Making a noise in an empty shrine

Nietzsche’s madman lit a lantern in the bright morning hours and ran into the marketplace to announce the death of god. «God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him,» he cried. Few people took his words seriously at the time, yet the madman – or was he a prophet? – knew what was coming. Secular western societies finally killed the old bearded man in the sky and replaced him with other, more material, deities. The controversial quotation by Pope Benedict XVI made during his Regensburg lecture on September 12 touched off a storm among Muslims, but the pope’s real target was closer to home. The number of churchgoers in western societies is on the wane. God’s preachers are making noise because their shrines are empty. The Christian church tries to rally its fighting forces by demonizing the «other.» That used to be the atheist communists; now it’s the Islamic fundamentalists. At its core, Benedict’s move was a bid to galvanize the Christian flock against the growing threat of godless, amoral secularism – what he had previously slammed as «liberal relativism.» What the Vatican dislikes about liberalism is that instead of treating religion as a well of common values and an animating force in society, liberalism relegates faith to a private sphere. In public, people are expected to wear their faiths lightly. Despite their metaphysical origin, religious beliefs enjoy the status of rock-solid convictions. The danger is that our private obsessions about the «good life,» about what we must do to achieve self-fulfillment, can make us insensitive to the suffering of others. For that reason, it’s safer if they are kept private. And if that is said to obstruct interaction between faiths – well, so much the better. In our highly integrated, globalized world, urging our faiths on others is likely to cause humiliation and pain. What secular liberals fail to grasp is that many Muslims deem that their all-encompassing faith should be their compass in every field of life – hence Islam rejects attempts to privatize religion. Liberals should not be surprised when Islamic countries are reluctant or fail to imitate their secular habits. Nor should they be too optimistic about making others see the world through their own eyes. Understanding liberals, let alone agreeing with them, often presupposes a liberal standpoint that non-liberals are lacking.

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