Rethinking secularism:

A postsecular world society?: An interview with Jürgen Habermas

posted by Eduardo Mendieta

The following is a short excerpt from a recent interview with Jürgen Habermas. Click here to read the interview in its entirety [pdf].

Translated by Matthias Fritsch.

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EM: Over the last couple of years you have been working on the question of religion from a series of perspectives: philosophical, political, sociological, moral, and cognitive. In your Yale lectures from the fall of 2008, you approached the challenge of the vitality and renewal of religion in world society in terms of the need to rethink the link between social theory and secularization theory. In those lectures, you suggest that we need to uncouple modernization theory from secularization theory. Does this mean that you are taking distance from the dominant trends in social theory in the West, which began with Pareto, continued through Durkheim, and reached their apogee in Weber, and thus also from its explicit and avowed Eurocentrism?

JH: We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The debate over the sociological thesis of secularization has led to a revision above all in respect to prognostic statements. On the one hand, the system of religion has become more differentiated and has limited itself to pastoral care, that is, it has largely lost other functions. On the other hand, there is no global connection between societal modernization and religion’s increasing loss of significance, a connection that would be so close that we could count on the disappearance of religion. In the still undecided dispute as to whether the religious USA or the largely secularized Western Europe is the exception to a general developmental trend, José Casanova for example has developed interesting new hypotheses. In any case, globally we have to count on the continuing vitality of world religions.

In view of the consequences of which you speak, I consider the program of the group around Shmuel Eisenstadt and its comparative research on civilizations promising and informative. In the emerging world society, and concerning the social infrastructure, there are, as it were, by now only modern societies, but these appear in the form of multiple modernities because the great world religions have had a great culture-forming power over the centuries, and they have not yet entirely lost this power. As in the West, these “strong” traditions paved the way in East Asia, in the Middle East, and even in Africa for the development of cultural structures that confront each other today—for example, in the dispute over the right interpretation of human rights. Our Western self-understanding of modernity emerged from the confrontation with our own traditions. The same dialectic between tradition and modernity repeats itself today in other parts of the world. There, too, one reaches back to one’s own traditions to confront the challenges of societal modernization, rather than to succumb to them. Against this background, intercultural discourses about the foundations of a more just international order can no longer be conducted one-sidedly, from the perspective of “first-borns.” These discourses must become habitual [sich einspielen] under the symmetrical conditions of mutual perspective-taking if the global players are to finally bring their social-Darwinist power games under control. The West is one participant among others, and all participants must be willing to be enlightened by others about their respective blind spots. If we were to learn one lesson from the financial crisis, it is that it is high time for the multicultural world society to develop a political constitution.

EM: Let me come back to my original question: If we no longer can explain modernization in terms of secularization, how then can we speak about societal progress?

JH: The secularization of state power is the hard core of the process of secularization. I see this as a liberal achievement that should not get lost in the dispute among world religions. But I never counted on progress in the complex dimension of the “good life”.  Why should we feel happier [glücklicher] than our grandparents or the liberated Greek slaves in ancient Rome? Of course one person is luckier [hat mehr Glück] than another. As if at sea, individual fates are exposed to a sea of contingencies. And happiness [das Glück] is distributed as unjustly today as ever. Perhaps something changed in the course of history in the subjective coloration of existential experiences. But no progress alters the crises of loss, love, and death. Nothing mitigates the personal pain of those who live in misery, who feel lonely or are sick, who experience tribulations, insults or humiliation. This existential insight into anthropological constants, however, should not lead us to forget the historical variations, including the indubitable historical progress that exists in all those dimensions in which human beings can learn

I do not mean to dispute that much has been forgotten in the course of history. But we cannot intentionally go back to a point prior to the results of learning processes. This explains the progress in technology and science, as well as the progress in morality and law—that is, the de-centering of our ego- or group-centered perspectives, when the point is to nonviolently end conflicts of action. These social-cognitive kinds of progress already refer to the further dimension of the increase in reflection, that is, the ability to step back behind oneself. This is what Max Weber meant when he spoke of “disenchantment.”

We can indeed trace the, for now, last socially relevant push in the reflexivity of consciousness to Western modernity. In early modernity, the instrumental attitude of state bureaucracy toward a political power largely free of moral norms signifies such a reflexive step, as does the instrumental attitude, appearing at about the same time, toward a methodologically objectified nature, which first of all makes possible modern science. Of course, I have in mind, above all, steps of self-reflection to which, in the seventeenth century, rational law and autonomous art owe themselves; then, in the eighteenth century, rational morality and the internalized religious and artistic forms of expression of pietism and romanticism; as well as, finally, in the nineteenth century, historical enlightenment and historicism. These are cognitive pushes that have widespread effects—and which do not permit themselves to be easily forgotten.

It is also in connection with this widespread push toward reflection that we have to view the progressive disintegration of traditional, popular piety. Two specifically modern forms of religious consciousness emerged from this: on the one hand, a fundamentalism that either withdraws from the modern world or turns aggressively toward it; on the other, a reflective faith that relates itself to other religions and respects the fallible insights of the institutionalized sciences as well as human rights. This faith is still anchored in the life of a congregation and should not be confused with the new, deinstitutionalized forms of a fickle religiosity that has withdrawn entirely into the subjective.

Click here to read the remainder of this interview [pdf].

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