By Peter Gordon
The New Republic,
Edited by Andy Ross
In October 2001, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, then aged 72,
started talking about religion. His turn to religion amplifies philosophical and
political themes that have preoccupied him for many years.
was a philosopher in the Hegelian tradition of Western Marxism. He was
raised on the insights of the Frankfurt School and his teachers were Theodor
Adorno and Max Horkheimer. But he eventually concluded that his teachers had
backed themselves into a corner with their totalizing critique of reason as
such. He abandoned their apologetics for Marxism and made his peace with European social
Habermas was a young man in postwar West Germany. In his magnum opus,
Theory of Communicative Action (1981), Habermas tried to show how the
structure of human language promises mutual understanding and a rational
consensus that can serve as the basis for a truly democratic polity.
Habermas saw that as reason expands
its reach, the contents of our religious heritage must undergo a trial of
rationalization. The ideas that were once considered beyond scrutiny must be
refashioned into propositional claims that are susceptible to criticism. His
new work on religion is built upon the philosophy and sociology of religion.
One month after 9/11, the Bush administration had rushed to a crusading war
on terror. Habermas: "If we want to avoid a clash of civilizations, we must
keep in mind that the dialectic of our own occidental process of
secularization has not yet come to a close."
Some conservatives in Europe continue to believe that Christianity is a
necessary component of modern civilization. Many theorists of democracy
regard the secular Enlightenment as a precondition for the rise of
democratic institutions, but some conservative political theorists blame
overzealous secularization for the rise of Nazism as a new kind of paganism.
Habermas disagrees with proponents of thoroughgoing
secularization who seem intent upon denying religion any role in politics. He accepts that monotheistic religion may furnish moral insights
that can be useful to secular democracies. The West has been shaped by a
continuous philosophical appropriation of "semantic contents" from the
Habermas claimed that the authority of the holy could
be gradually replaced by the authority of an achieved consensus. The
language was rationalist and seemed consonant with the
belief that religion was destined to disappear.
But now Habermas prefers to speak of translation as the only mode of
"nondestructive secularization" whereby modern society might salvage the
moral feelings that "only religious language has as yet been able to give a
sufficiently differentiated expression".
The idea of translation
works well in the context of modern democracy where we need to provide
reasons for the policies we advocate. Yet these reasons cannot presuppose
that everyone shares the same metaphysical vision of reality. In a
multicultural democracy we must submit to a relativization of moral vision.
I must be willing to back up my claims with reasons that all other citizens
could recognize as at least potentially binding no matter what they may
believe. This is the price of democracy.
This requirement seems to
place an unequal burden on religious members of a society, but Habermas
tries to present the task of translation as a reciprocal learning process in
which burdens are symmetrical. He dresses up the unidirectionality of
translation to promote a vision of reciprocity.
What Habermas used to call the "linguistification of the sacred" he now
calls translation. The theory of translation is essentially a theory of
secularization mapped onto democratic discourse. Perhaps there is nothing in
religion that requires translation. Habermas acknowledges that religious
rituals and practices appear to have no obvious secular counterpart.
Habermas observes that in our ethical reasoning we provide justification
in the language of universalistic concepts that presuppose the freedom of
the individual. But to act on our insight into the solidarity of the human
collective we may need more than good reasons. Habermas says profane reason
"loses its grip on the images, preserved by religion, of the moral whole —
of the Kingdom of God on Earth — as collectively binding ideals."
Habermas was not endorsing religion and condemning reason. What is missing
is the unity of a world reconciled with itself, a world that is rational not
merely in promise but also in substance. Habermas meant that reason is too
fallible to dismiss the possibility that religious traditions may still be
Habermas suggests that in a democracy one should not
exclude from the public sphere any religious culture whose normative
insights admit of translation. But religious citizens must submit to the
reciprocal game of public critique.
By Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian, 15 February 2017
Edited by Andy Ross
Jürgen Habermas was a member of the Hitler Youth. Too young to fight and too
old to be exempted from war service, he manned Flak defenses. He was shaken
by the Nuremberg trials and news about Nazi KZ camps. He became disenchanted
with Martin Heidegger and joined the Frankfurt school led by Max Horkheimer
and Theodor Adorno.
Adorno: "Hitler imposes a new categorical
imperative on human beings in their condition of unfreedom: to arrange their
thought and action so that Auschwitz would not repeat itself."
Frankfurt school saw that under advanced industrial capitalism, humans were
pinned beneath the shadow of the Verblendungszusammenhang (total system of
delusion). We are bewitched by our consumer durables, made frivolous by the
culture industry, thwarted from using democracy to change an irksome system
because it is corrupted by money.
Habermas, 1979: "I do not share the
basic premise of critical theory, the premise that instrumental reason has
gained such dominance that there is really no way out of a total system of
delusion, in which insight is achieved only in flashes by isolated
Habermas crafted a full response to Adorno's despairing
and elitist philosophy in his
1981 two-volume magnum opus
Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns (Band 1, Handlungsrationalität
und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung; Band 2, Zur Kritik der
Habermas, 2005: "Among the modern
societies only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the
essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the
merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human."