Jurgen Habermas on “Faith and Knowledge”

This remarkable speech delivered on the occasion of the awarding of the Frankfurt peace prize of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association on October 14, 2001 in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 catastrophe marks a decisive “theological turn” in the theoretical work of Jurgen Habermas.

It lit up the intellectual landscape and the reverberations are still felt today. This text is extraordinary not only for its cognitive content but also for its marked empathy towards those of religious faith who suffer under the weight of the pathologies of modernity.

The “tension between secular society and religion” (Habermas, “Faith and knowledge,” The Frankfurt School on Religion: key writings by the major thinkers [2005], p. 327) has a lengthy, furious and often nasty history. Most recently, Habermas cites the squaring off of institutional science (commitment to genetic engineering) and the churches; one side accusing the other of obscurantism, the other of espousing a “crude materialism of a scientistic belief in progress supposedly undermining morality” (ibid.). But on September 11, 2001, the “tension between secular society and religion exploded in an entirely different way” (ibid.).

“Entirely different way”: the suicidal murderers who transformed aircraft into bombs were “motivated by religious beliefs. For them (attested to by Atta and Bin Laden), the symbols of globalized modernity are an embodiment of the Great Satan” (ibid.). The facile complacency evident in Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) was shattered inexorably, the splinters on display everywhere. We were also assailed, Habermas claims rightly, by “biblical images” of apocalypse as the breathless media repeatedly displayed the infamous site of the disintegrating Manhattan Twin Towers.

Then President George W. Bush’s language of retaliation had an “Old Testament ring to it. As if the blind fundamentalist attack had struck a religious chord in the very heart of secular society” (ibid.). This startling and ominous metaphor—striking a “religious chord”—can stand in itself for a seismic shift in Western intellectual life.

Religion surely had never disappeared from Western societies; but it hadn’t been the centre of much attention from intellectuals, either. Now, religion had come in from the cold in the terrifying flames of the mangled symbols of the US Empire and its attempted dominance of the world.

Fundamentalism is a Modern Phenomenon

Perhaps controversially, Habermas asserts that even though fundamentalism (in its Islamic form) uses religious language, it is an “exclusively modern phenomenon; it is “not only a problem of others” (p. 328). For Habermas, the Islamic fundamentalists use of modern technology mirrors the time-lag between culture and society which exists as the “result of an accelerated and radically uprooting modernization” (p. 328).

Habermas’ remarkable speech acknowledges the considerable “pain suffered through the disintegration of traditional forms of life” (ibid.). In the West the pained evolution of the separation of church and state had occurred over many centuries. This permitted its religious citizenry to learn how to develop a “sensitive attitude toward Janus-faced modernity” (p. 328).

But in non-western cultural traditions, the speed of a reckless modernization process leaves mainly pain and humiliation which cannot be compensated easily for by some material gain. Reminding his esteemed audience that Orthodoxies dwell in the West and the Middle or Far East—amongst Muslims, Jews and Christians—Habermas declares that avoidance of a “clash of civilizations’ requires keeping alive the memory of our “own occidental process of secularization [that] has as yet not come to a close” (ibid.).

The Fatally Speechless Clash of Worlds

The great theorist of communicative action—of the emancipatory potential and power of undamaged intersubjectivity—awakens us to penetrate beneath the dubious rhetoric of the “war on terror” to see the “fatally speechless clash of worlds,” propelling us to confront the urgent task of working out a “common language beyond the mute violence of terrorists or missiles” (ibid.).

This statement still holds as much power today as it did fifteen years ago. Dismayed and distressed at the world ushered in by a deregulated market, Habermas had hoped against hope that the Hobbesian form of globalized security state would have given way to a “worldwide civilizing force” (ibid.). Alas! Habermas begrudgingly admits that for the moment we can only have “little more than the weltonjustbleak hope for a cunning of reason—and for some self-reflection” (ibid.).

The US turned away from collective self-reflection in the aftermath of 9/11, plunging into a reckless, and illegal, trumped up war against Iraq. Habermas extrapolates a crucial learning challenge from this catastrophe: “Only if we realize what secularization means in our own post-secular societies can we be far-sighted in our response to the risks involved in a secularization miscarrying in other parts of the world” (ibid.).

Before the sensational speech of October 14, 2001, the concept of a “postsecular” society was seldom seen in print. Like his friend Charles Taylor, Habermas criticizes the “replacement model” of secularization that assumes that the contest between the “capitalistically unbridled productivity of science and technology” and the “conservative forces of religion and the church” (p. 329) has led to loss on one side and gain on the other. “This image,” he insists, “is inconsistent with a postsecular society which adapts to the fact that religious communities continue to exist in the context of ongoing secularization” (ibid.).

