Habermas on the Function of Religion in the Social Evolution of Humankind


Habermas’ early writings on the role of religion are surrounded by an aura of controversy and confusion. Writing in the 1990s, some critics thought that Habermas had only recently turned his head to religious themes and problems. Others thought that when he did he simply dismissed religion, consigning it to an earlier stage of human social evolutionary development. Neither of these perceptions is on-target or accurate.

The classic text, Knowledge and Human Interests, published in German in 1968, made its famous case for knowledge-constitutive interests by working through the theologically-inflected texts of German Idealism. German philosophers know their theology; it is part of their DNA. The stunning text that surprised some critical commentators, “Transcendence from within, Transcendence in this world,” written in response to the seminal conference with the theologians held at the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1988, and published in Habermas, Modernity, and Public Theology in 1992, did not come from the blue.

But certainly religion as such was not central to his early formulations of social evolutionary learning theory: his concern lay elsewhere. It was not until the epochal events of 9/11 that a new problematic pressed in upon Habermas, calling forth re-formulation of his communicative critical social theory and articulation of deliberative democracy. The “theological turn” had now occurred. Religion had catapulted out of its hiding place.

Many heads on the left snapped to attention. And those of some religious sensibility were alerted to something of interest on the cluttered and cacophonic theological scene. Jurgen Habermas—that old Frankfurt School atheist—had got religion, perhaps. Maybe we ought to go and see if we can learn anything before he crosses over the River Jordan.

Re-conceptualizing historical materialism as a social evolutionary learning theory

In the 1960s and 1970s, Habermas re-conceptualized Marxian historical materialism as a social evolutionary learning theory. Habermas, as Matustik (Jurgen Habermas: a philosophical profile [2001]) reminds us, “starts from social evolution and the human capacity to learn” (p. 202). Our species’ learning evolves over time and we acquire capacities at later stages of cognitive and social evolution that we did not have at earlier ones (M. Donald, Origins of the modern mind [1991] and M. Tomasello, Cultural origins of human cognition [1999). Habermas is primarily interested in the evolutionary learning processes of the “rationalization of society” (the sub-title of volume 1 of Theory of communicative action (1984)).

His evolutionary and functionalist way of thinking flows in the Enlightenment stream where philosophes imagined that religion would simply be one of history’s fossils. Although Habermas certainly wanted to avoid adopting a linear, deterministic conception of evolution, he thought he could retrieve a “developmental logic” from an “alternative concept of a theory of evolution…based on assumptions about the universal structures of consciousness and levels of learning scaled according to the logic of development” (A. Honneth and H. Joas, Social action and human nature [1988], p. 8).

Crucially, he fastened onto the contentious idea that a “principle of organization” is the evolutionary catalyst: the organizational form that fostered social integration, and opened the way for the possibility of new forms of cognition, forms of production and political organization (see, Legitimation crisis [1975], p. 24, for a simple chart; and the almost impenetrable chapter 4 of Communication and the evolution of society [1979] for potential elaboration).

In Legitimation crisis (1975), Habermas observes that the primitive kinship system (the achievement of a family-based kinship system marks our species as Homo sapiens) simultaneously secures “social and system integration. World-views and norms are scarcely differentiated from one another; both are built around rituals and taboos that require no independent sanctions” (p. 18).

Thus, religion does not exist as something separable from kinship-based norms governing production and social life. For Habermas (1984), religion secures the “unity of the collectivity and largely represses conflicts that might arise from relations and economic interests” (p. 87). Habermas acknowledges that: “In a seamlessly integrated society, the religious cult is something like a total institution that encompasses and normatively integrates all actions, whether in the family or in the areas of social labor, to such a degree that every transgression of a norm has the significance of a sacrilege” (ibid.).

Ritual practices are holy; the social order sacralized. Bellah (“Religious evolution,” in R. Bellah and S. Tipton (Eds.] The Robert Bellah Reader [2006]) corroborates Habermas’ brief sketching of the way “primitive religion” knew “nothing of a wholly different world relative to which the actual world is utterly devoid of value” (p. 26). They knew only one cosmos. There are no priests and no congregations; and gods have not yet crystallized out of animating spirits infusing cultural life. Through communal rituals hunting and gathering peoples engaged in rituals oriented to the flourishing of the earth, harvest and health.

