The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on September 21, 2011
What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God?

Society is the social science journal superbly edited by Jonathan Imber. In its fall issue it carries an article by Philippe Portier (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris), entitled “Religion and Democracy in the Thought of Juergen Habermas”. Coincidentally, in a recent issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Habermas is on a list of German celebrity intellectuals who pop up continuously in the media. (The list includes Margot Kaessmann, the Protestant bishop who resigned after being caught driving under the influence. Curiously, she only became a celebrity after this unfortunate incident.) Habermas has been a public intellectual (a more polite term for celebrity) for a very long time. I have never been terribly interested in Habermas, but the coincidence made me think about him. Portier’s article does tell an intriguing story. It might be called a man-bites-dog story.

Habermas is exactly my age. Our paths crossed briefly in the 1960s, when he was a visiting professor in the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, where I was then teaching. We did not particularly take to each other.  I was put off by both his leftist politics and his ponderous philosophical language. (German philosophers, no matter where located on the ideological spectrum, vie with each other in producing texts which are comprehensible only to a small group of initiates.) I also sensed a certain professorial arrogance. I remember reading a response by Habermas to a critic, limited to the statement that he refused to discuss with an individual who quoted Hegel from a secondary source.

Habermas first received a doctorate in philosophy, but moved toward sociology under the influence of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, then acquired a second doctorate in the latter field under the fiercely Marxist Wolfgang Abendroth. In 1964 he became a professor in Frankfurt, as successor to Max Horkheimer, who by then was a neo-Marxist icon. Habermas was a hero of the so-called student revolution which erupted in the late 1960s. His students fanned out across West German academia, creating a network which for a while administered an effective ideological hegemony in the human sciences. At the time I found Habermas’ role in this rather objectionable. But I gave him credit for distancing himself sharply from the more radical wing of the student movement, as he later distanced himself from the anti-Enlightenment views of  the postmodernists. In 1981 Habermas published his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action, a strong endorsement of reason as the foundation of public life in a democracy. He retired from his professorship in 1993, but not from his role as an active advocate of Enlightenment rationality. It is debatable how far his more recent work still continues under a neo-Marxist theoretical umbrella. His views on religion have shifted considerably.

Portier distinguishes three phases in Habermas’ treatment of religion. In phase one, lasting up to the early 1980s, he still viewed religion as an “alienating reality”, a tool of domination for the powerful. In good Marxist tradition, he thought that religion would eventually disappear, as modern society comes to be based on “communicative rationality” and no longer needs the old irrational illusions. In phase two, roughly 1985-2000, this anti-religious animus is muted. Religion now is seen as unlikely to disappear, because many people (though presumably not Habermas) continue to need its consolations. The public sphere, however, must be exclusively dominated by rationality. Religion must be relegated to private life. One could say that in this phase, at least in the matter of religion, Habermas graduated from Marxism to the French ideal of laicite—the public life of the republic kept antiseptically clean of religious contamination.

Phase three is more interesting. As of the late 1990s Habermas’ view of religion is more benign. Religion is now seen as having a useful public function, quite apart from its private consolations. The “colonization” of society by “turbo-capitalism” (nice term—I don’t know if Habermas coined it) has created a cultural crisis and has undermined the solidarity without which democratic rationality cannot function. We are now moving into a “post-secular society”, which can make good use of the “moral intuition” that religion still supplies. Following in the footsteps of Ernst Bloch and other neo-Marxist philo-Godders, Habermas also credits Biblical religion, Judaism and Christianity, for having driven out magical thinking (here there is an echo of Max Weber’s idea of “ the disenchantment of the world”), and for having laid the foundations of individual autonomy and rights.

Habermas developed these ideas in a number of publications and media interviews. The most interesting source (not discussed by Portier in the article) is a 2007 publication by a Catholic press, The Dialectics of Secularization. It is a conversation between Habermas and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (at the time of this exchange head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, subsequently Pope Benedict XVI). Habermas here gives credit to Christianity for being the purveyor of a universal egalitarianism and for an openness to reason, thus continuing to provide moral substance for democracy. Not surprisingly, Ratzinger agreed.

I am not sure what Habermas’ personal beliefs are. But I don’t think that his change of mind about religion has anything to do with some sort of personal conversion. Rather, 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.

