I will first summarise what I think are the most salient points made by Habermas in his chapter ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ and I will then respond to what I think are the main issues raised.
The chapter is a study in the relation between reason (knowledge) and faith. It begins with a funeral service for an agnostic held in a church, indicating that ‘modernity’ could not offer a replacement for a religious ritual in order to mark a person’s death.
Habermas argues that the secular and the religious should engage in communicative dialogue. They share a common source in the Axial Age and while the secular must not presume to speak on religious truth the religious must accept the domination of the secular state and the ‘factual knowledge’ of science.
- modern science compelled philosophical reason to break with metaphysics and little more was left to philosophy
- modern reason can only come to understand itself when it addresses religious consciousness
- Habermas rejected the Enlightenment’s unenlightened view of denying religion rational content and Hegel’s position regarding religion’s subordination to philosophy
- Habermas states that his motive ‘for addressing the issue of faith and knowledge is to mobilise modern reason against the defeatism lurking within it.’ He is referring to postmodernism’s relativism and to scientism.
- where ‘practical reason can justify law and morality, it falls short in motivating collective action in response to threats. Kant aimed to counter this with God as postulate. Habermas asks if an engagement with religion might resolve this dilemma for ‘postmetaphysical thinking’. Such an engagement would bear on current religious conflicts around the world ‘triggered…by (an) unexpected spiritual renewal’ and the politicisation of religion. The main religious winners are the Catholics, Evangelicals and Muslims. The Protestants in Germany and Britain, due to their national organisations, not so. The primary issue since the destruction of the World Trade Centre has been the instrumentalisation of Islam.
- the neutrality of the state towards worldviews has set off conflicts which are either power struggles between state authority and religious movements or conflicts between those with secular or religious convictions. The liberal state cannot continue with this position – it requires convictions. And to acquire legitimation, it requires reasons to justify its neutrality which can be accepted by both the religious and the secular. On the basis of this the religious must accept the neutrality of the state in relation to worldviews, broad religious freedom and the independence of scientific research and its monopoly in producing factual knowledge. The secular state must at the same time protect freedom of belief for all. Habermas asks if the state might require the religious to justify themselves non-religiously with regard to politics or should a worldview-neutral language only be expected of politicians?
- the liberal state must expect its secular citizens not to treat religious ideas as irrational. This engenders the question of how ‘modern’ reason and religion should relate with the other.
- Habermas concludes with a brief genealogy of the rise of secular reason, arguing its development through a ‘shared reason’ of people of faith, unbelievers, and members of different religions.’
> Habermas refers to several ‘reasons’: ‘secular reason’, ‘“natural” reason, ‘philosophical reason’, ‘modern reason’, ‘practical reason’, ‘religious reason’, ‘shared reason’, ‘secular knowledge’ and ‘revealed knowledge’ – not to mention ‘postmetaphysical thinking’. There is one reason – and that very poorly understood, particularly in philosophy where Lloyd’s Man of Reason with his dualist exclusions is dominant. And this reason is that of Habermas – linguistic, propositional, undialectical, ‘yes’ and ‘no’.
> Habermas writes that ‘modern science compelled…philosophical reason…to break with metaphysical constructions of the totality of nature and history.’ But metaphysics is not the point – it is a straw man for the question which underlies all others – ‘Which takes precedence and which the derivative – consciousness and language or ‘matter’ – the philosophical concept for objective reality?’ What modern science compelled was that God come from heaven to earth and go within. I refer to the rise of mysticism in the West, its primary manifestation Neoplatonism. And this mysticism, this ‘secret accomplice’ via Böhme, Habermas acknowledged was of great significance to him – in fact his theory of communicative reason, his magnum opus, is built on it.
> Habermas writes of the blinkered, unenlightened enlightenment, which denies religion any rational content. He takes his place on a continuum from Hegel through Nietzsche and Weber, critical of the enlightenment from a spiritual perspective, particularly from that of unity. Habermas wrote ‘the decision to engage in action based on solidarity when faced with threats (such as the tensions and fracturings of ‘modernity’) which can be averted only by collective efforts calls for more than insight into good reasons. Kant wanted to make good this weakness of rational morality through the assurances of his philosophy of religion.’ Hegel’s answer was that philosophers find sanctuary as an isolated order of priests and that the Holy Spirit come to a speculative Lutheran cultus; that man of god, Nietzsche’s, his mystical Übermensch; Weber’s his no less mystical hero of Beruf and Habermas’s a linguistified God, detranscendentalised in the mutual recognition of communicative subjects – for all, truly a ‘Kingdom of God on earth’.
> ‘Could an altered perspective on the genealogy of reason rescue postmetaphysical thinking from this dilemma?’ Certainly, but not in the direction Habermas advocates. The grounding would need to be material (which would immediately remove religion from claims to reason) not an abstract normative.
> Habermas writes of ‘conflicts which are currently being triggered around the world by the unexpected spiritual renewal and by the unsettling political role of religious communities.’ When the only form of organised resistance available is one’s religious structure, because the government of one’s country is so compromised and democracy crushed, undoubtedly this spiritual renewal will come as unexpected to many in the West.
> Habermas writes of ‘the neutrality of the state towards worldviews.’ I disagree. The state is the organ of the capitalist class and its fundamental purpose is to embody and represent the world-view of that class. While it is necessary for cohesion that the state give the appearance of impartiality, this is not the case in practice. Perhaps the potentially most dangerous instance of this is the delicate two-faced two-step between the state and the media with regard to China. At regular intervals a story is fed to the media on China – a recent one concerning Chinese spies on this campus. Could anyone possibly argue against there being Australian and American spies here as well? Wikileaks exposed the disgusting servility of Australian political leaders to the US on the subject of China. These stories keep the tension ‘just right’ so that if and when the state with the assistance of the media needs, at the behest of the US, to whip the majority into the acceptance of war, all is in place.
And on the point of public and religious schools, Habermas’s words do not stand up – funding by Federal and state governments for decades has increasingly been taken from the public education system and given to religious and so-called private schools. If it weren’t so serious, the rorting by religious schools that occasionally appears in the media would be amusing.
> Habermas writes that ‘the liberal state must…expect its secular citizens…not to treat religious expressions as simply irrational.’ There is everything right with calling the irrational such. What would be wrong would be to do so with intolerance, abusively and with the intention of provoking violence. Habermas writes of ‘the rational core of faith’ yet in ‘Fundamentalism and Terror’ he wrote ‘Every religious doctrine rests on a dogmatic kernel of belief’.
Habermas’s late concern with religion is that of its prodigal son.
Jürgen Habermas, ‘An Awareness of What is Missing’ in An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2010