What do the Pope and the secular philosopher Jürgen Habermas have in common, asks Jonathan Rée
Since the beginning of the 18th century, scientific materialists have been confident of eventual victory in their battle with religion. But the experience of the last 100 years has not been encouraging. They have kept kicking the God delusion out of the door, only to find religionists smuggling it back in through the window, often to great acclaim. Surely there has been some misunderstanding?
The materialistic militants certainly underestimated the resources of their enemies – their reserves not only of common stupidity but of subtle intelligence too. They have persisted in treating religion as a doctrinal treadmill – an unchanging recitation of archaic superstitions, with no capacity for development, criticism or innovation. But religion is in fact always changing, and it is certainly not what it used to be. The old believers liked to place their trust in a single consolidated truth, embodied in an authoritative institution that would eventually conquer the world and command universal assent, whereas the new believers regard belief as essentially personal and local, fragmented and perspectival. They are as likely to seek wisdom in a diffident apprehension of paradox as in a strident proclamation of eternal verities. Meanwhile the scientists have abandoned the pragmatic and provisional conceptions of truth favoured by most of their predecessors, in order to take up residence in the absolutist metaphysical structures formerly occupied by religious believers. The scientific virtues of attentiveness, modesty and flexibility have become more conspicuous amongst religionists than materialists. The new believers may be just as benighted as the old, but they are benighted in different ways. Religion has moved on, leaving the shock troops of the scientific church militant tilting at windmills.
If you turn from natural science to social science, the prospect is not quite so dispiriting. Comte, Mill, Spencer, Durkheim and the other 19th-century pioneers were all anti-religionists – God was Dead, they thought, so Long Live Sociology – but they were deeply interested in what religion meant, how it was changing, and what might eventually replace it. And when Max Weber relaunched the enterprise at the beginning of the 20th century, it was all about religion, though in a negative way: the leading theme of sociology was to be “modernity”, meaning the rise of rationality both in theory and in practice, and it became axiomatic that religion, being “essentially irrational and anti-rational”, would be destroyed by modernisation and the consequent “disenchantment” of the world.
Social scientists spent most of the past century trying to work out why the world was failing to live up to their expectations: why was there still so much rural idiocy, and why was religion refusing to go away? No one has brought more intellectual heft to these problems than Jürgen Habermas, the Frankfurt philosophy professor who has been Germany’s leading public intellectual for almost forty years. The turning point in his life, as he recently recalled, was the defeat of his country in 1945, when he was fifteen. “The society in which we led what seemed to be a halfway normal life,” he writes, was suddenly “exposed as pathological and criminal,” and “nothing could be taken at face value” any more. He remembers listening to the Nuremberg trials on the radio and coming to realise that he had been brought up in “a mind-numbing enclave of ‘fatherland’ kitsch.” Over the following decade he was blown away by “the emancipatory spirit of Modernism” – especially the literature and philosophy of Britain, France and America – and began to yearn for “democracy” not only as a usable political form but as an ultimate ethical ideal.
Meanwhile the Federal Republic remained authoritarian, conservative and imperturbably complacent, and Habermas decided to take revenge by turning to social theory and reviving its commitment to the progress of secular reason. In his most influential work, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), he updated the idea of rational modernity by defining it in terms of the norms inherent in linguistic practices. Merely to engage in discourse, he argued, was to sign up to a kind of contract in which you undertook to treat other people’s words as you would expect them to treat yours: not uncritically of course, but always respectfully, reasonably, even charitably.
We are living in a “post-metaphysical age”, Habermas argued – an age in which the old idea of discovering objective truths has had to be discarded in favour of “communicative action” aimed at reaching agreement with others. And religion, insofar as it claimed to be based on revelations that were not universally accessible, had no place in such a world: if you thought you had a private short-cut to truth and salvation you would not be able to engage in genuine modern discursive exchange. Religious concepts had of course helped shape the values of modern democracy, but they now belonged to a past that was definitively over. “The authority of the holy”, as he put it, had been replaced by “the authority of an achieved consensus”.
Religionists accused Habermas of contradicting himself: the advocate of discursive openness seemed to be sidelining religious beliefs without engaging with them. They had a point, and – though he has always remained anti-religious, or at least a “methodological atheist” – Habermas was uneasy too. We should not “speak about one another”, as he remarked, if we were not prepared to “speak with one another”. As far back as the mid-1970s he ventured into the Jesuit Hochschule für Philosophie in Munich to defend his secular “discourse ethics”, and in 2007 he made a return visit to deliver a lecture on religion which has now been translated, along with responses from his hosts and a reply from Habermas himself, as An Awareness of What Is Missing.
To all appearances, Habermas’s attitude to religion has softened in the 30-year interval. He had anticipated the change in a speech in Frankfurt back in 2001: it was a few weeks after the attacks on Washington and New York, and he took the opportunity to suggest that the post-metaphysical world was moving into a “post-secular” phase where the conflict between science and religion need no longer be seen as a “zero-sum game”. This dark but intriguing comment was clarified in Munich three years later when he engaged in an astonishing dialogue with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Addressing an audience at the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, the secular social theorist conceded that the modernity he stood for could never be self-sufficient (“it owes its origins to something else”, as he put it) and paid tribute to the intellectual resources of religion in general, especially the Catholic notions of “natural light” and “natural law”. To which the Cardinal responded with the disarming claim that the natural law tradition had been “capsized” by “the victory of the theory of evolution”, and the admission that religion suffered from “pathologies” that could only be cured by the application of secular reason.
Not long afterwards, Habermas was awarded the Kyoto prize for his contribution to the “spiritual betterment of mankind”, and Ratzinger was elected Pope; but you might say it could just as well have been the other way round. The truth is that Habermas and Ratzinger are intellectual twins. Both of them were born in Germany in the late 1920s, and were hence “old enough to have witnessed the fundamental changes,” as Habermas puts it, “yet young enough not to have been incriminated.” They were also equipped with a training in the history of philosophy in a grand old 19th-century style. Philosophising, for them, is not a matter of trying to figure things out for ourselves with whatever means we can lay our hands on, but of going into a kind of philosophical closet and trying to make a reasonable selection from a variety of ready-made garments.
Reason, for example, is available in several different cuts: you can have the Critical style, sober, modern, and understated, or the older and more flamboyant version associated with the Enlightenment, or the original Classical design from Ancient Greece. Ratzinger and Habermas are on exactly the same page when it comes to the question of reason and religion: it depends, for them, on how you choose to combine Greek logic, Christian love, and Judaic and Islamic law. And Habermas’s Jesuit interlocutors in 2007 were also happy to go along with his suggestion that, having now arrived at a post-secular age, we should start looking back to the “axial age” – a hypothetical golden moment of consensus some 2,500 years ago, before the East split from the West, and before logic, law and love fell out with each other – for the sources of a new synthesis.
Consensus, consensus, consensus. Even those who are attracted by Habermas’s notion of consensus as the intellectual gold-standard of a “post-metaphysical age” may start worrying about getting too much of a good thing. Religious believers are typically more interested in what divides them than in points of agreement, and much the same applies to the various social and natural sciences, except when they are in terminal decline. We may or may not be living in post-secular times, but difference still rules, and differing ways of experiencing the world are not going to melt into each other except in the land where the lion lies down with the lamb and parallel lines converge.
If Habermas and his left-footed friends think they have consensus in their grasp it is because they are fishing with such broad-meshed nets that they don’t have a hope of catching the diverse, elusive and dappled experiences that make religion an urgent passion for some, and an object either of loathing or indifference to others. Social scientists, like natural scientists and theologians, should try to be more specific.