Let us stipulate that smoking is unhealthy. Let us then assume that a tribe in some remote jungle believes that tobacco smoke attracts malevolent spirits. A public health official sent into the region does not, of course, share this superstition. But he makes use of it in dissuading people from acquiring a taste for newly available cigarettes—because he knows that some people do the right thing for a wrong reason. Eventually, he thinks, people will do the right thing for a better reason. And that will be the end of the demonological theory of tobacco smoke.

Any sociologist will agree that religion, true or not, 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.

Edward Gibbon, in chapter 2 of his famous history of the decline of the Roman Empire, has this to say: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful”. When you cross the philosopher with the magistrate, you get Habermas.

  • James Lane

    Interesting article. You provide us with what I’ll call hypothetical situation A:

    Let us stipulate that smoking is unhealthy. Let us then assume that a tribe in some remote jungle believes that tobacco smoke attracts malevolent spirits. A public health official sent into the region does not, of course, share this superstition. But he makes use of it in dissuading people from acquiring a taste for newly available cigarettes—because he knows that some people do the right thing for a wrong reason. Eventually, he thinks, people will do the right thing for a better reason. And that will be the end of the demonological theory of tobacco smoke.

    Now let’s change things to hypothetical situation B:

    Supposing there is a tribe that stipulates that smoking attracts malevolent spirits. A member of that tribe comes to visit us and learns that we think smoking is unhealthful. Although he knows this is pure nonsense, he makes use of this in dissuading people from taking up smoking in order to keep away the demons. “Eventually, he thinks, people will do the right thing for a better reason.” That is, they will come to understand how it is important not to attract demons. And that will be the end of the health theory of tobacco smoke.

    Which of the two people, the public health official or the visiting tribesmen, has a clearer understanding of the world? Justify your answer.

    Who, in fact, will get to define the “real situation?” Why?

    Whose ideas will, in fact, survive in the long run?

  • John Barker

    @James Lane

    I don’t know if I could answer your specific questions, but whenever I visit Whole Foods or try to fix a meal for the young food “puritans” in my life, I begin to think I am somewhere on the boundary of science and religion; I know organic spinach is beneficial to the body, but sometimes I think I am participating in a ritual that will ensure long life for true believers who seem to live by a dietary regimen somewhat like the rules for Kosher foods.
    I don’t think we have really achieved a secular society, we just are better at disguising our beliefs. I for one take my spirituality straight and neat.

  • WigWag

    Professor Berger says that Habermas credits Christianity with having driven out magical thinking. I don’t know anything about Habermas, but this seems strange to me. I would contend that both Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity epitomize magical thinking. In fact, I think an argument can be made that the Orthodox Church views it’s chief business as magic at least if one views magic as the evocation by ritual of the spiritual experiences most critical to human existence.

    For how many millennia have Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians relied on the majestic glory of the mass to provide protection from evil forces both known and invisible?

    How many Christians like their churches dark precisely because that seems to make the church a particularly good hatching place for magic? What purpose does the sacramental bread and wine serve if not to join the mere mortal with the divine through the mediation of magic?

    If you remove the magic from Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity isn’t what you’re left with called Protestantism?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The following Habermas quote can be found at Wikipedia.com:

    “For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”[33]

    Wikipedia says the above statement was misquoted in a number of American newspapers and magazines as: “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization,”[34] which Habermas did not say.

    The likely reason Habermas is misunderstood is because he is incoherent. And he is incoherent because he is like a character out of Robert Musil’s A Man Without Qualities who has no self and thus struggles with what psychologists call boundary maintenance of his own thoughts.

    Perhaps E-Notes.com sums up Jurgen Habermas best: To his detractors, the result has been an amalgam of ill-fitting elements that merits comparison more to Rube Goldberg than with that of Marx.”

    Habermas
    Vichyssoise
    Same thing
    Both served cold

  • http://www.planetpeschel.com Bill Peschel

    Belief can provide solace, but religion also provides for an argument from authority (e.g., “God tells me that you’re evil”) that attacks reasoning from the facts.

  • James Lane

    @John Barker
    The answers to the questions are as follows:

    1) The tribesman has it right. Anyone who considers the tobacco industry can only conclude that it is demonic. Its main goal is to addict as many people as possible to a habit that will kill them, and it uses all of the powers of seduction and illusion that modern advertising has developed for this purpose. Finally it does all of this just to make a little bit of money.

    2) It depends on who has power and authority. If the tribesman went back and told the local shaman about the behavior of tobacco company executives, he would surely agree (quite correctly) that demons rule the modern world. On the other hand, since my physician has the power to declare me insane, I would think twice before I told him that demons overrun our world.

