In this interesting obituary of (ex-)Pope Benedict XVI, Brendan O’Neill, a self-proclaimed atheist, castigates “preening macho rationalists of the New Atheist set”, who, as humanists, were, according to O’Neill, more anti-enlightenment than the Pope himself:
There was also a profound irony in this Benedict-bashing spectacle. Because this man they loved to hate, ‘Pope Ratzinger’, as they demeaned him, was a far keener defender of reason than they were. He was a more rigorous student of Enlightenment, too. And he did more than they ever will to challenge the real menace to truth in the 21st century – not religion but the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, as Benedict called it. There was more humanism in Benedict’s brave, often lonely battle against today’s tyranny of nothingness than there is in the New Atheists’ snotty rage against religion.
The obituarist gets to the point:
In short, absent any notion of universal truth, devoid of social standards we might define ourselves by (or against), we’re left with just the individual, playing around in his own prison of identity.
Indeed, Benedict held that Christianity was a ‘religion according to reason’. He argued, rightly, that the Enlightenment sprung from the traditions and tensions within Christianity itself – ‘the Enlightenment is of Christian origin’, he said. One of his most striking utterances was to say that the Enlightenment had ‘given back reason its own voice’. That is, it took ideas of reason from Christianity and expressed those ideas in the voice of reason alone.
O’Neill hints at the fundamental problem the enlightenment has, without discussing it:
Benedict’s beef was not with reason, then, as his ill-read critics would have us believe, but with what he referred to as ‘purely functional rationality’. Or scientism, as others call it: the modern creed of evidence-based politics that judges everything by experiment rather than morality.
Here’s the fundamental problem: Without morality, rationality will become ‘scientism’, the consequences of which we were able to observe since WWI in the liberal use of weapons of mass destruction, genocides and lately the Covid tyranny, environmental tyranny and other attempts at building a Tower of Babel 2.0.
O’Neill is right to defend the late Pope against the “New Atheist” set, but he does not touch the question that begs: How do we arrive at morality, without God? Rationality alone doesn’t seem to suffice.