The transition to civilizational religion

In “traditional social formations” (which includes traditional and civilizational forms) the “kinship system is no longer the institutional nucleus of the whole system; it surrenders the central functions of power and control to the state” (p. 19). Although this organizational principle strengthens the autonomy of the system, it accomplishes this at the cost of destabilizing the class structure.

The archaic form of religion follows tribal and precedes the Axial Age formations [800-300 B.C] and corresponds to the emergence of early states or early civilizations (Bellah, 2006). It is at this evolutionary point that the gods appear and are worshipped. Kingship and divinity appear simultaneously (Bellah, Religion in human evolution: from the paleo-lithic to the axial age [2011], p. 212). The divine fuses with the human, thus serving as legitimating world-view.

In The mythic past: Biblical archaeology and the myth of Israel (1999), the recusant Old Testament scholar Thomas L. Thompson, states: “As the ancient world had become increasingly integrated by the political and economic controls of empire—already at work in the Assyrian period—ideas about the gods began to change accordingly” (p. 32). Polytheism gave way to a “God of the heavens” who ruled from a distant place similar to the central seat of political power.

Habermas (Communication and the evolution of society [1979]) captures the core truth of his social evolutionary learning perspective. He argues that: “In all evolutionarily successful civilizations there was a noteworthy structural change of worldview—the change from a mythological-cosmogonic worldview to a rationalized worldview in the form of cosmological ethics. This change took place between the eighth and third centuries B.C. in China, India, Palestine and Greece” (pp. 151-2; cf. Bellah, 2011; Bellah and Joas, The axial age and its consequences [2012]). Cultural understanding contains the catalytic learning power to enable breaking through to new cognitive understandings.

Merle Donald on humankind’s cognitive evolution

Recently, Merle Donald (An evolutionary approach to culture: implications for the axial age,” in Bellah and Joas [Eds.] The axial age and its consequences [2012]) has offered us a compelling evolutionary perspective on humankind’s cognitive evolution that is compatible with Habermas’ own evolutionary scheme (a core perspective for left humanism). Mimesis is our first major hominid cognitive transition. The second, which propelled hominids nearer to our time, is the shift from a “purely mimetic culture to speech, storytelling, and fully developed oral-mythic culture” (p. 59).

Mimetic consciousness built the scaffolding for this “radical new capacity” (p. 60)—the ability to transmit large amounts of knowledge at speeds previously conceivable. According to archaeological and paleontological evidence, this radical change (or cultural transformation) emerged only in the past 300,000 years or so—“culminating in the speciation of Homo Sapiens” (ibid.).

Donald rejects any hint that oral culture simply replaced mimetic culture—it simply added a new layer (a point repeatedly emphasized by the late Robert Bellah [2011]. With the birth of mythic culture, the governing, or dominant representations cohere in a “shared narrative tradition, an oral culture, public, standardized version of reality, full of mythic stereotypes and allegories, [that] can exert direct influence over the form of individual thought” (ibid.).

Language both creates mythic culture and revolutionizes thought. Unlike the mimetic learning mechanisms that enable rehearsal and refinement, the learning mechanism of language usage grants considerable power to the evolving, developmental species. Now, as Donald observes, the “power of language to parse and reduce very and complex events into compact coded messages required significant changes to the executive and metacognitive system of the brain, and to memory capacity” (ibid.). With the monumental transition to the theoretic cognitive culture, birthed in the Axial Age, mythic orientations to the world do not simply disappear. The theoretic cognitive form is added to our learning capacities.

Modern forms of consciousness: beyond myth

We do inhabit a world that has cast off certain ways of seeing and understanding transcendence, the natural world in its effulgent multiplicity, the moral and aesthetic world and interior, subjective worlds. As Habermas has argued persistently and eloquently, we moderns engage each other conscious of living and learning in different domains (cognitive, moral and aesthetic-expressive) which require of us, if requested, the validation of our claims to truth, moral rightness or authentic expression.

But this modern, secularized consciousness—with its differentiated spheres and validity claims—is radically different from the mythical worldview (set out by Habermas (1984) as an ideal type). As he expresses it, “In archaic societies myths fulfil the unifying function of worldviews in an exemplary way—they permeate life practice. At the same time, within the cultural traditions accessible to us, they present the sharpest contrast to the understanding of the world dominant in modern societies” (p. 44).