    3) The future is up for grabs. There is a long conflict in the West between Gnosticism and classical Christianity. Gnosticism (of which the modern world is a variation) holds that we can save ourselves through knowledge. Christianity holds to the demonic quality of the world, especially as it perverts the human will. Every time I read the news, I’m reminded of the Christian truth. But I know I’m in a minority. God only knows if the modern world will awaken from its Gnostic dream world in which the demons have us ensnared.

  • Pingback: Berger: What Happens When a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God? | the northampton seminar

  • Jim.

    It isn’t the “comforts” of Christian religion that are so useful to society; it is the *challenges* of that religion, in the form of moral codes, that make us better than the animals that Rationalists believe us to be.

    Feel like lying on your mortgage application to get a better house, and think you’re going to get away with it? The unshakeable belief that hellfire is the end result of that sort of thinking has a tremendously salutary effect on human behavior.

    Then, add to that the habit (weekly) of self-examination and absolution, amongst fellow believers who will reinforce, teach, and remind you of God’s (unchanging) expectations, and you’ve got a workable system.

    God gave us this system for a reason. He gave us this system for our eternal good, and it also does wonders for the temporal good of ourselves and those around us.

    But humans, like Habermas and his ilk, will always attempt to subvert this system from what God wants, because some of God’s commands are very much at odds with our sinful nature.

    So “secularization” is actually a pretty good guess as to the trajectory of humanity… if it weren’t for the fact that God still works in hearts and minds today.

    I would heartily recommend the works of CS Lewis to Herr Habermas, and devoutly hope that he follows Lewis’ path.

  • Pingback: Peter Berger on Habermas | theoutwardquest

  • Pingback: Peter Berger on Habermas’ Religion | The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:

  • Fred

    _Feel like lying on your mortgage application to get a better house, and think you’re going to get away with it? The unshakeable belief that hellfire is the end result of that sort of thinking has a tremendously salutary effect on human behavior._

    Maybe, but it seems to me the real importance of God is not that He rewards the good and punishes the evil but that He grounds the very distinction between good and evil. Without an objective moral order, good and evil are mere preferences (whether cultural or individual). In the absence of that objective order, Mother Theresa = Hitler morally speaking; there is no way to adjudicate which of those two is good and which is evil because the very terms are meaningless. An objective moral order can only come from God. In His absence we have only our preferences (with nothing to say that my preferences are better than Charles Manson’s) or our cultures’ preferences, with nothing to say that a culture that practices female circumcision, slavery, genocide, or honor killing is doing anything wrong (since wrong would be a meaningless term). The reason to be good is not fear of hell but because not to be good is a betrayal of the moral order inherent in creation, therefore the loving creator who put it there, and ourselves and our fellow human beings as His creatures.

  • Athena

    Mr. Peschel,
    You have just described the modern Left.

  • Moneyrunner

    I think the example of Hitler=Mother Teresa is true, but from the perspective of most people whose moral sense is inevitably shaped by a Judeo-Christian culture in which they have been marinated from birth, the equivalence is not really believable.

    A more logical, unemotional example is a nest of ants. Are there good ants and bad ants? To even ask the question is nonsense. Ant1=Ant2=Ant3, etc from a moral perspective. In the absence of God, the question of morality has no absolute meaning. The only question is one of utility. To get back to Hitler and Mother Teresa, it can be argued that Hitler is by far the more important and achieved a higher status for himself during most of his lifetime.

  • Bill

    “Any sociologist will agree that religion, true or not, 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.”

    That’s fantastic, so long as the moral consensus revolves around “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I don’t see many Christians practicing that. I see a lot more who think that Christendom is a gang, and it must defeat some rival gangs. I don’t doubt that there was a moral consensus in favor of many of the great injustices in our country’s history: the civilization of the natives; the dominance of the white people (oh, yes, that was the Supreme Court saying slaves were better here in slavery than back in Africa); etc., ad nauseum, right through contemporary attitudes towards gays, Moslems, etc. Don’t believe me? I bet this comment gets a torrent of “but Islam is evil!”.

    No doubt the Pharisees and the Sadduccees found themselves in a moral consensus, informed by divine revelation, that a certain, now quite famous, rabbi was a problem. God didn’t work out so well for God right there.

  • http://religiousatrocities.wordpress.com Jon Jermey

    “If you remove the magic from Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity isn’t what you’re left with called Protestantism?”

    No, it’s called Marxism. It seems to me that Habermas has spent his entire life looking for someone who can tell him what he is supposed to think.

