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.