Mythical worldviews, Habermas observes, prohibit “rational orientations of action in our sense” (ibid.). So it is not a matter of “better or worse”—as Bellah (2011, p. xviii) points out—but of the evolution of capacities. But Habermas thinks that we moderns are not fully aware of our rational orientation to the world. Our taken-for-granted assumptions only become vividly visible in the “mirror of mythical thinking” (p. 44).

The great German theologian, Rudolf Bultmann (Kerygma and myth: a theological debate [1961]), controversially associated with the de-mythologization project of New Testament scholarship, observed drily that Christian preaching to “modern man” cannot accept the mythological world of the New Testament religious experience. Theologians must translate intuitions and insights from myth into modern understandings.

Hans Frei (The eclipse of biblical narrative [1974] claims the literal-figurative way of reading scripture was eroded after the 18th century as the Enlightenment turned its critical tools on the biblical texts themselves. Frei argues compellingly that for century after century the biblical narrative illuminated the world men and women inhabited.

The bible served as a “great code” (Northrop Frye) used to interpret nature and the social and cultural worlds. The biblical narratives were taken as “real” stories and Christ’s miracles “accepted at face value.” The bible judged us; we didn’t judge it. We made sense of texts addressing us in our time; we didn’t subject their texts to whatever was deemed true in our own time.

But the theoretic cognitive mode of consciousness enabled moderns to correlate, independently of the scriptures, Christian beliefs and practices with some aspect of our own experience (such as “anxiety”) with a Christian teaching or story. Human experience and thought categories set the terms of reference for understanding the gospel. The texts become “religiously forceful” but not factually valid. The old harmony of literal sense, historical fact and transcendental truth was pried apart. The cognitive evolution of humankind made this deconstruction inevitable.

For Habermas, the mythical worldview can “hold sway” over cognition and orientations for action” (p. 51). He maintains that the identity of members of archaic societies is inextricably tied to the “collective knowledge set down in myths and to the formal specifications of ritual prescriptions” (ibid.). The achieved form of collective knowledge is named “level of learning” by Habermas: it is a storehouse and reservoir of sense-making. But it dogmatically closes off any critical questioning. And it closes off self-development and individual identity formation.

The closed nature of the mythical worldview, says Habermas, does not permit a sufficient “differentiation among fundamental attitudes to the objective, social, and subjective worlds, as cultural traditions. Mythical worldviews are not understood by members as interpretive systems that are attached to cultural traditions, constituted by internal interrelations of meaning, symbolically related to reality, and connected with validity claims—and thus exposed to criticism and open to revision” (p. 53). One chilling possibility, then, is that a modern society could lapse into a mythic understanding of its history and present that precludes self-reflective critique.

Habermas states: “If we are to conceive historical transitions between differently structures systems of interpretation as learning processes, however, we must satisfy the demand for a formal analysis of meaning constellations that makes it possible to reconstruct the empirical succession of worldviews as a series of steps in learning that can be insightfully recapitulated from the perspective of a participant and can be submitted to intersubjective tests” (p. 67).

Some problems with Habermas’ conception of religion and social evolution

One of the major problems that Habermas’ way of conceiving of the evolutionary transition to modernity has to do with the status of religious experience in itself. As critics (J.L Marsh, “The religious significance of Habermas,” Faith and philosophy, vol. 10 (4), 1993; Cooke, “Critical theory and religion,” in D.Z. Phillips and T. Feria [Eds.] Philosophy and religion in the twenty-first century [2001]) have remarked, this social evolutionary framework doesn’t seem to have a place for religion in the differentiated domains (or, perhaps, it isn’t even a domain as such). Theologian Gary Simpson (“Theologia cruces and the forensically fraught world,” in D.S. Browning and F.S. Fiorenza [Eds.] Habermas, modernity and public theology [1992]) even acidly remarks that perhaps Habermas should have written of the liquefaction of the sacred.

However, in his latest writings on religion Habermas speaks of the “semantic potentials” of religious experience and language. There is, then, something called “religious experience” that, while opaque to scientific inquiry, carries deep emotional, moral and world-view resources that do not simply disappear in the secularization and modernizing historical process.

It is not at all a matter, as some fierce critics of religion (like Richard Dawkins) assume, that religion is misguided, delusionary cognition and will be surpassed by rational thought, vanishing like a puff of smoke on the prairie. As mythic notions interact with rational forms of cognition, esthetics and moral principles, the “religious experience” of moderns carries the transformational potential of translation into provocative insights for acting well in the world.

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

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