  • Bill

    No doubt the Pharisees and the Sadducees found themselves in a moral consensus, informed by divine revelation, that a certain, now quite famous, rabbi was a problem. God didn’t work out so well for God right there.

  • el donaldo

    @Athena

    there may be many valid critiques of the “modern Left,” but argument from authority is the least viable

  • Lloyd

    Those commenting who say that without God, no morality, seem to have forgotten (or never learned) that even Thomas said that God willed things because they were good, and not that things are good because God wills them. Morality, for Catholic Christians anyway, is grounded in reason, not the will of God. Or has some Pope or other declared Aquinas mistaken? I am grateful that those taking such a line do believe in God, else they might
    wreak havoc. Ivan Karamazov is the great perpetrator of this hokum; Ivan’s creator, Dostoyevsky has him say: ‘If God does not exist, then anything is permitted’. Bizarrely, it follows from this, by modus tollens, that if there is something that is permitted, then God exists

  • Pingback: What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God? « Gyrovague's Raves

  • P.Winter

    Peter Berger, this article shows that you have no clue who Habermas is, you have obviously never seriously read his work, and the following comments are just pure comedy. This is below community college level. 20 minutes perfectly wasted, thanks A&L Daily.

  • Davis Davis

    One has to ask: What does one care that Berger, a minor intellectual, has a sniffy disregard for Habermas, a truly important one? The person who comes of as arrogant here is Berger, for score settling with someone whose reputation has, in the time since they crossed paths, swallowed his whole. Really a weak piece of writing; and one that produces in the reader the exact opposite effect intended.

  • Edwin

    @James Lane,

    It’s a bit ironic that you contrast “Gnosticism” with what you call the Christian recognition of the demonic quality of the world. I understand what you are getting at, but it was the Gnostics who thought the world was an evil dream from which we need to awake. Of course, it depends on what you mean by “world.” I understand that you probably didn’t mean “physical world.” But you didn’t really explain what you meant.

  • Pingback: Varieties of Ignorance « Choice in Dying

  • Charles

    The foundation of individual rights was laid in ancient Greece and Rome where every citizen had certain rights that could not be abridged, in contrast to the absolutist monarchies which surrounded them. A notable addition to this development was the creation of the tribunate in Rome, the first example of divided government in the world. Even St. Paul went to Rome to be tried, his right as a Roman citizen. Although these achievements were largely lost under late phases of both societies, the ideas survived and were revived in the 18th century by philosophers and statesmen who were either hostile or largely indifferent to religion, leading to the American and French revolutions and then the spread of democracy around the world. Mr. Berger has got his history upside down.

  • mark

    I don’t agree that Knowledge always must fail in the contest with demons, and that Gnosticism must lead as astray. Christianity teaches us to respect human life; so does a nuanced understanding of modern cosmology. For example, read John Leslie’s essay “The pre-requisites of life in the universe” and not be moved to a deeper appreciation of human beings and a sorrow at how cheaply life is spent in human conflict.

  • Kenneth

    From Jung’s standpoint, smoking DOES in fact attact evil spirits.

  • Pingback: What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God? | Peter Berger | De camino a la abulia

  • Richelieu

    Dear Professor Berger,

    Introducing a critique by laying out the grounds for your personal animosity rarely contributes to enhancing your own rigor of reasoning. That being said, I cannot quite grasp your thesis here. You seem to provide a gloss of Portier’s account of the “three phases” in Habermas’s intersection of religion with society. At the end, having read your article, I am left asking the question, “so what?” If we wanted to read Portier’s account, we can read that. But what is it you are actually saying here about Portier, or about Habermas himself, or even about Habermasian sociology as it relates to religion?

  • Pingback: What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God? | Peter Berger « Multitud

  • Pingback: My Weekly Reader | FavStocks

  • Good is God

    Morality describes the tension between fitness in an individual and fitness in a population. Its objective reality is proven by the growth of cultures exhibiting a balance favoring the population and the absence of alternatives.

  • Mnestheus

    There are some interesting parallels between how Habermas’ :

    “students fanned out across West German academia, creating a network which for a while administered an effective ideological hegemony in the human sciences”

    and the proliferation of militant ecology under Paul Ehrlich’s banner at the same time. In both instances, some few true believers are trying to rewrite enough recent history to facilitate a revival.

  • Mnestheus

    The manner in which Habermas’ “students fanned out across West German academia, creating a network which for a while administered an effective ideological hegemony in the human sciences.”

    seems to some degree paralleled by the proliferation – and present revival, of Paul Ehrlich’s ecological views, and those of such successors as Stephen Gould and Jared Diamond.

