Religion in the public sphere, Rethinking secularism:


posted by Hans Joas

zwischen-naturalismus-und-religion.jpgMore than most other great systematic thinkers of our time, Jürgen Habermas has for decades consistently expressed his views on the burning issues of the day, finding inspiration for his philosophical work in contemporary realities. There is still no sign of any let-up in his tremendous capacity to produce analyses of the contemporary world. With his new volume of essays, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, the philosopher now presents us with a collection of writings from the 2001-2004 period; while it is rather heterogeneous in nature, it offers points of contact for multifarious interests for this very reason. Some of the chapters will be of interest primarily to those grappling with the finer points of the internal architecture of Habermas’ system of thought. But much of the book is of more general interest, and it begins with a moving autobiographical text that will leave few readers untouched.

Until now, Habermas, who has never shied away from the public arena or even from disputes with personal overtones, has always tended to be rather reserved and unforthcoming about the biographical roots of his own intellectual and political involvements. For the first time, he now reflects publicly on the painful experiences arising from his disability and the associated operations, communicative difficulties and others’ hurtful remarks. He also describes how deeply shaken he was by the events of 1945, events of crucial significance to him (and to many members of the same generation in Germany), and outlines their consequences. This clarifies the forces driving this thinker, as well as his well-nigh inexhaustible energy, in a way that goes far beyond the intellectual.

As the title indicates, Habermas identifies two opposing tendencies as characteristic of the intellectual predicament of the immediate present: “the spread of naturalistic world views and the growing political influence of religious orthodoxies”. In referring to “naturalism”, Habermas is mainly thinking of the tendency of certain German brain researchers such as Wolf Singer and Gerhard Roth (who have risen to prominence as a result), to explain all processes traditionally described as mental “solely on the basis of observable physiological conditions”. Within the public debate, it is the thesis that actors’ consciousness of freedom with respect to their own actions is a mere illusion that has proved most explosive. In recent years, philosophers have responded to this thesis on a number of occasions with finely nuanced arguments, yet they have been unable to convince the naturalists to make more than merely verbal corrections. Most of the responses boil down to the claim that philosophy and the social sciences themselves overcame the notion of freedom of will as an arbitrary phenomenon entirely devoid of conditions and context by the 19th century at the latest, and conclude that the brain researchers’ attacks are thus directed at a bogeyman. Habermas now draws on a number of these criticisms (in the chapter “Freedom and Determinism”), knitting them together into a persuasive synthesis. With the idea that free will might make itself felt at least in the form of a veto on sequences of events set in motion unconsciously, Benjamin Libet, on whose experiments the brain researchers largely base their arguments, has already adopted a far less extreme stance. Going beyond this, Habermas now emphasizes, above all, the role of the reasons for action: “The actor is free if he wants that which he considers to be the right outcome of his reflections. We only experience as bondage an externally imposed constraint that compels us to act differently than we wish to act in line with our own understanding.” If this is correct, then a dualism of perspectives becomes unavoidable; the subjectively experienced consciousness of freedom contrasts with an observer’s perspective, on the basis of which one enquires into causes and regularities and which can be expanded into a natural scientific determinism. Habermas also goes beyond the typical philosophical criticisms in that he is prepared to see this dualism itself as a result of natural history, in other words of the evolution of homo sapiens. This enables him to integrate a wealth of anthropological findings into his critique of a biologistic world view. As a consequence, however, the concept of naturalism is rendered ambiguous. Habermas certainly supports the idea of naturalizing the mind; the origins of his arguments, after all, lie in pragmatism rather than a traditional idealism. But debating the right kind of naturalism is not the same thing as battling against it. It is not naturalism as such that must be combated, but a specific speculative interpretation of biological findings which raises them to the status of world view. The wording of the volume sometimes fails to make this sufficiently clear, and the same applies to the choice of title.

