

    Regarding the Newtonian model and the relativistic model of gravity. Neither may be true, I agree, but within their well understood limitations they are consistent and logical. The fact that Newtonian physics only gives an approximation and relativity doesn’t work on the quantum scale isn’t relevant. They are still completely logical and consistent when used in the well defined ways that physicists understand.

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