Habermas and Religion

Several months ago, many of us were shocked when it appeared that Jurgen Habermas, one of the world’s leading philosophers and social theorists, set up a Twitter account and opened with this tweet: “It’s true that the internet has reactivated the grass-roots of an egalitarian public sphere of writers and readers.” Alas, it was a ghost account and the several amusing tweets that followed were fictitious.

Though Habermas is best known for his work on communication, rationalization, and emancipation, he has long been interested in religion.  His writing on religion is the subject of two forthcoming books to be published by the Social Science Research Council, Habermas and Religion and The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere.  One of the editors, Eduardo Mendieta, provides some background:

The centrality of religion to social theory in general and philosophy in particular explains why Jürgen Habermas has dealt with it, in both substantive and creative ways, in all of his work. For Habermas, religion has been a continuous concern precisely because it is related to both the emergence of reason and the development of a public space of reason-giving.

Religious ideas, according to Habermas, are never mere irrational speculation. Rather, they possess a form, a grammar or syntax, that unleashes rational insights, even arguments; they contain, not just specific semantic contents about God, but also a particular structure that catalyzes rational argumentation. [In Habermas’ later work] religion is treated, not as a germinal for philosophical concepts, but instead as the source of the social order.

Although Habermas has obviously taken his cues from Weber (rationalization), Freud (cultural formation), and especially Durkheim (social order), his philosophy allows him to analyze religion more extensively than these ancestors.  Habermas’ most incisive insights flow from his recognition that we live in a post-metaphysical philosophical world that has had little or no effect on the still-metaphysical religious world.

For all his brilliance, Habermas misses the mark when he claims that the moral order is essentially a religious order:

The thrust of Habermas’s argumentation in [his magnum opus] The Theory of Communicative Action is to show that religion is the source of the normative binding power of ethical and moral commandments.

This may be true of certain cultures of relatively recent origin, but it does not seem to true of Paleolithic societies or those which are not Western.  When primates behave in ways that are recognizably moral or ethical, anchoring these ideas in humanly constructed religions seems far fetched.

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