[Paleopsych] CHE: Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies

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Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.9.25


    Among 19th-century thinkers it was an uncontestable commonplace that
    religion's cultural centrality was a thing of the past. For Georg
    Hegel, following in the footsteps of the Enlightenment, religion had
    been surpassed by reason's superior conceptual precision. In The
    Essence of Christianity (1841), Ludwig Feuerbach depicted the
    relationship between man and divinity as a zero-sum game. In his view,
    the stress on godliness merely detracted from the sublimity of human
    ends. In one of his youthful writings, Karl Marx, Feuerbach's most
    influential disciple, famously dismissed religion as "the opium of the
    people." Its abolition, Marx believed, was a sine qua non for human
    betterment. Friedrich Nietzsche got to the heart of the matter by
    having his literary alter ego, the brooding prophet Zarathustra,
    brusquely declaim, "God is dead," thereby pithily summarizing what
    many educated Europeans were thinking but few had the courage actually
    to say. And who can forget Nietzsche's searing characterization of
    Christianity as a "slave morality," a plebeian belief system
    appropriate for timorous conformists but unsuited to the creation of a
    future race of domineering Übermenschen? True to character, the only
    representatives of Christianity Nietzsche saw fit to praise were those
    who could revel in a good auto-da-fé -- Inquisition stalwarts like
    Ignatius Loyola.

    Twentieth-century characterizations of belief were hardly more
    generous. Here, one need look no further than the title of Freud's
    1927 treatise on religion: The Future of an Illusion.

    Today, however, there are omnipresent signs of a radical change in
    mentality. In recent years, in both the United States and the
    developing world, varieties of religious fundamentalism have had a
    major political impact. As Democratic presidential hopefuls Howard
    Dean and John Kerry learned the hard way, politicians who are
    perceived as faithless risk losing touch with broad strata of the

    Are contemporary philosophers up to the challenge of explaining and
    conceptualizing these striking recent developments? After all, what
    Freud, faithfully reflecting the values of the scientific age,
    cursorily dismissed as illusory seems to have made an unexpected and
    assertive comeback -- one that shows few signs of abating anytime

    Jürgen Habermas may be the living philosopher most likely to succeed
    where angels, and their detractors, fear to tread. Following Jacques
    Derrida's death last October, it would seem that Habermas has justly
    inherited the title of the world's leading philosopher. Last year he
    won the prestigious Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy (previous
    recipients include Karl Popper and Paul Ricoeur), capping an eventful
    career replete with honors as well as a number of high-profile public

    The centerpiece of Habermas's moral philosophy is "discourse ethics,"
    which takes its inspiration from Immanuel Kant's categorical
    imperative. For Kant, to count as moral, actions must pass the test of
    universality: The actor must be able to will that anyone in a similar
    situation should act in the same way. According to Kant, lying and
    stealing are immoral insofar as they fall beneath the universalization
    threshold; only at the price of grave self-contradiction could one
    will that lying and stealing become universal laws. Certainly, we can
    envisage a number of exceptional situations where we could conceivably
    justify lying or stealing. In Kant's example, at your door is a man
    intent on murdering your loved one and inquiring as to her
    whereabouts. Or what if you were too poor to purchase the medicine
    needed to save your spouse's life?

    In the first case you might well think it would be permissible to lie;
    and in the second case, to steal. Yet on both counts Kant is
    immovable. An appeal to circumstances might well complicate our
    decision making. It might even elicit considerable public sympathy for
    otherwise objectionable conduct. But it can in no way render an
    immoral action moral. It is with good reason that Kant calls his
    imperative a categorical one, for an imperative that admits of
    exceptions is really no imperative at all.

    Habermas's approach to moral philosophy is Kantian, although he takes
    exception to the solipsistic, egological framework Kant employs.
    Habermas believes that, in order to be convincing, moral reasoning
    needs a broader, public basis. Discourse ethics seeks to offset the
    limitations of the Kantian approach. For Habermas, the give and take
    of argumentation, as a learning process, is indispensable. Through
    communicative reason we strive for mutual understanding and learn to
    assume the standpoint of the other. Thereby we also come to appreciate
    the narrowness of our own individual perspective. Discourse ethics
    proposes that those actions are moral that could be justified in an
    open-ended and genuine public dialogue. Its formula suggests that
    "only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with
    the appro-val of all affected in their capacity as participants in a
    practical discourse."

