Thursday, January 09, 2014

Jurgen Habermas' Changing Views on Religion

Northwestern University has, for a long time, had an excellent philosophy department. When I was there I got to study with the likes of David Michael Levin and Reginald Allen. Years after I graduated, I saw that the brilliant and hugely influential German philosopher Jurgen Habermas was teaching there. I was too early. To sit in a class with Jurgen Habermas would have been surreal!

Recently an article on Habermas by Peter Berger, "What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God?" Citing an article by Philip Portier, there are three phases in Habermas' treatment of religion.

Phase 1 (up to the early 1980s) - In good Marxist tradition, religion is "an alienating reality, a powerful tool of domination for the powerful." Religion dealt in "irrational illusions" and would soon disappear.

Phase 2 (1985-2000) - Habermas now sees religion as unlikely to disappear. Many people "continue to need its consolations." "The public sphere, however, must be dominated by rationality. Religion must be relegated to private life."

Phase 3 (2000 - present) - Religion, rather than relegated to one's private life, now has a useful public function. I love this sentence from Berger: "Following in the footsteps of Ernst Bloch and other neo-Marxist philo-Godders, Habermas... credits Biblical religion, Judiasm and Christianity, for having driven out magical thinking, and for having laid the foundations of individual autonomy and rights." We're moving into a  "post-secular society," and religion provides the moral intuition that we need.

In 2007 Habermas was involved in a conversation with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Habermas credited "Christianity for being the purveyor of a universal egalitarianism and for an openness to reason, thus continuing to provide moral substance for democracy." What's happening to Habermas? Berger writes:

"As has been the case with most sociologists of religion, Habermas has looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory—that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion—does not fit the facts of the matter. Beyond this acknowledgement of the empirical reality of the contemporary world, Habermas admits the historical roots in Biblical religion of modern individualism, and he thinks that this connection is still operative today. Yet, when all is said and done, Habermas now has a positive view of religion (at least in its Judaeo-Christian version) for utilitarian reasons: Religion, whether true or not, is socially useful."

Any sociologist, writes Berger the sociologist, will agree that "religion is useful for the solidarity and moral consensus of society. The problem is that this utility depends on at least some people actually believing that there is the supernatural reality that religion affirms. The utility ceases when nobody believes this anymore." But that is not happening, as we are, thinks Habermas, becoming post-secular.

It will interesting to follow the further evolution of Jurgen Habermas.

See The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, by Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger

See also: 

Marcello Pera On the Moral Necessity of Assuming the Existence of God