Benedict, Dawkins, and the Fullness of Reason

In his most eloquent account of the relationship between faith and reason – the 2006 Regensberg address – Pope Benedict XVI argues that the modern understanding of reason that restricts rationality to the deliverances of the hard sciences is incapable of offering a rational justification of itself, and much of anything else that makes life worth living. “Modern scientific reason,” the Holy Father writes, “quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit [i.e., mind] and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based.”

In other words, the modern person who wants to limit rationality to the hard sciences must stop his inquiry and not ask why nature is intelligible and why our cognitive faculties are ordered towards the understanding of nature.  These are just “givens” about which we should not rationally inquire, since to do so would mean that scientific rationalism is not the limit of reason. Benedict writes that “this aversion to the questions which underlie [the]…rationality” of modern scientific reason “endangers the West” and “[we] can only suffer great harm” because of it. The modern world denies reason’s “grandeur” and thus cannot summon “the courage to engage the whole breadth of reason.”

Within hours of Pope Benedict’s announcement that he would resign the papacy, confirmation of the truth of those theological insights came rushing through cyberspace in a variety of comments issued by the Holy Father’s most hostile critics. It would be a mistake to say that the irony was lost on these pundits, since the irony was never within their grasp to begin with.

With minds uncritically formed by the Zeitgeist that the pope powerfully explained in his Regensberg address – combined with an unwillingness to extend reason’s power to their most cherished secular pieties – these critics, despite their own native intelligence, would not likely understand what they do not realize they do not know.

Although I could provide several examples, one stands out as that than which no greater irony can be conceived. Soon after Benedict announced his abdication, the eminent science writer and Oxford professor, Richard Dawkins, sent out this tweet: “I feel sorry for the Pope and all old Catholic priests. Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex.”

If you know anything about Dawkins, you know that he is the quintessential scientific rationalist, denying that anything that cannot be captured and quantified under the categories of the hard sciences, or traceable to them, is outside the purview of reason – and that anything outside that purview is de facto irrational. For this reason, Dawkins, as the pope would put it, has an aversion to asking questions that cannot be subsumed under the rubric of scientific rationalism.

So let us explore the reason that dare not speak its name. Dawkins, as is well known, maintains that reason – understood as equivalent to scientific rationalism, which has established the truth of evolutionary theory – requires that we deny that nature is designed, and thus is not infused with intrinsic purposes or proper ends by which we can issue moral judgments.

Setting aside his ungrounded belief that evolution per se is inconsistent with intrinsic purposes and proper ends in nature, it should be clear that Dawkins’ scientific rationalism means that his anti-papal tweet cannot be a deliverance of reason. 

After all, for one to claim that a life of priestly celibacy devoted to Christ and his Church is a wasted life requires that one know what a fulfilled life would look like. But such a life is an ideal, and thus is not like an empirical claim about the natural world. It is not an object of scientific inquiry. One cannot point to it, as one would point toward Pope Benedict or Richard Dawkins, though the intellect can be aware of this abstract truth when assessing Benedict and Dawkins by it.

Just as we know that a blind person ought to have sight because we know what a human being is by nature and how his parts and properties are ordered toward certain ends that work in concert for the good of the whole, we also know what excellence and virtue are before and after we see them actualized in our fellows.

But given his diminished understanding of reason, Dawkins must deny that even he can issue such judgments by means of his rational powers. Consequently, on Dawkins’ own account of reason, his verdict on the pope’s life is the cerebral equivalent of covert flatulence gone terribly wrong: not silent and not deadly.


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).