Monday, June 26, 2006

A brief review of Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion. Philosophische Aufsätze (“Between Naturalism and Religion. Philosophical Essays”)

"Criticism of religion is nothing new. Since the Enlightenment call to “think for yourself,” religion has been criticised for being dogmatic, superstitious, unscientific and illusionary. And this has had real benefits.

A religion, like any comprehensive system of beliefs, needs rational critique if it is to avoid falling into ideological dogmatism. Rational critics have helped many religious believers to see that to have faith does not mean to be without doubt. A healthy faith does not think that it already has all the answers; it lives with the hope that its basic beliefs are true. Fundamentally, faith is an adventure of love guided by reason.

A recent book from the German philosopher of communication Jürgen Habermas, entitled Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion. Philosophische Aufsätze (“Between Naturalism and Religion. Philosophical Essays”) is interesting in this regard as it argues that the major intellectual challenge of our age is the need to move beyond the dogmatisms of both naturalism and religious fundamentalism.

The book starts with a fascinating account of Habermas’s own history of growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II. Surgery on his palate left him with serious communication difficulties and resulted in early experiences of being misunderstood by other children and rejected. These experiences also left him with a strong sense of the sociality of our human nature, of the fact that we are dependent upon one another in a very profound way. He notes that his theory of social communication is influenced by this as well as by the sense that something had gone tragically wrong with German democracy. As a result, the aim of his life’s work has been to develop an understanding of democracy that can protect itself from the dogmatisms of ideologies that unjustly exclude others and prevent real dialogue.

Turning his sights on naturalism, which he understands to be the belief that natural physico-chemical processes can explain everything, Habermas explores the example of some contemporary German neuro-scientists who have tried to explain human freedom as an illusion created by purely natural mechanisms. Despite a vast amount of philosophical critique of this reductionistic position since the nineteenth-century, they still present the human mind and freewill as being totally determined by physiological and biochemical processes.

Taking a Kantian line, Habermas understands freedom as the autonomous use of the will and not simply something determined by biology. An act is free, for Habermas, when the actor uses his or her will to bring about a purposeful action. When this is not the case, as in the situation of being externally determined, then we are not acting freely.

Habermas is not against naturalism per se; rather, he is against the tendency to make this naturalistic dogma into an unquestionable scientific worldview.

On the other side of this cultural tug-of-war, he considers the growth of religious fundamentalism and its political significance. While arguing against the exclusivist dogmatism of fundamentalist religious engagements in political life, he considers enlightened religions to offer important resources for the well-being of democracy. In fact, he notes that religions have often been trend-setters for human rights and for the emergence of modern democracy itself.

Contrary to a position which he held in his earlier days, he suggests that the secularist ideology of naturalism needs to be overcome if enlightened religions are to take their rightful place in the democratic debates of the modern world. This secularist worldview has, he argues, often unjustly eliminated religious voices from public debate and relegated them to the sidelines of irrationality and dogmatism. Yet, Habermas himself is somewhat unclear about this secularist position, since in parts of the book he continues to characterise religious conceptions of the good life as being essentially non-discursive and hence needing to be translated into a publicly accessible language for political use. Despite his attempt to find a way beyond naturalism and fundamentalism he still seems to find it difficult to avoid the Kantian reduction of religion to simply a motivating force for morality. Notwithstanding some excellent analysis of the dilemmas posed by the spread of scientific naturalism and religious fundamentalism, when it comes to religion, Habermas himself still seems to share some of the secularist ideology that he wants to criticise.

Nonetheless, this book is a reminder that if pluralistic societies are to move beyond the dogmatisms of both scientific naturalism and religious fundamentalism, all positions presented in democratic debate must be exposed to rational critique. Only through such critique can the dangers of ideological blindness be minimised and the resources offered by alternative positions be made available to our democracies. In the end it is reasoned argument which overcomes dogmatism, a position Habermas himself has defended with great skill and conviction all his life."

from here

Thanks to Gary for the link.

for further reviews of the book see here

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