When Christopher Hitchens writes about religion, he is always reliable. Over at Slate he offers his thoughts on the Pope’s recent dust-up with the Muslim community:
Attempting to revive his moribund church on a visit to Germany, where the Roman congregations are increasingly sparse, Joseph Ratzinger (as I shall always think of him) has managed to do a moderate amount of harm–and absolutely no good–to the very tense and distraught discussion now in progress between Europe and Islam. I strongly recommend that you read the full text of his lecture at the University of Regensburg last Tuesday.
I have not yet had a chance to read the Pope’s lecture, but it’s on my list of things to do.
Anyway, here’s Hitchens’ conclusion:
To read the bulk of the speech, however, is to realize that, if he had chanced to be born in Turkey or Syria instead of Germany, the bishop of Rome could have become a perfectly orthodox Muslim. He may well distrust Islam because it claims that its own revelation is the absolute and final one, but he describes John, one of the apostles, as having spoken “the final word on the biblical concept of God,” and where Muslims believe that Mohammed went into a trance and took dictation from an archangel, Ratzinger accepts as true the equally preposterous legend that St. Paul was commanded to evangelize for Christ during the course of a vision experienced in a dream. He happens to get Mohammed wrong when he says that the prophet only forbade “compulsion in religion” when Islam was weak. (The relevant sura comes from a period of relatively high confidence.) But he could just as easily have cited the many suras that flatly contradict this apparently benign message. The familiar problem is that, if you question another religion’s “revelation” and dogma too closely, you invite a tu quoque in respect of your own. Which is just what has happened in the present case.
The Muslim protesters are actually being highly ungrateful. When the embassies of Denmark were being torched earlier this year, Rome managed a few words of protest about … the inadvisability of profane cartoons. In almost every confrontation between Islam and the West, or Islam and Israel, the Vatican has either split the difference or helped to ventriloquize Muslim grievances. Most of all, throughout his address to the audience at Regensburg, the man who modestly considers himself the vicar of Christ on Earth maintained a steady attack on the idea that reason and the individual conscience can be preferred to faith. He pretends that the word Logos can mean either “the word” or “reason,” which it can in Greek but never does in the Bible, where it is presented as heavenly truth. He mentions Kant and Descartes in passing, leaves out Spinoza and Hume entirely, and dishonestly tries to make it seem as if religion and the Enlightenment and science are ultimately compatible, when the whole effort of free inquiry always had to be asserted, at great risk, against the fantastic illusion of “revealed” truth and its all-too-earthly human potentates. It is often said–and was said by Ratzinger when he was an underling of the last Roman prelate–that Islam is not capable of a Reformation. We would not even have this word in our language if the Roman Catholic Church had been able to have its own way. Now its new reactionary leader has really “offended” the Muslim world, while simultaneously asking us to distrust the only reliable weapon–reason–that we possess in these dark times. A fine day’s work, and one that we could well have done without.