11 May 2009

The Pope on Religion and Ideology

Over the weekend, Benedict XVI was in Jordan doing the brotherhood act. In one speech, he seemed to suggest that the monotheist faiths, without forgetting their differences, should stand together against a common intellectual enemy.

[W]e cannot fail to be concerned that today, with increasing insistency, some maintain that religion fails in its claim to be, by nature, a builder of unity and harmony, an expression of communion between persons and with God. Indeed some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world; and so they argue that the less attention given to religion in the public sphere the better.

"Ja, Hitchens, I'm talking about you," one can imagine the supreme pontiff muttering under his breath. My problem with this part of the speech arises from Ratzinger's claim that religion has a nature. Perhaps it does according to some theory of innate human religiosity, but any given religion is a human construct, however it claims to be inspired. Meanwhile, the charge of inherent divisiveness is hard to answer, but Benedict gives it a shot.

Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied. However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society?

The Holy Father hedges his bets. He has at least enough honesty to say that it is only "often" someone else's fault that religious division leads to violence. But the concept of "ideological manipulation of religion" begs all kinds of questions. To my mind, ideology happens when political philosophy aspires to the authority of religious dogma. It is no defense of religion to argue that political ideas are most dangerous when they most closely resemble religious claims. For that matter, many of the Muslims in the Pope's Jordanian audience might not accept his implicit distinction between political and religious ends, since Islamism, in general, denies the distinction. In a Christian context, his remarks might seem relevant to Irish history, or they might be digs at the leftist "liberation theology" tradition in Latin America or even at the American "Christian right." As I think about it, I'm not sure I accept the distinction he's trying to maintain, since I'm not sure you can separate the political motivations of alleged ideological manipulators from the religious motives.

Benedict moves on:

In the face of this situation, where the opponents of religion seek not simply to silence its voice but to replace it with their own, the need for believers to be true to their principles and beliefs is felt all the more keenly. Muslims and Christians, precisely because of the burden of our common history so often marked by misunderstanding, must today strive to be known and recognized as worshippers of God faithful to prayer, eager to uphold and live by the Almighty’s decrees, merciful and compassionate, consistent in bearing witness to all that is true and good, and ever mindful of the common origin and dignity of all human persons, who remain at the apex of God’s creative design for the world and for history.

Fine. But since their kingdom is still not of this world (Muslim opinion notwithstanding), they must understand that if they enter into political deliberations with no better argument for their preferences than "God says so," they should be taken no more seriously than if they said, "Bugs Bunny says so." They are compelled to share polities with people who remain unconvinced by revelations. Such people must be swayed by reason, and if God is as reasonable as believers claim, the faithful should be able to extrapolate intelligible, logical arguments from scriptural principles that don't depend on supernatural claims. This is all that atheists and skeptics really ask of believers in the public sphere. To do differently, to demand that non-believers be governed by the dictates of a deity, whether they acknowledge such a power or not, sounds a little like the ideological manipulation of religion for political ends to me. If Benedict is actually against tricks like that, he may find that he has surprising allies.


d. eris said...

"Such people must be swayed by reason." Ironically, the main theme of the controversial speech Benedict delivered in 2006, which enraged many Muslims, was precisely "faith and reason."

Samuel Wilson said...

The problem with Ratzinger's type of "reason" is that it depends on a major premise that must be taken on faith. At the same time many Muslims will tell you that "reason" confirms what the Qur'an already proves. Faithful reason in either form presumes that a God on the Abrahamic pattern is necessary for anything to exist or have value. I don't agree.

Anonymous said...

The divisiveness of monotheistic religion has little to do with politics. The bottom line is that, according to religious dogma, there can be only one TRUE religion. The Jews claim theirs is the original, therefore only, true religion and they're just waiting for the messiah to show up for the religion to reach its fulfillment.
The Christians insist that the messiah did show up, in the guise of Jesus, and since the Jews rejected him, he opened up the gates of heaven to Gentiles instead. They point to their "new" testament as "proof" that their religion is the TRUE religion.
The Muslims say that the christians were the true religion, but they changed the bible so many times that it is no longer the official inspired "word of god" and another man, Mohammed, and that he was inspired directly to write the Koran, which is the last and final word of god to his creations. (Of course the Mormons will now insist that Joseph Smith has trumped both Mohammed and Jesus and that they now have the monopoly on truth...

Basically, as long as they all claim themselves as the holders of the "truth", and the others are, to one degree or another, false, the divisiveness remains.