    Until recently Habermas was known as a resolutely secular thinker. On
    occasion his writings touched upon religious subjects or themes. But
    these confluences were exceptions that proved the rule.

    Yet a few years ago the tonality of his work began to change ever so
    subtly. In fall 2001 Habermas was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize
    of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association. The title of his
    acceptance speech, "Faith and Knowledge," had a palpably theological
    ring. The remarks, delivered shortly after the September 11 terrorist
    attacks, stressed the importance of mutual toleration between secular
    and religious approaches to life.

    Last year Habermas engaged in a high-profile public dialogue with
    Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- who, on April 19, was named as Pope John
    Paul II's successor -- at the cardinal's behest. A number of the
    philosopher's left-wing friends and followers were taken aback by his
    willingness to have a dialogue with one of Europe's most conservative
    prelates. In 2002 Habermas had published In Defense of Humanity, an
    impassioned critique of the risks of biological engineering and human
    cloning. It was this text in particular, in which the philosopher
    provided an eloquent defense of the right to a unique human identity
    -- a right that cloning clearly imperils -- that seems to have piqued
    the cardinal's curiosity and interest. Yet if one examines the
    trajectory of Habermas's intellectual development, the Ratzinger
    exchange seems relatively unexceptional.

    Glance back at Habermas's philosophical chef d'oeuvre, the two-volume
    Theory of Communicative Action (1981), and you'll find that one of his
    key ideas is the "linguistification of the sacred" (Versprachlichung
    des Sakrals). By this admittedly cumbersome term, Habermas asserts
    that modern notions of equality and fairness are secular distillations
    of time-honored Judeo-Christian precepts. The "contract theory" of
    politics, from which our modern conception of "government by consent
    of the governed" derives, would be difficult to conceive apart from
    the Old Testament covenants. Similarly, our idea of the intrinsic
    worth of all persons, which underlies human rights, stems directly
    from the Christian ideal of the equality of all men and women in the
    eyes of God. Were these invaluable religious sources of morality and
    justice to atrophy entirely, it is doubtful whether modern societies
    would be able to sustain this ideal on their own.

    In a recent interview Habermas aptly summarized those insights: "For
    the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has
    functioned as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Universalistic
    egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a
    collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and
    emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and
    democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the
    Christian ethic of love."

    Three years ago the MIT Press published Religion and Rationality:
    Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, an illuminating collection of
    Habermas's writings on religious themes. Edited and introduced by the
    philosopher Eduardo Mendieta, of the State University of New York at
    Stony Brook, the anthology concludes with a fascinating interview in
    which the philosopher systematically clarifies his views on a variety
    of religious areas. (A companion volume, The Frankfurt School on
    Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers, also edited by Mendieta,
    was published in 2004 by Routledge.)

    On the one hand, religion's return -- Habermas, perhaps with the
    American situation foremost in mind, goes so far as to speak of the
    emergence of "post-secular societies" -- presents us with undeniable
    dangers and risks. While theodicy has traditionally provided men and
    women with consolation for the harsh injustices of fate, it has also
    frequently taught them to remain passively content with their lot. It
    devalues worldly success and entices believers with the promise of
    eternal bliss in the hereafter. Here the risk is that religion may
    encourage an attitude of social passivity, thereby contravening
    democracy's need for an active and engaged citizenry. To wit, the
    biblical myth of the fall perceives secular history as a story of
    decline or perdition from which little intrinsic good may emerge.

