Habermas on the Vision of a Post-Secular Europe - Part II

The modern fallacy consists in placing secular as an adjective before humanist as if to imply that to be a humanist one needs to be a secularist inimical to religion which is definitely not the case. It is also not the case that all secularists (what the French and Italians call “laicitË” or “laicit‡”) are ipso facto atheists and agnostics unfriendly to religion. One of those secularists was Robert Shumann who is up for canonization by the Catholic Church, another was De Gaperi who was also a practicing Catholic.

But the vitriolic language persists. Here is a quote from a famous avowed atheistic scientist, Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 

One may object that the likes of Dawkins are mere aberrations and therefore my argument against them is an ad hominem one, that I am fighting straw men and windmills, but to the contrary I would submit that they are examples of a type of “enlightened” modern prototypes ready to fantasize a bully God while denying his existence, convinced that the sooner religion is liquidated, the better. They are willing and ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater and eliminate the use and the practice of religion because of its abuses.

J¸rgen Habermas must have surely read Held’s influential essay. Habermas is very much involved in the debate on the EU identity and has even signed manifestos on the same with Umberto Eco, the late Derrida and other influential philosophers. In 2005 Habermas delivered a lecture on the occasion of the Holberg prize which then became an article in 2006. See “Religion in the public sphere” by J. Habermas, in European Journal of Philosophy 14: 1-25. The core of that essay is that secular citizens in Europe must learn to live, the sooner the better, in a post-secular society and in so doing they will be following the example of religious citizens, who have already come to terms with the ethical expectations of democratic citizenship. So far secular citizens have not been expected to make a similar effort.

Habermas addresses the debate in terms of John Rawls’s concept of “public use of reason.” At the beginning of the article Habermas introduces two closely linked ideas: on the one hand the increasing isolation of Europe from the rest of the world in terms of its religious configurations, and on the other hand the notion of “multiple modernities.” He challenges the notion that Europe is the lead society in the modernizing process and invites his fellow secular Europeans to what he calls “a self reflective transcending of the secularist self-understanding of Modernity,” an attitude that goes beyond mere tolerance in as much as it necessarily engenders feelings of respect for the world view of the religious person, so that their pronouncements don’t automatically engender derision and contempt a la Voltaire.

In other words, Habermas while advocating reciprocity and the “public use of reason” in the agora and not in the privacy of one’s church, synagogue or mosque, is proposing a new challenging question: Are religious issues simply to be regarded as relics of a pre-modern era, or is it the duty of the more secular citizens to overcome their narrowly secularist consciousness in order to engage with religion in terms of what Habermas calls “reasonably expected disagreement”? That of course assumes a degree of rationality on both sides. It is indeed a challenging argument, one in which the relative secularity of Europe is increasingly seen as an exceptional, rather than prototypical case.

 

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