Reminding his audience of how they have arrived at a liberal state, Habermas argues that the liberal state’s restraining of religious violence (from imposing beliefs on its own members or initiating suicide bombing) emerges from a “triple reflection of believers on their position in a pluralist society” (ibid.).

First, religious consciousness must “come to terms with the cognitive dissonance of encountering other denominations and religions” (ibid.). Second, it must “adapt to the authority of the sciences which hold the societal monopoly of secular knowledge” (ibid.). Third, it must “agree to the premises of a constitutional state grounded in a profane morality” (ibid.). These remarks seem to push “religious consciousness” into a corner. But Habermas urges us to realize that secularization is not a closed room; both sides are involved in this continuing learning process.

Facing the Antagonist Co-Existence of Competing Worldviews

Once issues of existential relevance appear on the political agenda, Habermas points out, “citizens, whether believers or unbelievers, clash over beliefs impregnated by different worldviews; grappling with the strident dissonance of public dispute, they experience the offensive fact of an antagonistic coexistence of competing worldviews. If, aware of their own fallibility, they learn to deal with this fact of pluralism in a nonviolent way, that is, without disrupting the social cohesion of a political community, they realize what the secular grounds for the separation of religion from politics in a postsecular society actually means” (p. 330).

The neutral liberal state cannot prejudice one side over another. Habermas offers something he calls “democratic common sense”—shared by all of us apparently—that prevents outcomes emanating from any “strong traditions and comprehensive worldviews” (ibid.). Democratic common sense maintains an open gate between both sides–science and religion. In this sensational speech he wants to understand empathetically how the wounds of reason influence (perhaps skew) our “intuitive awareness of authorship and responsibility” (ibid.).

He acknowledges that when we learn something new about the world, the “content of our self-understanding changes” (ibid.). Habermas thinks that when scientific findings—say in brain research—nestle close to our bodily existence, we become unsettled and disoriented. Our own sense of moral autonomy (or even belief in God or Jesus) wavers uneasily; of course, the way of fundamentalism provides anchorage and closure.

The deep fear manifest here is that once depersonalized, nature is opened up to objectivation and causal explanation (and this includes human nature). The danger then arises that common sense intuitions (that we as humans do make willful and moral decisions, for better or worse, and can therefore be held responsible) are subsumed in scientific, causal explanations. Counter-intuitive scientific knowledge absorbs us. Habermas argues that the “naturalization of the mind” results in a “complete de-socialization of our self-understanding as well” (p. 331).

That is, “thought” and “moral decision” would be explained in terms of biology. But these efforts run aground on the inability to account for the “is” and “ought” implied if we violate rules. We are not robots. We take initiative, make errors, and correct them. We are not objects manipulated by forces external to ourselves. We are aware of being autonomous and resist “naturalistic reduction” (p. 332).

Unequally Distributed Burdens

Habermas addresses a theme that will preoccupy him in the following decade and half. He points out the “other side of religious freedom”—the “pacification of the pluralism of worldviews” (ibid.)—distributes “burdens unequally” (ibid.). This is a monumental critique and illumination of what has been taken-for-granted and seldom commented upon. Christian, Jewish or Muslim citizens (and other religious faith-communities), unlike secular citizens, have to split their identities into private and public elements. The pressure crushes down on the religious citizenry to “translate their religious beliefs into a secular language before their arguments have any chance of gaining majority support” (ibid.), or of gaining any kind of purchase on public opinion.

Habermas provides the example of German Christians (Protestant and Catholic) who claim the “status of human rights for the gamete fertilized ex utero; this is how they engage in any attempt (an unfortunate one, I think) to translate man’s likeness to God into the secular language of the constitution” (p. 332). Only if the “secular side” remains open to the “force of articulation inherent in religious language will the search for reasons that aim at universal acceptability not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from the public sphere, nor sever secular society from important resources of meaning” (ibid).

Habermas admits that the boundaries between the secular and the religious are fluid. But the boundaries ought to be guarded by both sides. In post-Enlightenment and secularized societies, the religious segment of the population must not bear the brunt of fending off the dominating and bullying secular self-awareness.

Habermas is clearly very uneasy, even disquieted, that Kant’s identification of a rational secular core within religious dogma might leave something missing. To be sure, Kant wants to assert the unconditional validity of moral duties. But Kant thinks that the traditional image of humankind made in God’s supernatural image, no longer grips our imaginations. Nor does Habermas think that Kant’s conception of “radical evil”—an attempted translation of biblical language into rationalized religion—has the depth and thickness to comprehend the endless horrific acts of genocide and cruel massacres of the innocent.

