There is something a bit odd about the position staked out by Marcello Pera here. Pera is a self-described atheist, who nonetheless thinks that the tradition of European liberalism (democracy, human rights, religious liberty, rule of law, individualism, limited government, etc.) depends on Christianity for its philosophical basis. Fair enough. But why then is Pera a liberal since he thinks that Christianity is false? Pera seems to be reduced to a kind of tribalism: we Europeans are liberals because those values are “our” values, they are what makes us European.
Interestingly, the Pope, in his conversation with Pera, is engaged in a new kind of apologetics. Indeed, he is creating a new kind of argument for Christianity: call it “the argument from liberalism”. The argument can be represented in the following simple sylogism: (1) if liberalism is true, then christianity is true; (2) liberalism is true; therefore (3) christianity is true. The controversial premise, at least for most people living in Europe, is the first one. But Pera seems to accept it; or, at least, he seems to accept the following: (1a) only christianity can provide a credible philosophical defense of liberal values. The Pope wants Pera to conclude from this that he has a reason to be a Christian. The argument from liberalism is a version of the moral argument.
Another related point. Pera is motivated by a concern that Europe be able to defend liberal values in the face of the threat from radical Islam.
The senator said that we must ask ourselves “who we are, what do we believe in, what is my identity, our identity; if I do not ask these questions, I do not know how to defend myself from those who attack me and I do not even know what to teach.”
But here Pera’s tribalism poses a real problem. By his own admission, Pera, as an atheist, is unable to provide a rational basis to defend liberal values; only Christianity provides the metaphysical resources to mount such a defense. So, Pera is reduced to defending liberal values as “our” values, as constitutive of European identity. But, this argument only works with other Euoropeans. When speaking to Muslims the resort to European tribalism is ineffective. Muslims do not care about European identity. Pera’s tribalism guarantees that the encounter between modern, liberal Euorpe and Islam will be a “clash of civilizations”, “our” values against “theirs”. By contrast, for the Pope, with the metaphysical resources available to him as a Christian, universal reason and natural law provide a basis on which to conduct a conversation with the Islamic world that is something more than an arbitrary assertion of “our” values against “theirs”.