Faith and Reason in the West

In his address to the United Nations
General Assembly earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI returned to a theme he has advanced several times in his papacy: the importance of faith combined with reason, and the inadequacy of either faith or reason alone.

This idea of the complementary nature of faith and reason received international attention in 2006 when the pope, in an address at Regensburg University, quoted a Byzantine emperor who, in about 1391, said: "Show me just what Mohammed 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." The pope went on to explain that spreading the faith through violence was unreasonable and displeasing to God.
The pope’s criticism of radical Islam’s rejection of reason set off international protests. Many criticized the pope and said that he did not understand the offensive nature of his remarks. Those who studied the pope’s words, however, could not have mistaken them for a diatribe against Islam. After critiquing the emperor’s argument and inviting Muslims into peaceful dialogue, Benedict spent most of his speech criticizing Western secularism. I noted at the time that, as an American academic, the pope had been as critical of me as he was of any Arab Muslim. I was not, however, inclined to protest the pope’s observation. Some academics were.
In January 2008, Benedict was scheduled to make a speech at Rome’s La Sapienza University. About 70 professors signed a letter calling him "hostile to science," protesting his appearance, and chiding him for a lecture he gave 17 years ago in which he quoted a philosopher who defended the Church’s treatment of Galileo as "rational and just." (The professors failed to mention that the future pope criticized the philosopher’s analysis.) Some students at La Sapienza also launched an "anti-cleric week," complete with a sit-in and threats to disrupt the pope by blasting rock music over loudspeakers. The Vatican postponed the papal visit, citing a lack of the "prerequisites for a dignified and tranquil welcome."
The uproar at La Sapienza was a reminder that Muslim extremists are not the only ones who use intimidation to silence opposing views. Fortunately, people from all over Italy sided with Benedict. On the Sunday after the canceled speech, a crowd of about 200,000 showed up at St. Peter’s Square to hear his weekly address and to express their solidarity with him. La Sapienza students who had opposed the earlier protests held up banners that read, "If Benedict doesn’t come to La Sapienza, La Sapienza goes to Benedict," and "Students with the Pope."
The pope’s recurring message about faith and reason conflicts with that of many modern scientists, who try to describe the world without reference to God, intention, or final causality. Scientists are certainly free to do that; what is unfair is the effort by many to silence scholars who incorporate aspects of faith into their work.
A few years ago Pope John Paul II spoke to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Because he discussed the compatibility of evolution with the Catholic faith, news accounts were filled with reports of a shift in Catholic teaching. Then Christoph Cardinal Schönborn wrote a piece for the New York Times in which he reported that there had been no change in Catholic teaching. He explained that "evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true," but that Darwin-style, unguided natural selection is not compatible with the Church’s teachings.
This was completely in line with my understanding of Catholic teaching, but it resulted in a loud outcry from those who had celebrated John Paul’s remarks as something that they never were. These people wanted to see the Catholic Church deny the role of God in creation, and they were deeply pained to learn that this was not the case.
The outright contempt toward religion that is held by so many Darwinists is made most clear in Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. In that film, Stein sets out to discover why many scientists are hostile toward the notion of Intelligent Design. What he finds is that these scientists are hostile toward the very notion of God. Their Darwinist explanations are clearly insufficient: They cannot explain how life began, but they cannot admit even to the possibility of a universe created by God.
In the film’s most stunning scene, noted British atheist and popular-science writer Richard Dawkins admits to the possibility that life might have been planted here on earth, but he says that if it is the case, it was planted by an alien, not a deity. That’s right: It might me Yoda, but it can’t be God.
Expelled reveals how close-minded supposedly "enlightened" people can be. Scientists should be open to all evidence, but these atheistic Darwinists dismiss findings simply because they conflict with their preconceived notions. Moreover, they would banish the scholars behind these findings from the academy. This is the "dictatorship of relativism" that Pope Benedict has been trying to remedy. Judging by the movie, he has a lot of work to do.

Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (2000) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).


Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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