September 19, 2006 -- 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 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 of 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 Shari’a 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.
For example, 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 the passages that seem 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, when ten neo-Nazis stage a rally in America, a hundred anti-Nazis will be there to counter them. If moderates in these countries fear violence because they call on all individuals to respect the liberty to think, 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, such as our search for 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 a 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 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 subjects and subsumes the individual, and reliance on faith—the notion that something in addition to our reason and observation 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 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 we 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.