The Pope Delusion

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The Pope Delusion

With Pope Benedict’s shock - but by far most logical - decision to step down, we look back at one of the defining controversies of his troubled tenure: the Regensburg Speech.

On the centenary of Einstein’s birth, an impassioned John Paul II expressed his hope before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome that the Church will revisit the infamous Galileo case. This set alarm bells ringing – and not only within the ancient walls of the Vatican. Many scientists viewed the setting up of a special Commission in July 1981 as a retrial of Galileo, a concern perhaps justified in retrospect by the Vatican’s startling conclusions.

While the Vatican praised Galileo paradoxically for his perceptiveness to scripture, it nevertheless criticised him for confusing science with philosophy and, more seriously, for going against the very "experimental method of which he was the inspired founder.” All in all, "a tragic mutual incomprehension” was judged to have created the "Galileo myth.”

Remarkably, in a speech delivered at Rome’s La Sapienza University, in February 1990, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, went so far as to state, quoting an Austrian science philosopher, that "At the time of Galileo the Church remained much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself... The process against Galileo was reasonable and just."

In early 2008, however, mounting protests from professors as well as students at La Sapienza forced Pope Benedict to cancel his long-planned visit to the university. This time the Pope was scheduled to give a follow-up to his ill-conceived Regensburg speech. But in a joint letter to the Sapienza rector, nearly 70 scientists objected to the Pope’s visit describing support for Galileo’s persecution as humiliating.

Galileo: why?

In 1616, the Galileo-supported heliocentric model of the universe was rejected by the Church on the grounds that Galileo was unable to produce conclusive evidence that the Earth orbited around the Sun. At the same time, he was prohibited from conducting any further research to seek such evidence. While the aim of the Spanish Inquisition which started in 1478 was to force the Muslims and Jews of Spain to abandon their religious convictions, the aim of the Roman Inquisition in 1633 was to force Galileo to abandon his scientific convictions. Galileo, who remained a sincere Christian, was subsequently sentenced to house arrest for life, and his books were banned.

"Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature.” This is the decisive statement in the alleged argument of Emperor Manuel II against violent conversion, as pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI in his much-publicised Regensburg speech. Given his apparent approval of Galileo’s persecution, we are compelled to question the Pope’s very notion of "reason,” not to mention that of "justice.”

In fact, the 12th September 2006 Regensburg speech, in Germany, outlines an attempt, according to the Pontiff, "at a critique of modern reason from within,” which we are assured "has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.”

"Modern scientific reason,” remarks the Pope, "with its intrinsically Platonic element bears within itself a question which points beyond itself and beyond the possibilities of its methodology.” He then rushes to declare: "Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.” Since what the Pope seems to be after is nothing short of a radical revision of the methodology of science, the inescapable question, which Galileo would undoubtedly have asked, is: why?

While making no attempt to provide any answer, the Pope firmly declares that this question "has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology,” that is to a Greek philosophy scientifically undermined by the empiricism of Ibn Haitham (Alhazen) in optics, and Galileo in cosmology, and to a theology based on what Blackwell of Saint Louis University calls a "logic of centralized authority.” Far from being a critique from within, Pope Benedict’s authoritarian approach to reason ironically fuels what he so desperately wishes to extinguish – "the dictatorship of relativism”!

From Aristotle to Kant

A high profile vote, conducted in 2005 by BBC writer and presenter Melvyn Bragg, titled the "Greatest Philosopher,” saw Aristotle barely make it into the ten greatest philosophers list, with five of the top six being more recent figures such as the Germans: Kant, Nietzsche and surprisingly Marx.

Yet, the scope of philosophical inquiry in general has been so much reduced by the sheer technicality of modern science, particularly since Einstein, that the best known philosopher of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, concluded that "The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.” Even the once unthinkable idea among philosophers that logic is inherently limited has been dramatically confirmed by Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in mathematics (1931), and more recently by the incredible discoveries of quantum information (including the science-fiction-like quantum teleportation). Commenting on Wittgenstein’s words, Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking exclaimed: "What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!”

Collision course

Samuel Huntington’s terrifying vision of an inevitable Clash of Civilisations relies, according to Edward Said, "on a vague notion of something Huntington called ‘civilization identity’ and ‘the interactions among seven or eight major civilizations’ of which the conflict between two of them, Islam and the West, gets the lion's share of his attention.”

Since many experts have come to view the self-fulfilling Clash of Civilisations prophecy as the blueprint of American foreign policy post 9/11, we are compelled to take Huntington’s ideas seriously – including that of "civilisation identity.” Having forcefully announced in his controversial summer 1993 article "The Clash of Civilizations?” that "The fault lines between Civilizations will be the battle lines of the future," Huntington went on to single out culture and religion as the most important elements of a civilisation identity.

For instance, he argues that "The European Community rests on the shared foundation of European culture and Western Christianity.” If we accept, for the sake of argument, Huntington’s over-optimistic claim regarding the status of Christianity in modern Europe, we still have to ask: what constitutes European culture? Here, not unwisely, Huntington does not define what European culture is. He stops short of the trap of reducing such a hugely complex notion unjustifiably to merely one or two of its numerous and constantly evolving aspects.

In the Regensburg speech, however, the Pope takes Huntington’s ideas one precarious step further. He attempts to nail down a European identity based on the contentious fusion of Western Christianity with Greek, and subsequently Roman, heritage – a fusion eroded by centuries of relentless "de-hellenisation” from within the Church. Timed alarmingly close to the anniversary of 9/11, Pope Benedict’s speech contrasts Europe’s supposed Greco-Christian identity with a cartoon-like mythical Islam, bloodthirsty and inherently irrational. 

