Pope Benedict XVI delivers his annual World Day of Peace message Friday (1/1/2010) at the VaticanFor about the millionth time, Pope Benedict XVI has whined about how horrid secularism is, equating it with religious fundamentalism, and claiming it’s something it is not. His continued error manifested during his “World Day of Peace” address this New Year’s Day (WebCite cached article):

The same determination that condemns every form of fanaticism and religious fundamentalism must also oppose every form of hostility to religion that would restrict the public role of believers in civil and political life.

It should be clear that religious fundamentalism and secularism are alike in that both represent extreme forms of a rejection of legitimate pluralism and the principle of secularity.

The Pope seems to think “secularism” is “abolition of religion.” However, that’s not what it is. Secularism refers to an absence of religion in something. A secular government, for example, is one which is devoid of religious influence or control. In other words, a secular government is neither the puppet of religion, or its puppet-master.

The Pope claims secularism destroys religious freedom, when in fact it does quite the opposite: Only in a secular state can absolute religious freedom be achieved. Benedict himself, an academic who — one would assume — has studied the history of Europe and of his own Church, ought to know better than to make this erroneous claim. And he should know this error works in two ways.

First, the Church once held enormous influence over Europe and imposed itself upon the various states. At one time, the Church made sure it was impossible to be anything other than a rigidly compliant Catholic … all other religions were stamped out, sometimes violently. As modern Europe became secular, and the Roman Catholic Church lost control over the continent, Europe came to be religiously tolerant.

Second, going in the other direction, Catholics were, themselves, historically victims of the entanglement of church and state. The English Reformation, for example, pitted members of the Church of England against those who remained loyal to Catholicism, and for a while, Catholicism was outlawed in Britain. Benedict surely knows that members of his own Church suffered greatly under the union of the British Crown and the Anglican Church.

The Pope went on to say:

With due respect for the positive secularity of state institutions, the public dimension of religion must always be acknowledged.

It’s not immediately clear what Benedict means by this. If he means that secular states should acknowledge that they have religious majorities … well … of course they do. It hardly is worth anyone’s time to go out of their way to “acknowledge” that. Is it necessary to “acknowledge” that the sky is blue? Or that water is wet? I suspect what he’s really referring to is not “acknowledgement,” but “deference.” However, any secular state that “defers” to one or more religions, by definition ceases to be “secular” any longer.

Benedict also doesn’t understand the meaning of “fundamentalism.” Used in relation to religion, this term has a very specific, tight definition. It means that a religion’s practitioners emphasize something tangible in particular, usually a set of sacred texts, as the “core” of the religion, or its “fundamental.” Christian fundamentalists have the Bible as their “fundamental.” Islamic fundamentalists have the Qur’an and the Hadith as their “fundamentals.” However, there is no identifiable “fundamental” over which secularists obsess, as the source of their beliefs (if it can be said that they have any beliefs at all).

For a man with a long academic career, it’s curious that Benedict is blissfully unaware of the meanings of the words “secular” and “fundamentalism.” Unlike a lot of his other critics, I do not for one moment think the man is stupid or ignorant. On the contrary, he’s shown himself to be well-informed on a large range of topics. No, it’s quite clear that he knows very well what he’s saying, and that he’s using these terms incorrectly — which is much worse than him being merely stupid or ignorant. Put bluntly, he’s lying about secularism in order to malign it and convince Catholics — and presumably other theists — to fight against it. Ultimately, what he seems to want is a world in which religion holds sway over everything … but history shows that to be the worst kind of a bad idea.

The Pope needs to stop bellyaching that his Church is no longer in charge; grow up and accept that the world is not his to govern as he wills; and concede (even if he doesn’t want to) that his own Church is but one of many religions in a world with a multitude of them to pick from. That would be the mature thing for him to do. My guess is that he will never do so … because while I acknowledge he’s well-educated and perhaps intelligent, he clearly is immature, and at his age, is not likely to become any less juvenile.

P.S. If secularism is so horrifically bad, why is it that an avowed Pakistani secularist was the victim of religionism, rather than the other way around? Hmm? Just thought I’d ask that out loud.

Hat tip: Apathetic Agnostic Church.

Photo credit: CNN.

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  • Jacob

    You guys don't have any mission except to destroy the Church.. Usually I suspect bloodsucking parasites who only exist to destroy other organisms.. (Even though you're too stupid to realize you have no chance whatsoever of accomplishing your goal!)

    • Please tell me who "we guys" are. Are you suggesting I'm part of some vast, nefarious conspiracy to undermine your Church? If so, how do you know this? With whom, exactly, do you think I'm working? Who's giving "us guys" orders?

      Also, I'm not sure how my criticizing the Pope's remarks can rationally be construed as an effort "to destroy the Church." Criticism is not destruction. What on earth makes you think they're the same thing? Why are you conflating criticism and destruction? Are you really as thin-skinned as this makes you seem?

      For the record, and to be clear: I do not want the R.C. Church, or any other Christian organization, destroyed. I would, however, like it to change, so that it more closely adheres to the actual teachings of Jesus himself. Most Christians do not actually obey those teachings; what I'd like to see is that they make an effort, finally, to do so.

      Note that trying to make the R.C. Church more "Christ-like" is not unprecedented within its own history. Back in the Middle Ages, the new Pope's namesake, St Francis of Assisi, promoted the mendicant ideal and founded an order of friars, with exactly this mission in mind.

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