September 18, 2006

The Pope’s call to reason

By: James N. Markels

I’m getting a feeling of déjà vu over the recent protests in the Muslim community over remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI last Tuesday in Germany. Once again, like with the Danish cartoons a few months ago, Muslims are overreacting to criticism to their faith. Far be it from me, a non-believer, to vouch for the Pope. However, not only is the Pope not guilty of slandering Islam, but the message in his speech was right on target.

Unlike the Danish cartoons that specifically targeted Islam for criticism, and the prophet Muhammad in particular, the Pope’s statements have to be taken completely out of context in order to manufacture some kind of affront to Islam. In his speech, the Pope referred to a 14th Century dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologos and a Persian scholar, discussing Christianity and Islam, as related by Theodore Khoury. As part of that conversation, Paleologos says, “Show me just what Muhammad 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.”

This, of course, is the line that has Muslims upset. Problem is, the Pope did not espouse this quote; he quoted it as part of the larger conversation between Paleologos and the scholar in which they came to the eventual conclusion that “[v]iolence is against the will of God and the nature of the spirit,” and therefore conversion of faith should be accomplished with reasoned argument, not violence.

The conclusion that violence is not the proper tool of conversion did not validate Paleologos’ argument that Muhammad’s contributions were evil. It is a common rhetorical tactic, going back to Plato’s “Republic,” to let both sides of an argument to stand without editorial comment so that the reader can see the obvious victor for themselves. Does anybody believe that Plato thought Thrasymachus had the better of the argument against Socrates on the topic of justice?

For those who believe that violence is a proper tool of conversion — such as a group in Iraq that is threatening to start killing Iraqi Christians if the Pope doesn’t apologize — the Pope’s message was certainly a challenge. But fortunately, despite all the media coverage on the protests, most Muslims pretty much agree with the Pope’s sentiments.

Look, for example, at the reaction of the Council on American-Islam Relations. CAIR specifically argued that the Quran “condemns forced acceptance of any faith,” and that, “In Islam, there is no contradiction between faith and reason.” Is that not in harmony with the Pope’s conclusion that “to not act according to reason is against the will of God”?

All of this discussion over religion naturally raises the obvious question: why the heck does an atheist like me care about some tiff between religions? Shouldn’t I just be sitting back and enjoying the show?

Well, no, because this interaction between the Pope and Muslims is a cautionary tale for what might happen in interactions between atheists and Muslims. We atheists are big fans of reason — many indeed argue that, contrary to CAIR’s statement, faith and reason really do contradict, and reason ultimately triumphs over faith. So in our interactions with those of faith, we would prefer to do it through the realm of reason. Threats, kidnappings and protests at the drop of a hat are not preferable. We don’t want to have to fear for our safety just because we think the Quran is wrong.

Given the options, then, the Pope’s message is an agreeable one for atheists. Yes, let us reason together. Any belief system that is confident in itself welcomes debate and argument, which is what makes the persistently overwrought and violent reactions by Muslims to even tepid criticism all the more telling. Don’t radical Muslims realize that their actions are making it look like their faith is a bit, well, insecure? Does the Pope’s mere use of Paleologos to illustrate a larger point really warrant threats of “war” and comparisons to Adolf Hitler?

I hope the Pope continues to spread the message that reasoned argument trumps violence, along with epithets, threats and discrimination. The bullying that has typified radical Islamism of late has been giving Muslims a bad rap. And when we are all calm enough to resort to reason, people will recognize the logical merits of atheism. Or maybe that’s a leap of faith on my part.

James N. Markels is an attorney and a regular columnist for Brainwash.

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