Jürgen Habermas’ road to Rome?

Another paper – this time philosophical rather than scientific – that I’ve been sitting on for a while and wondering whether it deserves public comment, has forced its way back into my conscious mind. I refer to 14 pages of particularly turgid German prose by neo-marxian thinker Jürgen Habermas titled “Die Dialektik der Säkularisierung” (The Dialectic of Secularisation).

I sent this essay to my friends John Carter Wood and Anja Müller-Wood in Germany, and they have commented on it at length on their blog Obscene Desserts. There I left a few off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts, and collect these here together with a few added titbits.

Habermas’ article came to my attention via a short blog post by Norman Geras, who based his understanding of the essay on English-language commentaries such as the one by George Conger.

Norm is an atheist, but has of late taken a somewhat conciliatory approach to questions of religion in society. While I disagree with Norm on a few points, I very much value his thoughtfulness and philosophical expertise. I also agree with him that since religion remains an ingrained part of our culture, it will inevitably inform public life. Atheists, myself included, should accept this while continuing to combat the generally malign influence of religious cults on society.

But having not read Habermas’ article in the original German, Norm has failed to fully comprehend how excruciatingly bad it is. I have neither the time nor inclination to give you a detailed critique of Habermas’ views on secularism, and in any case I am not sufficiently competent when it comes to the lingo of structuralist epistemology. I simply urge you, if you can understand German, to read the article for yourselves, and reflect on it in the light of certain facts highlighted within the text, and also the wider context of Habermas’ intellectual journey. See Paolo Flores d’Arcais’ “Elf Thesen zu Habermas” for some background on this.

Habermas erects a massive straw man when he chides secularists who seek to exclude all religious discourse from civil society. Only the most unthinking atheists would attempt to do this; for the majority the primary struggle is to rid society of religious injunctions that violate reason and human rights. By that I mean the rights of non-believers, and also children, who are unable to choose for themselves.

Habermas’ essay is not short of factual howlers, and the first of these occurs in the opening sentence. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams may have made a complete dog’s breakfast of his intervention in the sharia and British society debate, but he has not actually called for the inclusion of elements of Muslim law into statutory family law. Here Habermas is over-interpreting the Anglican leader’s words.

The term “Postsäkularen Gesellschaft” is almost Buntingesque in its post-modern silliness. How can one talk of a post-secular society when we have not yet achieved a secular society?

When I talk of Habermas’ intellectual journey, I am referring obliquely to his sympathetic adoption of theological themes, and also his friendship with Josef Ratzinger, the current Bishop of Rome. With Habermas I see a deathbed conversion to Holy Mother Church.

“Wahrheitspotenzial” (truth potential) is an interesting term. In my opinion this could have meaning in the sense that religiously-minded people may be want to consider spiritual issues more than do atheists and agnostics. I stress the “may” there, and “spiritual” I use in its loosest possible sense. But like John Carter Wood I suspect that Habermas the philosopher is saying much more than this, and he is in fact making a strong epistemological point.

I find it difficult to believe that the erstwhile marxist philosopher has an emotional-spiritual bone in his body. Maybe this is what attracts him to Raztinger. This is religion as aesthetics rather than a personal relationship between a man and his god, or man and nature. It is something different from deism, but there is a definite overlap between organised theistic religion and this form of detached enlightenment thinking.

It may seem perverse, but the enlightenment could be said to have saved catholic Christianity. And when free-thinking comes along and threatens to do it in, religion is saved again by structuralist philosophy! It’s a funny old world.