A curious ambiguity is also noticeable with respect to the other great tendency of our times. When Habermas speaks of the growing influence of religious orthodoxies, the reader may ask himself, even before getting past the first sentence in the book, whether we should be grappling solely with this influence or whether we would be better advised to tackle the political significance of religion as a whole. It is in fact implausible to describe the spectacular instances of politicized religion in the present era, such as a violent Islamism or Protestant fundamentalism in the USA, as orthodoxies in the first place – as if their exponents were greatly concerned with traditional teachings or theological consistency. The volume contains a number of chapters which discuss the position of religion within the public sphere in masterly fashion. The leitmotif here is the issue of the mutual impositions which religious and secular citizens must endure with respect to the “public deployment of reason” within a democracy. Drawing on ideas prefigured by John Rawls in the last years of his life, Habermas goes far beyond the militantly laicist or secularist self-understanding long characteristic of his work – further, indeed, than he had gone already in his sensational Peace Prize speech of 2001. If religion tended to appear in the latter context as an object in need of taming, it is increasingly considered (and for good reason, historically speaking) to have paved the way for democracy and human rights. Habermas vehemently opposes the notion that the separation of state and church (about whose institutional variability he might have gone into more detail) ought to be extended to the opinions of organizations and citizens in the public sphere. His aim here is not just to foster respect for religion but to “overcome self-reflexively an entrenched and exclusive secularist self-understanding of modernity”. In his introduction to a discussion with Joseph Ratzinger, Habermas also elects quite unambiguously to interpret the ideological neutrality of the state as including the maintenance of a certain distance not only from various religious world views, but also from a secularist one. In this text, Habermas breaks Böckenförde’s famous question regarding the guaranteeing of the normative preconditions of the liberal state down into a series of sub-questions; at the end of this chapter, he comes to this religion-friendly conclusion, though this should in no way be taken as an indication of a creeping religious conversion.

But the texts in this volume, conceptually brilliant as they are, are nonetheless pervaded with sideswipes and cross-references symptomatic of attitudes which it is Habermas’ intention to overcome in these writings. The question posed by a colleague of “whether, from a comparative cultural and sociology of religion perspective, it is not European secularization that is the real ‘special way’ in need of correction” – a question quite unavoidable for any believer – triggers for Habermas associations with the prevailing mood of the Weimar Republic, with Carl Schmitt, Heidegger and Leo Strauss. He describes as surprising the political revitalization of religion in the USA – as if the civil rights movement had never happened. And while his reconstruction of Kant’s philosophy of religion and the history of its effects briefly mentions the great Protestant theologians Schleiermacher and Troeltsch, it immediately denigrates them by evoking the cliché of “cultural Protestantism”, as if they had robbed “the religious relationship to transcendence of its explosive inner-worldly force”; it would surely have been more appropriate to underline how they managed to combine a sensitivity to the contradictory elements of modernity with a very open-minded attitude to it. Habermas makes no mention at all of modern – rather than simply apologist – Catholic philosophy of religion since Scheler.

Furthermore, the concept of the postsecular society, which is now alleged to have come into existence, has become no more plausible despite multiple repetitions. There has after all been no sudden increase in the number of believers, nor has the state cast off its secular self-understanding. Habermas is concerned to overcome secularist ideologies – but these have never been unambiguously dominant and overcoming them does not, therefore, represent the transition to a new form of society. Habermas also persists in distinguishing religious convictions from “other ethical orientations and world views, that is, worldly ‘conceptions of the good’” by asserting that the former evade “unconditional discursive exploration”. I believe this to be a remnant of secularist self-misunderstanding. Worldly conceptions of the good are also anchored in biographical and historical experiences. These can certainly be explicated, but human beings cannot simply detach themselves from their perceived evident nature. Autobiographical retrospects, including the one in this volume, generally make this very clear.

In these writings, Habermas presents himself as a new Kant (however much he might keep his distance from him in relation to specific issues) – a Kant of communicative reason and of the post-Darwin era. It is no coincidence that the study of Kant’s philosophy of religion is the most brilliant in the volume. Habermas also adopts the stance towards religion characteristic of the moralist Kant in its multiple manifestations. The more technical sections of the volume – examinations of thinkers associated with Habermas in various ways such as Adorno, Apel, McCarthy and Menke – demonstrate the enormous aspirations of this philosophy. And the closing chapter, in which Habermas joins in the debates on reform of the UN, is consciously reminiscent of Kant’s reflections on perpetual peace, presented as a draft agreement. Habermas no longer expounds his erstwhile faith in the motivating force of morality as such; and he has also overcome his exclusive concentration on the law, which was an attempt to make up for this lack. But as with Kant, the fascination exerted by religion remains tightly fenced in by morality. The call for a productive dialogue between believers and non-believers has, however, rarely been made with such eloquence and concision.

[Translated by Alex Skinner.]

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