The Regensburg Address and Western Secular Intolerance

By: John H. Boyer, September 16, 2016

On Sunday, we observed the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Monday, September 12, marked the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg Address. Although the controversy about this brief talk centered on the Pope’s comments about Islam and violence, the pontiff’s main critique was aimed, not at Islam, but at the West.

Benedict’s purpose was to provide “a critique of modern reason from within,” showing that modern reason has imposed limits upon itself. It has rendered itself unable to address fundamental questions of morality and human existence. These self-imposed limitations come from the idea that only what is empirically falsifiable can be counted as knowable. This position, which finds its earliest proclamations in Bacon and Hume and the strongest expression in the Logical Positivist movement of the early twentieth century, is seen all to clearly today in the form of “scientism,” the ideology that all knowledge comes from science and anything which falls outside of what can be investigated by hypothetical deductive reasoning using quantitative methods is mere belief and irrational superstition. Scientism does not hold that the emperio-metric methods of the hard (and to a certain degree the soft) sciences are the best way to discover truth; they are the only way.

As Benedict points out, there are several consequences of this narrowing of reason. First, modern reason must acknowledge that it cannot account for its own presuppositions. Scientism must take for granted “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.” The scientific method itself cannot be justified using the scientific method, to the extent that we may even speak of a method “unique” to the hard sciences. Second, science is unable to comment upon or consider the rationality of religious beliefs or moral claims. The same constriction that renders the West unable to engage in a dialogue with and a critique of Islamism also renders Western secularism unable and uninterested in listening to or tolerating traditional Christian morality in the West itself.

The pontiff’s description of modern reason can help us better understand the modern Left’s unwillingness to try to engage in real dialogue with religious believers and traditionalists in the West. On the one hand, religious beliefs are deemed to be intrinsically irrational. Traditional understandings of sexual complementarity, sex and gender, equality, and justice are seen as having no firm foundation. This helps explain why we have seen a turn away from describing bigotry in terms of “-isms” and a turn toward describing them in terms of “phobias.”

Ironically, Benedict’s description of the link between voluntarism and coercion, found in the violent theology of jihad—something is right because God likes it and therefore it can be imposed by violence if God says so—fits the modern leftist movement very well. The modern secular left is coercive. Rather than trying to convince opponents by reasoning from common first principles, the left seeks to silence opponents. The left’s current gender ideology appeared almost out of nowhere. This is not to say that there was no intellectual framework from which it sprang. There was, and it is a very disturbing one at that. Rather, without any argument or persuasion, regular people were informed that they now must accept and pay fealty to an ideology that recognize figures like Caitlin Jenner as “women.” Any comments about this announcement, short of declaring the reality star “stunning and brave,” were not only insensitive. They were cases of rank bigotry, springing from a deep seated “phobia.” There can

Crisis Magazine; Regensburg

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