Pope Benedict XVI: science is the real target

About the author
Ehsan Masood is the Editor of Research Fortnight

At the University of Siena in Italy, the Pontignano conference on the future of Europe's universities on 15-17 September 2006 was in full flow when word began to circulate that Pope Benedict XVI was in trouble over a lecture he had given to scientists in Germany. His 12 September speech on faith, reason and universities was being seen as an attack on Islam.

During coffee breaks, delegates would snatch a glimpse of a giant computer screen connected to the internet as developments changed hour-by-hour. Views among the assembled politicians, journalists, academics and business folk were mixed. To some, the pope should have been more careful as he is no longer a mere theologian-academic, but leader and guide to the world's largest faith. Others believed he has every right to say what he thinks. A third group queried the wisdom of Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, and Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, in rushing to judgment so soon - igniting, if not inflaming public anger in their countries. A fourth group, however, felt strongly that the German pope wanted to express even more clearly his already widely-known criticisms of aspects of Islam.

Ehsan Masood is project director of The Gateway Trust. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network


Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:

"British Muslims must stop the war"
(August 2005)

"The globalisation of Islamic Relief"
(November 2005)

"Bush’s 'war on science' through the microscope"
(January 2006)

"Alexandria’s bridge" (February 2006)

"Measuring miracles" (April 2006)

"The light of education: blind children's best buys'" (May 2006)

"Israel and the bomb: don't ask, don't tell" (June 2006)

"Muslim Britain: the end of identity politics?" (July 2006)

"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (July 2006)

"Millennium Development Goals: back to school"
(August 2006)

"Big media, small world" (August 2006)

"The global politics of cricket"
(September 2006)

The Pontignano conference, now in its fourteenth year, is part of a rich tradition in the developed world that brings together people who think and write, with those who have to make or implement decisions. Discussions are a mix of erudite thinking and eloquent speechmaking. The event is particularly useful for younger university researchers in that it provides them with an opportunity to learn the grammar of international and domestic politics, and to assess how they might contribute to that process should they want to.

Older hands are reminded that, in order to attract attention from politicians, you need to be able to form an opinion quickly, and argue your case forcefully - fence-sitters need not apply. Both young and old, meanwhile, discover the ease with which knowledge can be selectively deployed to argue in favour of almost any point of view. In this regard, both the timing and the content of the pope's lecture couldn't have been better.

Religion's claim on reason

The pope's lecture amounts to a defence of European Catholicism as a faith grounded in rationality. For Pope Benedict, this is a rationality that absolutely must include both religion and reason, and not reason by itself. In the course of building his case, he takes few prisoners. There is of course the example of his belief that Islam is an inherently irrational faith. The pope is similarly critical of those Christians who want to reduce his own faith to no more than a guiding framework for ethics and morality, sans worship and sans theology.

On both these counts, the speech ignores any evidence that might weaken the arguments being put forward, as Tina Beattie points out in her openDemocracy article "Pope Benedict XVI and Islam" (18 September 2006). But these are diversions on the road to the pope's main point, which is his critique of the relationship of science and religious belief. Moreover, this is aimed, not at Muslims, or Christians, but at the non-religious in the scientific community. Indeed, a deep irony is that the pope's reading of the state of science/religion relationship today will find many, if not most Muslims in agreement with his views.

What are these views?

Pope Benedict finds himself at odds with the current consensus among scientists, which is that the scientific method, through its tools of hypothesis, experimentation, verification, or falsification is unsuited to investigate that which cannot be measured. High on any list of such things is the question of whether God exists. For most scientists of the rationalist tradition, the existence of God is a matter of belief, it cannot be proved, nor can it be disproved. Many scientists are believers; others are not. With a few prominent exceptions, both camps are happy to live and let live. Scientists who believe understand that if the existence of God were to be opened to scientific inquiry, they need to be open to the idea that God may not exist. As this is not an option for any believer, the question is best left alone.

For Pope Benedict, however, this amounts to something of an evasion. The fact that scientists have decided among themselves that some questions are not worth asking amounts to questionable "reduction in the radius of science and reason". His broader concern here is with what he sees as the increasing primacy of empiricism, and the degree to which this way of viewing the world is also now affecting humanities subjects such as history, philosophy and sociology.

Also in openDemocracy, a debate on "democracy in the Catholic Church?", including:

Neal Ascherson, "Pope John Paul II and democracy"
(1 April 2005)

Lavinia Byrne, "The Vatican, the Kremlin, and the Feminine"
(11 April 2005)

Michael Walsh, "From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI"
(16 April 2005)

Andrew Brown, "Cardinal Chernenko? " (20 April 2005)

The implication is that if only empirical knowledge is worth knowing, then this automatically closes the door on theology and spirituality as sources of knowledge. Pope Benedict regards all of this as being a dangerous state of affairs for humanity. He writes: "The world's profoundly religious cultures see [the] exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions."

Catholics and Muslims: a common outlook

Among the many ironies here is that Pope Benedict's speech could just as easily have been written by a Muslim, because it accords with mainstream Muslim views on science and faith. Many Muslims believe for example that faith should be integral to reason and knowing. Moreover, they believe that ethics and morality should include both faith and science as a frame of reference. Indeed, Catholics and Muslims at the United Nations are often on the same side during debates on issues such as how to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids. In addition, Muslims in common with Pope Benedict also believe that it is right to use reason to be able to understand God and creation.

Pope Benedict has wisely apologised for the offence that his speech caused. He chose not to say sorry for the content of what he said. Doing so would have made little sense as the target of his criticisms was science, and not Islam. Confusingly, however, the pope also now says that his speech was in fact a call for dialogue between cultures. It was in fact a call for dialogue between people of science and people of faith. But this chapter must now be closed. A more careful reading of his text by leaders of Muslim nations and by the media would have saved us all from the tragic events of the past week.