The old devil of archaic forms of thought no longer exists. But Habermas observes that “the fallen archangel still wreaks havoc—in the perverted good of the monstrous deed, but also in the unrestrained urge for retaliation that promptly follows” (p. 333). No mistaking who Habermas is thinking about. Thus, the inadequacy of secular languages in the face of “radical evil” speaks of “something lost.”

The Task of Remembrance

Habermas admits that the “irreversibility of past sufferings”—the “injustice inflicted on innocent people who were abused, debased, and murdered, reaching far beyond any extent of reparation with human power” leaves the secular-minded society with no “hope for resurrection,” it is simply experienced as a void. Even Horkheimer’s riposte to Benjamin—the “slaughtered are really slaughtered”—is “far from denying the helpless impulse to change what cannot be changed any more” (p. 333).

The task of remembrance (Habermas’ German theologian friend Johann Metz’s notion of anamnesis) is “necessary and hopeless” (p. 334). “In moments like these,” Habermas retorts sadly, “the unbelieving sons and daughters of modernity seem to believe that they owe more to one another, and need more for themselves, that what is accessible to them, in translation, of religious tradition—as if the semantic potential of the latter was still not exhausted” (p. 334).

This is tour de force analysis. Habermas wants the secular-minded citizen to awaken to the forms of suffering of the religious compatriot as well as pointing to the human necessity of developing rich languages up to the task of living peacefully in the damaged and postmetaphysical world. Both secular and religious citizens can sink into the quagmire of hopelessness. The words of an old Beatle’s song seep into our consciousness all too easily: “Nothing’s gonna change my world…”

Habermas concludes the “remarkable speech” with a compelling reminder to his audience (and us) who may well have forgotten that one can interpret the history of German philosophy in terms of a disputation between philosophy and religion. Kant shattered the marvellous symbiosis achieved by drawing a “sharp line between the moral belief of rational religion and the positive belief in revealed truths” (p. 334). He did not think that dogmatic, revealed truth could be retained within the concept of reason. Even Hegel abandoned “salvation history” and a “salvaging future” for a world mysteriously “evolving in itself” without the prodding of the invisible divine hand.

Adorno declared: “Nothing of theological content will persist without being transformed; every content will have to put itself to the test of migrating into the realm of the secular, the profane” (as cited, Habermas, 2005, pp. 334-5). Nonetheless, reason was not up to this gargantuan task. Adorno could only assert paradoxical statements in the face of the void: “Knowing there is no God, it nevertheless believes in him” (ibid, p. 335). Adorno is Kant’s ventriloquist.

Then Habermas bursts out of nowhere to declare that returning to archaic beginnings before Christ and before Socrates opens the door to “religious kitsch” of dubious nature. “Profane, but nondefeatist reason, by contrast, has too much respect for the glowing embers, rekindled time and again by the issue of theodicy, to offend religion. It knows that the profanation of the sacred begins with those world religions which disenchanted magic, overcame myth, sublimated sacrifice, and disclosed the secret. Thus, it can keep its distance from religion without ignoring its perspective” (p. 335). The latter sly statement sums up Habermas’ own viewpoint. The “glowing embers” may illuminate what religion intuits about the dangers awaiting us as humans if we level creator and creature.

Habermas thinks that it is a “reasonable attitude” to keep “one’s distance from religion without closing one’s mind to the perspective it offers. This attitude may help set the right course for the self-enlightenment of a civil society torn by Kulturkampf” (ibid.). He knows only too well—as Marx did—how reactionary and anti-enlightenment religion can be. Habermas reveals his own programmatic, brilliant insight that: “Postsecular society continues the work, for religion itself, that religion did for myth. Not in the hybrid intention of a hostile takeover, to be sure, but out of a concern to counteract the insidious entropy of the scarce resource of meaning in its own realm” (ibid.).

What Habermas means by this, I think, is that only “religious language has as yet been able to give a sufficiently differentiated expression [which] may find universal resonance once a salvaging formulation turns up for something almost forgotten, but implicitly missed. The mode for non-destructive secularization is translation. This is what the Western world, as the worldwide secularizing force, may learn from its own history” (p. 335-6).

This mode of non-destructive translation is, I would argue, a task that could be much more self-consciously taken up by faith-communities of interpretation. If this task is not taken up, religion will slide further into the muddy ditches on the outskirts of town. Secular communities, for their part, may be in danger of flattening out the difference between the other who demands our moral consideration and ourselves as potentially greedy and self-interested beings.

Fifteen years after this remarkable speech, I emphatically agree with Habermas that finding a “language other than that of the military and the market alone” (ibid.) is an urgent task in our times where the fatally speechless clash of worldviews still shreds the conversable and livable world.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.