The Regensburg Address and Western Secular Intolerance

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.

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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 be no dissent.

The same thing can be seen throughout so-called “privilege” theory and its practice on college campuses. The constant calls to “check your privilege” are more than assertions that white, heterosexual, cisgender men must recognize that they have unearned advantages. It is a declaration that they have no right to opine about issues of “intersectionality.” This amounts to the claim that minorities have a privileged place in judging what is just and unjust based purely on their skin, sexual orientation, gender identification, etc. If someone from one of these oppressed classes feels microaggressed, then whatever triggered the feelings of oppression must be unjust and immoral. This is not a judgment of morality based upon shared principles of reason. “I don’t like it so it’s wrong and you have to conform to my feelings” is a textbook example of Nietzschean ressentiment, the will to power exercised by the aggrieved.

Viewing this from the perspective of Benedict’s comments, we see this is just a different form of voluntarism. The left does not seek to win arguments by superior reason but by shutting down all discussion. “‘Shut up,’ he explained” is not rationality, but unbridled will. But should we be surprised by such a development, if the modern conception of reason has declared that questions of morality and the meaning of life are beyond the bounds of rational inquiry? This is the consequence of constricting the sphere of reason to the purely emperio-metric. Philosophical reasoning about morality is no longer scientific or rational. If this is the case, there is no need to try to convince those who disagree with you. They simply must be silenced.

This, of course, is rather ironic. Proponents of sexual “liberation,” gender confusion, and the like demonize Christian morals as objectively backwards and wrong. They burn with self-assured moral certitude. However, the same argument that Christian beliefs may be dismissed as irrational because they are not scientific applies equally to the new liberal sexual orthodoxy. However, as Catholics, we should not merely be content to point out the inconsistency. For if our sole argument is tu quoque, we cede the premise that the teachings of the Church are grounded in and can be known and defended using reason.

While we can and should defend our religious liberty, we must not simply claim “I oppose same-sex ‘marriage’ because I am a Catholic.” We must explain that we opposed it because it is an misunderstanding and perversion of marriage based on a false understanding of human nature, sex, and love. Likewise, we do not oppose abortion because the pope tells us to. We oppose abortion for the same reason the pope does: it is objectively evil and we can use reason to show this is the case.

In his address, Benedict made the case for why it is imperative for academia to recognize the broad horizons of rational inquiry include questions of faith, morals, and metaphysics. For those who are not in higher education, who do not have any say about department curricula, we must continue to educate ourselves and provide clear, rational defenses of our moral principles. We must not adopt the presupposition that faith is blind belief in claims that cannot be judged or grounded in reason. To make appeals to religious liberty our sole argument is to implicitly concede that religious belief is irrational and we will find ourselves without any firm defense of why we are owed such liberty in the first place.


  • John H. Boyer

    John H. Boyer is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas. He is also a contributor to The Federalist.

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