Monday, October 13, 2003

Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies

Jürgen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies

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 ـbermenschen? 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 electorate.

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 soon.

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 debates.

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 administrations."

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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