The Pope Emeritus Responds to an Atheist


I had to smile at his opening paragraphs, in which Benedict addresses his critic courteously but forcefully:

Today, therefore, I would at last like to thank you for having sought in great detail to confront my book, and thus also my faith. This in large part was precisely what I intended in my address to the Roman Curia at Christmas 2009. I must also thank you for the faithful manner in which you dealt with my text, earnestly seeking to do it justice.

My opinion of your book as a whole, however, is rather mixed. I read some parts of it with enjoyment and profit. In other parts, however, I was surprised by a certain aggressiveness and rashness of argumentation.

I would like to respond chapter by chapter, but unfortunately I do not have sufficient strength for this. I shall therefore choose a few points that I think are particularly important.

When I read that I thought: “Yes, Odifreddi, you got the pope to read your book–but you also awakened the old German university professor!”

Beyond this, however, the letter contains a number of nice passages on various important topics.

  • On the relationship between faith and reason: “An important function of theology is to keep religion tied to reason and reason to religion. Both roles are of essential importance for humanity. In my dialogue with Habermas, I have shown that there are pathologies of religion and — no less dangerous — pathologies of reason. They both need each other, and keeping them constantly connected is an important task of theology.”
  • On the Church as a sign of goodness and beauty, despite the evils that afflict it: “If we may not remain silent about evil in the Church, then neither should we keep silent about the great shining path of goodness and purity which the Christian faith has traced out over the course of the centuries. We need to remember the great and pure figures which the faith has produced — from Benedict of Nursia and his sister Scholastica, to Francis and Claire of Assisi, to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, to the great saints of charity like Vincent de Paul and Camillo de Lellis, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the great and noble figures of nineteenth century Turin. It is also true today that faith moves many people to selfless love, to service to others, to sincerity and to justice. You cannot know how many forms of selfless assistance to the suffering are realized through the service of the Church and its faithful. If you were to take away everything that is done from these motives, it would cause a far-reaching social collapse. Lastly, neither should one keep silent regarding the artistic beauty which the faith has given to the world: nowhere is it better seen than in Italy. Think also of the music which has been inspired by faith, from Gregorian chant to Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms, and so on.”
  • On the limits of a mathematical or naturalistic/scientistic religion: “I would like especially to note that in your religion of mathematics three fundamental themes of human existence are not considered: freedom, love and evil. I am surprised that with a nod you set aside freedom which has been and still remains a fundamental value of the modern age. Love does not appear in your book, nor does the question of evil. Whatever neurobiology says or does not say about freedom, in the real drama of our history it is present as a crucial reality and it must be taken into account. However, your mathematical religion knows of no answer to the question of freedom, it ignores love and it does not give us any information on evil. A religion that neglects these fundamental questions is empty.”


The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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