A blind-man’s stick

Despite the fact that the European Renaissance was preceded by a revival of the Aristotelian tradition – primarily through the penetrating commentaries of Spanish Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who concluded based on the Quran that the study of logic was a religious obligation – the birth of modern science was marked, nevertheless, by the collapse of the Ptolemaic worldview. Ptolemy’s widely accepted theories had to give way to new theories based on experimentation rather than the authority of Aristotle and Plato. This empirical worldview was mathematically articulated using analytic geometry, powerfully combining Euclid’s geometry with the Algebra of Al-Khwarizmi (Iraq, 780-850).

Ptolemy’s worldview had two main aspects, one optical and another cosmological. In cosmology, he elaborated Aristotle’s view that the Earth was the centre of the universe into a complete cosmological model. Although Ptolemy’s model of spheres within spheres gave generally accurate predictions, it nevertheless placed the Moon on an orbit that sometimes brought it twice as close to the Earth than at other times. This meant that the Moon ought to have sometimes appeared twice as big!

While this flaw did not prove fatal to Ptolemy’s model, a major technological breakthrough in around 1608 did. The invention of the telescope, by Dutch spectacle-makers, enabled Galileo soon after to observe various stars and planets with unprecedented clarity. Galileo found that the planet Jupiter in particular had several moons which orbited around it – in direct contradiction to Ptolemy’s geocentric model in which all heavenly bodies orbited around the Earth. Despite the Church’s trial and subsequent persecution of Galileo, Ptolemy’s model was eventually replaced by Kepler’s heliocentric model in which the Earth orbits elliptically around the Sun.

In optics, on the other hand, Ptolemy incorrectly explained the phenomenon of vision in terms of his "visual ray” theory, the origin of which goes back to Plato. According to the visual ray theory, otherwise known as the emission theory of vision, the eye emitted rays which travelled through the air sensing various objects. These rays then conveyed back to the eye a visual representation of the viewed objects. Ptolemy’s visual ray was said to be like a "blind-man’s stick.”

Remarkably, at the dawn of the second millennium, a major technological breakthrough in the form of an experiment enabled Arab physicist Ibn Haitham to successfully explain vision solely in terms of light travelling into the eye. Using the pinhole camera (the principle behind photography) which he pioneered, he experimentally demonstrated how reflected light-beams from illuminated objects travel into the eye to project a point-for-point image of the visual scene. Not only did Ibn Haitham’s work discredit Ptolemy’s erroneous emission theory, it also established experiments as the norm of proof in optics and, more generally, in physics. (See "The Miracle of Light,” A World of Science, Vol. 3, No. 4, October-December 2005).

While, in optics, the study of the burning properties of lenses began shortly before Ibn Haitham, the study of their visual and magnifying properties was effectively launched with his seminal Kitab Al-Manazir or Book of Optics. This underpinned the craft of the Dutch spectacle-makers who, by holding one lens in front of another, invented the telescope – enabling Galileo to scientifically challenge Ptolemy and the Church.


"Let there be no compulsion in religion,” the Quran (2:256) unequivocally announces in opposition to violent conversion. Why? The well-known verse goes on to explain: "Truth stands out clear from Error,” that is, through evidence and argument.

Strikingly, in his much-anticipated subsequent version of the Regensburg speech, "complete with footnotes,” Benedict XVI failed to provide any supporting evidence to justify his widely criticised claim that "according to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat.” More strikingly still, consulting any major Quranic commentary (Tafsir) confirms the exact opposite of the Pope’s claim! Yet, strangely, despite saluting the scientific "will to be obedient to the truth,” the Pontiff opted for a superficial rewording of his erroneous claim.

"The story about ‘spreading the faith by the sword’ is an evil legend, one of the myths that grew up in Europe during the great wars against the Muslims,” says Jewish human rights activist Uri Avnery in his remarkable article "Mohammad’s Sword.” Since Christians are accorded the same status by Islam as Jews, it might be illuminating to ask whether Jewish minorities were forced under Muslim rule to change their religion. The same question can be put differently: what is Islam’s equivalent of the Inquisition?

"There is no evidence whatsoever of any attempt to impose Islam on Jews,” says Avnery who then adds, "As is well known, under Muslim rule the Jews of Spain enjoyed a bloom the like of which the Jews did not enjoy anywhere else until almost our time.… In Muslim Spain Jews were ministers, poets, scientists.” Avnery goes on to conclude: "That was, indeed, the Golden Age.”

In fact, many of the works of Arab polymath Ibn Rushd (Spain, 1126-1198) only survived in their Hebrew or Latin translations, thanks to his Jewish and Christian students in Muslim Spain, and later throughout Europe. For instance, his influential commentary on Plato’s Republic was only recently translated from Hebrew back to its original Arabic! The crucial question, as put by Avnery, regarding the age-old participation of religious minorities in Muslim scientific, cultural and even political life, is: "How would this have been possible, had the Prophet decreed the ‘spreading of the faith by the sword’?”

As an advocate of the often-elusive dialogue of religions and cultures, Pope John Paul II once observed: "A clash ensues only when Islam or Christianity is misconstrued or manipulated for political or ideological ends.” This insight – most applicable to the current crisis – mirrors that of Edward Said dispelling the myth of the Clash of Civilisations as a mere clash of ignorance.

The next Pope might come from outside Europe, even from Africa. But the real question is: which of his predecessors, if any, will the new Pope wish to emulate?