TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Debate beyond Secular Reason (part 1)


To contemporary secular minds, it seems as if the world has entered a new dark age of religious totalitarianism. Islamic terrorists attacked the “free world” on 9/11 and elsewhere thereafter. Christian Evangelical fundamentalists sanctified the neo-con invasion and occupation of Iraq. More recently, violent protests erupted across the globe in response to a series of events: the publication of cartoons of Mohammed in the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten; the ban of headscarves in French schools; death threats to Robert Redeker, the author of an article on the violence of Islam; the controversy on the veil in Britain.

The resurgence of religion appears to threaten the very foundations of the modern liberal democratic society: the right to freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and freedom of choice—in short, freedom from all forms of oppression, above all the universalist and exclusivist claims of religion.

The final confirmation that religion is dangerous seems to have come in September when Pope Benedict’s address in Regensburg sparked outrage and anger across the Muslim world. The Pontiff himself appeared to associate Islam with the practice of violent conversion. In turn, Islamic leaders who condemned the speech accused Benedict of a “crusader mentality” and recalled atrocities allegedly committed in the name of the Catholic Church—not only the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition but also the Vatican’s close ties with Nazi Germany.

Thus, from a secular point of view, religions left unchecked are inherently conflictual: rather than setting aside doctrinal differences and initiating pragmatic cooperation, each asserts its own supremacy dogmatically and zealously, with unprecedented fervour and venom. Not unlike the sixteenth and seventeenth century, what we may already be witnessing is a worldwide religious conflict—a global War of Religions.


Thus, in the garb of freedom and tolerance, secular liberals argue that religion needs once again to be contained. After all, modernity is coextensive with secularisation, and therefore the separation of church from state must over time lead to a progressive separation of politics from religion and an overall shift from a religious to a secular-scientific mentality. As such, religion ought to be eliminated from the political sphere and relegated to civil society. Moreover, like Protestantism, Islam requires a Reformation and needs to be subject to independent constitutional rule. In a word, if the problem is religious, then surely the solution must be secular.

However, in its present configuration secular liberalism will only exacerbate the current conflicts. This is so because it tends to undermine and marginalize all other belief systems and social practices. At the same time, it has nothing substantive to offer except personal pleasure and public indifference. Furthermore, liberalism is also self-deluded: in confronting cultures and religions unlike itself, secular ideology preaches the rule of law and portrays itself as the sole, supreme and ultimate guarantor of peace among the nations and tolerance between rival faiths. But in the name of popular sovereignty, secular states have repeatedly deployed mass warfare to assert their power and authority at the expense of autonomous religious (and ethnic) communities. Secular history is not peaceful, as the terror of the French Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath amply demonstrated. Both Bolshevism and Nazism despised religion for the values it held sacrosanct and the limits it placed on arbitrary power.

Nowadays, liberalism seeks to monopolise politics, with disastrous consequences. By denying religion any political import, the hitherto shared public realm is drained of any objective moral beliefs. Society has become atomized and culture has surrendered to relativism. Paradoxically, by privatizing religion, secular settlements help produce religious fundamentalism. Confined to the private sphere, religion is deprived of civic engagement that would mitigate fanaticism and foster moderation. Likewise, faith answers to no authority other than the subjective inner conscience and blind faith sundered from reason. As such, the secular marginalisation of religion exacerbates scriptural literalism and political absolutism, which are the mark of religious fundamentalism.

At the same time, secular rationality is absolute and arbitrary because it is the measure of all things and posits positivism as the only valid philosophy. As Benedict argued in his widely misunderstood lecture on September 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg, having thus reduced rationality to the empirically falsifiable, liberalism excludes the divine from the universality of reason and elevates itself into the sole arbiter of what is true and what is ethical. In this sense, liberalism constitutes a secular variant of fundamentalism.


What is required to overcome both secular and religious fundamentalism is an overarching critique of violence and conflict and a genuine alternative to the complicit consensus of secular and religious extremes. This is what the Pope articulated in the Regensburg address. The thrust of his lecture is that violence is incompatible with religion because it is unreasonable and as such contrary to God’s nature, whereas religious faith is reasonable and thus in accordance with God whose goodness is amenable to human reason and intellection. Rationality properly configured exceeds the narrow confines of positivistic reason and enables an inquiry into the rationality of faith—a precondition for a genuine dialogue of cultures and religions.

This argument hinges on the unity of rationality and on the analogy between the divine logos and human reason. Indeed, prior the controversial quote about Islam, Benedict spoke of the importance of adopting a holistic and interdisciplinary approach to scientific research, “working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason.” The key is the meaning of right use of reason, which is common to Greek natural philosophy and revealed theology (which Benedict mentions but does not elaborate). Plato conceived justice as the proper application of right reason (orthos logos), such that the soul, city and cosmos all reflect their universal transcendent warrant—the Good. In blending Greek metaphysics with biblical faith, Augustine and Aquinas related the exercise of right reason (ratio recta) to divine will and argued that to do so is to perfect one’s God-given form or telos. In the words of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus quoted by Benedict, “not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.”

In this light, the rationale of Benedict’s citation of dialogue between Manuel II and his Persian interlocutor is clear. Rather than endorsing the emperor’s polemic on Islam’s practice of violent conversion, he sought to highlight the critical relationship between faith and reason in relation to the general problem of the link between religion and violence. Benedict’s subsequent critique of the West in terms of the dehellenization of the Christian faith and the rise of secular reason confirms this wider perspective.

Moreover, Benedict defends the real analogy between the divine logos and human rationality against the late medieval sundering of “this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit.” The separation of metaphysics and theology was operated by a rival theology that posits the univocity of being and thus subjects God and creation to the same categories, while also denying that we can know God’s absolute will. This led to the claim that “God’s transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.”

Crucially, the Pope attributes this rival theology to Muslim and Christian figures alike—Ibn Hazm (c. 994–1064) and John Duns Scotus (c. 1265/66–1308). The defence of analogy over against univocity is important because it guards against a literal interpretation of holy texts and pre-empts a divinely sanctioned absolutism based on knowing God’s will by pure blind faith divorced from reason. As such, Benedict repudiates both Islamic and Christian fundamentalism and their shared advocacy of a violent struggle of the righteous or true faithful against the wicked or apostates and unbelievers. What is significant about this critique is that it robs contemporary fundamentalists of a proper theological base for their ideology of hatred and death—the iconoclasm of the Calvinist and Wahhabi puritans who in the blind belief of their own self-righteousness seek to remake the world in their own craven image.

Part 2 of this article will appear tomorrow.

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