    On the other hand, laissez-faire's success as a universally revered
    economic model means that, today, global capitalism's triumphal march
    encounters few genuine oppositional tendencies. In that regard,
    religion, as a repository of transcendence, has an important role to
    play. It prevents the denizens of the modern secular societies from
    being overwhelmed by the all-encompassing demands of vocational life
    and worldly success. It offers a much-needed dimension of otherness:
    The religious values of love, community, and godliness help to offset
    the global dominance of competitiveness, acquisitiveness, and
    manipulation that predominate in the vocational sphere. Religious
    convictions encourage people to treat each other as ends in themselves
    rather than as mere means.

    One of Habermas's mentors, the Frankfurt School philosopher Max
    Horkheimer, once observed that "to salvage an unconditional meaning"
    -- one that stood out as an unqualified Good -- "without God is a
    futile undertaking." As a stalwart of the Enlightenment, Habermas
    himself would be unlikely to go that far. But he might consider
    Horkheimer's adage a timely reminder of the risks and temptations of
    all-embracing secularism. Habermas stressed in a recent public lecture
    "the force of religious traditions to articulate moral intuitions with
    regard to communal forms of a dignified human life." As forceful and
    persuasive as our secular philosophical precepts might be -- the idea
    of human rights, for example -- from time to time they benefit from
    renewed contact with the nimbus of their sacral origins.

    Last April Habermas presented a more systematic perspective on
    religion's role in contemporary society at an international conference
    on "Philosophy and Religion" at Poland's Lodz University. One of the
    novelties of Habermas's Lodz presentation, "Religion in the Public
    Sphere," was the commendable idea that "toleration" -- the bedrock of
    modern democratic culture -- is always a two-way street. Not only must
    believers tolerate others' beliefs, including the credos and
    convictions of nonbelievers; it falls due to disbelieving secularists,
    similarly, to appreciate the convictions of religiously motivated
    fellow citizens. From the standpoint of Habermas's "theory of
    communicative action," this stipulation suggests that we assume the
    standpoint of the other. It would be unrealistic and prejudicial to
    expect that religiously oriented citizens wholly abandon their most
    deeply held convictions upon entering the public sphere where, as a
    rule and justifiably, secular reasoning has become our default
    discursive mode. If we think back, for instance, to the religious
    idealism that infused the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and
    1960s, we find an admirable example of the way in which a biblical
    sense of justice can be fruitfully brought to bear on contemporary
    social problems.

    The philosopher who addressed these issues most directly and
    fruitfully in recent years was John Rawls. In a spirit of collegial
    solidarity, Habermas, in his Lodz paper, made ample allusion to
    Rawlsian ideals. Perhaps Rawls's most important gloss on religion's
    role in modern politics is his caveat or "proviso" that, to gain a
    reasonable chance of public acceptance, religious reasons must
    ultimately be capable of being translated into secular forms of
    argumentation. In the case of public officials -- politicians and the
    judiciary, for example -- Rawls raises the secular bar still higher.
    He believes that, in their political language, there is little room
    for an open and direct appeal to nonsecular reasons, which, in light
    of the manifest diversity of religious beliefs, would prove extremely
    divisive. As Habermas affirms, echoing Rawls: "This stringent demand
    can only be laid at the door of politicians, who within state
    institutions are subject to the obligation to remain neutral in the
    face of competing worldviews." But if that stringent demand is on the
    politician, Habermas argues, "every citizen must know that only
    secular reasons count beyond the institutional threshold that divides
    the informal public sphere from parliaments, courts, ministries, and

    With his broad-minded acknowledgment of religion's special niche in
    the spectrum of public political debate, Habermas has made an
    indispensable stride toward defining an ethos of multicultural
    tolerance. Without such a perspective, prospects for equitable global
    democracy would seem exceedingly dim. The criterion for religious
    belief systems that wish to have their moral recommendations felt and
    acknowledged is the capacity to take the standpoint of the other. Only
    those religions that retain the capacity to bracket or suspend the
    temptations of theological narcissism -- the conviction that my
    religion alone provides the path to salvation -- are suitable players
    in our rapidly changing, post-secular moral and political universe.

    Richard Wolin is a professor of history, comparative literature, and
    political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New
    York. His books include The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual
    Romance With Fascism From Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton
    University Press, 2004).

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