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September 22, 2006

Reason and Religion

New York Times columnist David Brooks on Pope Benedict XVI's riot-inspiring comments:

Millions of Americans think the pope asked exactly the right questions: Does the Muslim God accord with the categories of reason? Are Muslims trying to spread their religion with the sword?

We've already dealt with what Catana (in a comment) called His Holiness' pot-calling-the-kettle problem when it comes to the use of swords. But Brooks' line about "reason" seems at least as hypocritical. His assumption would seem to be that the Jewish or Christian Gods do -- or "millions of Americans think they do -- "accord with the categories of reason"?

Where to begin? With Paul perhaps, that greatest apostle of Christianity, who wrote: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." Or, perhaps, with Justinian, the emperor who completed the (often forced) conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity and in 529 closed the Academy founded by Plato, which had operated in Athens for 900 years. It took about 900 more years before Western reason could begin digging out from under Christian "faith."

Or, perhaps, we could begin with the Hebrew Bible. This is from one of the Proverbs:

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding...

Or with the words of God Himself from Isaiah, which mate, neatly, reason and the sword:

"Come now, let us reason together," says the LORD. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;

but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword."
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Is this what we mean by reasoning? It seems Mafia reasoning.

Is a universe created in six days is "in accord with reason"? How about a virgin birth?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 22, 2006 9:53 PM


These are false oppositions, no? We are talking (sometimes in circles) about relations of power and control. To achieve and maintain power with the sword is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. It also punches holes in one's claim to be advancing peace and 'democracy.' The Judaeo-Xian tradition (derived from the Platonic tradition, let us not forget: Plato is already metaphysical and understands its power) masterfully achieves and maintains power by turning people into 'docile bodies' (Foucault's term in _Discipline and Punish_ and elsewhere), i.e. into subjects who exercise their own self-restraint for the most part: the 'willing and obedient' eat from 'the best of the land'. It's much cheaper, easier, and seemingly more harmonious. As many here have noted in other threads, 'most people are not questioners.'

Each modality of power accomplishes the same end, but one seems so much more palatable, that we not only embrace it but defend it, especially in the face of challenges from those 'outside' (esp those who rely on the more expensive use of coercion; it doesn't help that they are dark and scary 'others').

*The point is they are not, finally, different*. It's not 'reason' *or* the sword, then--they are both metaphysical and seek the same end. Can we (ever) begin to imagine something else? Are we ever to emerge from our enthrallment to the onto-theo-logos (Heidegger's term)?

Posted by: JM at September 22, 2006 11:16 PM

Of course, we must also consider that during those 900 years, Muslim and Jewish scholars preserved the works of the Greeks while the Christians were burning them. Then Islam, having led the West into the Renaissance, reverted. Judaism split, with some staying on the side of reason and others, like the Haredi/ultra-Orthodox, rejecting it. Of course, until the rebirth of Israel, Judaism hadn't been merged with power in more than 2,000 years. Theocratic trends in Israel, spearheaded by hardliners and opposed by many Israeli and non-Israeli Jews, do not bode well.

I think the conflict between religion and reason is often a function of power and the attempt to exert control. It's also a matter of preserving tradition/faith/nation against a perceived or real threat. Sometimes the threat, as in some strains of modern Christian fundamentalism, is reason/science itself and its incompatibility with Biblical literalism as well as perhaps, rapid social/cultural changes incompatible with traditional morality (blamed on science/reason/secularism?). Sometimes the threat, as in Islamic radicalism, seems to be rapid modernization and the sudden emergence of foreign influence (both European colonialism and American cultural hegemony). In extremist Judaism, the threats are obvious: the Holocaust, growing anti-Semitism, attacks on Israel, questions about Israel's right to exist, etc.

Religions, their interpretation/practice, and attitudes toward non-believers and people of other faiths seem to respond to external factors and internal conflict in the way that all ideologies and even individuals do. It's easy for us to be peaceful when we feel safe, but when we feel threatened, we embrace attitudes/actions that would have been abhorrent to us otherwise.

The current debate over Bush administration methods seems to hint at this. After all, who could have imagined six years ago that America would be making use of torture, rendition, indefinite detention, secret and illegal domestic spying programs, etc.? How many Americans would have instinctively recoiled at such methods then but support them now?

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 24, 2006 6:37 PM

Yes, it's interesting that the commentary about the Pope's quotation focused on what he said, and about whether he meant to say that, and about whether merely quoting something means you also believe in it. What was ignored was the more-general ridiculous of one leader of a myth-based cult criticizing the tenets of another. It reminded me either of a debate between sports fans over who has the best team ("Colts rock! Christianity sucks!"), or one between children about two concepts that are equally child-like in their supposed reasonableness ("Babies come from storks" "No, they come out of your Mom's belly after she eats pickles!")

Posted by: Wayne Jones at September 25, 2006 10:37 AM

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