  • Pingback: Darwiniana » Habermas

  • limboman

    Just because many Evangelicals have a distrust of government does not mean that they do not “love their neighbor”. Keep in mind that many Anabaptists were persecuted and killed in Europe by corrupt governments. My ancestors fled France under such circumstances. If you were to look at my wife’s family tree, many branches were wiped out completely in the Soviet Union, murdered because of their religious beliefs (they were Mennonite).
    Can you blame us for wanting to keep the power and scope of government in check?

  • Pingback: Tasty Tidbits 10/3/11 « Tipsy Teetotaler

  • Tad McArdle

    Berger states: “Any sociologist will agree that religion, true or not, 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.”
    Alfred North Whitehead conceived of a God within nature; the supernatural had no interest for him. God was simply where all possibilities reside. “Collective enthusiasms, revivals, institutions, churches, rituals, bibles, codes of behaviour, are the trappings of religion, its passing forms…The end of religion is beyond all this.” And further: “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.”

  • Pingback: The Divine Conspiracy Blog » Blog Archive » Juergen Habermas

  • Vincent

    @ James Lane

    re: [Who, in fact, will get to define the “real situation?” Why? Whose ideas will, in fact, survive in the long run?]

    For a brilliant exposition on this topic, I would recommend Alisdair MacIntyre’s “Whose Justice, Which Rationality?”. MacIntrye’s answer is that which ever tradition/worldview is more adequately and completely able answer the questions of the other will prevail. It may be that at present the two worldviews are radically incommensurable, and it will require a development in one in order to appropriate and answer the questions of the other. (His primary example here is Aquinas’ appropriation of the Aristotelian tradition into Christian theology.)

  • craig

    Lloyd says:
    “…even Thomas said that God willed things because they were good, and not that things are good because God wills them.”

    Thomas is contrasting the Christian and Moslem understanding of God. Moslems hold precisely the latter view: Allah is absolute will, and a thing is only good so long as Allah wills it.

    Catholic Christians hold that reason and the natural moral law are intrinsically in harmony with the will of God. Rational order exists in the universe because God is the source and origin of both order and universe: rationality and the moral law are design attributes of creation just as are the laws of physics. As beings ‘created in His image’, we have innate knowledge that reason and the natural moral law are good. So it’s a false dichotomy to oppose reason with God’s will.

  • Pingback: The Stone Philosophy Links - NYTimes.com

  • Pingback: Radical thinker praises Christianity | Cranach: The Blog of Veith

  • Foppe

    I concur with Richelieu. A combination of a few irrelevant personal trivia, then talk about how he created “a network of neo-marxists”, and then some stuff about religion does not a coherent argument make, nor even a point.

  • http://www.pacrimjim.com PacRim Jim

    When one runs out of days, when one stares into the chasm of black fate, when one realizes the irrelevance of philosophy, only then does one cry for a comforting god, as a child cries for its mother.

  • Pingback: What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God? « Religion and Spirituality in Society

  • Pingback: Sunday links | THE WESTERN EXPERIENCE

  • Robert

    John Barker, comment #2: “I don’t think we have really achieved a secular society, we just are better at disguising our beliefs.”

    Bingo in one.

  • Catalina

    I don’t feel the content of this article actually answered the question the title posited. If you can’t comment on his personal beliefs, what does it mean to “find God” other than an intellectual pursuit into nuance and tolerance. (Tolerance in the archaic sense of holding firm your ground while lending an ear to the opposition.)

  • David Livingston

    All of this hot air has taken us no-where; I’ll settle for the First Cause Argument.

  • Pingback: Habermas’ religious turn? | winged keel and crumpet

  • Gonzalo

    This part was pathetic:

    Let us stipulate that smoking is unhealthy. Let us then assume that a tribe in some remote jungle believes that tobacco smoke attracts malevolent spirits. A public health official sent into the region does not, of course, share this superstition. But he makes use of it in dissuading people from acquiring a taste for newly available cigarettes—because he knows that some people do the right thing for a wrong reason. Eventually, he thinks, people will do the right thing for a better reason. And that will be the end of the demonological theory of tobacco smoke.

  • Pingback: Occupy Interfaith: Why Millennials, Including The Irreligious, Need To Care About Religion « In Our Words

  • Claudia laudanno

    I also think that Habermas is giving a credit to a new Christianity