Peter Berger on Habermas’ Religion

In a recent blog post, Peter Berger shows his disdain for Jurgen Habermas since the 1960’s. Habermas advocates rational public discourse in the public sphere, similar to Mendelssohn. Habermas originally thought the public sphere needed to be denuded of relgion and therefore rejected religion to thinking it plays a great role in our immoral capitalist age. (Similar to Jonathan Sacks or Tony Blair). In the last decade, Habermas jettisons his Enlightenment heritage and thinks reason itself comes from religion. Yet, Habermas does not believe in any of it. The liberal Protestant Berger who seeks transcendence and meaning has open disdain for such a position.

What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God?
Peter Berger

Society is the social science journal superbly edited by Jonathan Imber. In its fall issue it carries an article by Philippe Portier (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris), entitled “Religion and Democracy in the Thought of Juergen Habermas”. Coincidentally, in a recent issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Habermas is on a list of German celebrity intellectuals who pop up continuously in the media.

Habermas has been a public intellectual (a more polite term for celebrity) for a very long time. I have never been terribly interested in Habermas, but the coincidence made me think about him. Portier’s article does tell an intriguing story. It might be called a man-bites-dog story.

Habermas is exactly my age. Our paths crossed briefly in the 1960s, when he was a visiting professor in the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, where I was then teaching. We did not particularly take to each other. I was put off by both his leftist politics and his ponderous philosophical language. (German philosophers, no matter where located on the ideological spectrum, vie with each other in producing texts which are comprehensible only to a small group of initiates.) I also sensed a certain professorial arrogance. I remember reading a response by Habermas to a critic, limited to the statement that he refused to discuss with an individual who quoted Hegel from a secondary source.

In 1981 Habermas published his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action , a strong endorsement of reason as the foundation of public life in a democracy. He retired from his professorship in 1993, but not from his role as an active advocate of Enlightenment rationality. It is debatable how far his more recent work still continues under a neo-Marxist theoretical umbrella. His views on religion have shifted considerably.

Portier distinguishes three phases in Habermas’ treatment of religion.
In phase one, lasting up to the early 1980s, he still viewed religion as an “alienating reality”, a tool of domination for the powerful. In good Marxist tradition, he thought that religion would eventually disappear, as modern society comes to be based on “communicative rationality” and no longer needs the old irrational illusions.

In phase two, roughly 1985-2000, this anti-religious animus is muted. Religion now is seen as unlikely to disappear, because many people (though presumably not Habermas) continue to need its consolations. The public sphere, however, must be exclusively dominated by rationality. Religion must be relegated to private life. One could say that in this phase, at least in the matter of religion, Habermas graduated from Marxism to the French ideal of laicite—the public life of the republic kept antiseptically clean of religious contamination.

Phase three is more interesting. As of the late 1990s Habermas’ view of religion is more benign. Religion is now seen as having a useful public function, quite apart from its private consolations. The “colonization” of society by “turbo-capitalism” (nice term—I don’t know if Habermas coined it) has created a cultural crisis and has undermined the solidarity without which democratic rationality cannot function. We are now moving into a “post-secular society”, which can make good use of the “moral intuition” that religion still supplies. Following in the footsteps of Ernst Bloch and other neo-Marxist philo-Godders, Habermas also credits Biblical religion, Judaism and Christianity, for having driven out magical thinking (here there is an echo of Max Weber’s idea of “ the disenchantment of the world”), and for having laid the foundations of individual autonomy and rights.

Habermas developed these ideas in a number of publications and media interviews. The most interesting source (not discussed by Portier in the article) is a 2007 publication by a Catholic press, The Dialectics of Secularization . It is a conversation between Habermas and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (at the time of this exchange head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, subsequently Pope Benedict XVI). Habermas here gives credit to Christianity for being the purveyor of a universal egalitarianism and for an openness to reason, thus continuing to provide moral substance for democracy. Not surprisingly, Ratzinger agreed.

Habermas has looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory—that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion—does not fit the facts of the matter. Beyond this acknowledgement of the empirical reality of the contemporary world, Habermas admits the historical roots in Biblical religion of modern individualism, and he thinks that this connection is still operative today. Yet, when all is said and done, Habermas now has a positive view of religion (at least in its Judaeo-Christian version) for utilitarian reasons: Religion, whether true or not, is socially useful.

Any sociologist will agree that religion, true or not, is useful for the solidarity and moral consensus of society. The problem is that this utility depends on at least some people actually believing that there is the supernatural reality that religion affirms. The utility ceases when nobody believes this anymore.

Edward Gibbon, in chapter 2 of his famous history of the decline of the Roman Empire, has this to say: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful”. When you cross the philosopher with the magistrate, you get Habermas. Read the Rest Here.

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10 responses to “Peter Berger on Habermas’ Religion

  1. So Habermas is Irving Kristol meeting Michael Steinhardt in the pages of the Jewish Review of Books? Is it shocking that Habermas has become a neoconservative in his old age? I don’t know enough Habermas to know. But it is perhaps a sign of sad decline that, having advanced to embracing religion in the late 1990s, Habermas failed to move with the times and embrace Islamaphobia. Ultimately, bloggers reporting on events in Lakewood and Bet Shemesh have more insight into the role of religion in public life than do German philosophers.

  2. This is a mean spirited attack on one of the more ambitious and synthetic philosophers around. Truthfully, religion fits within the categories of Habermasian sittlichkeit “lifeworld” rationality just as much as it fit within the original sittlichkeit of Hegel. I think that rather than pillorying a guy who tries to get it right, and rehearsing the well known flaws of his system, we should ask what positive alternatives are available. I am really not convinced that anyone got it better than Habermas.

  3. It’s clear that he hasn’t read Habermas, but even setting aside Habermas’s actual treatment of religion, I really don’t see the slightest logic in Berger’s critique, which seems to boil down to the following:

    If you are a sociologist then you can make the claim that religion has social utility (and it matters not a whit whether you are a believer or not -how could it, you’re a social scientist). But if you are a philosopher who thinks that reason can take the place of religion yet values the social utility of religion then you are a risible chimera of conflicting beliefs.

    I suppose this isn’t a critique as much as–as you prefaced it– a show of disdain.

  4. I think I get it. I too am left cold by arguments about the social and political utility of religion, or anything else like art or literature. They miss the irrational, potlatch character that religion often assumes –as we learned from…the cultural anthropologits (!) many years ago.

    I think all these theories are as good as far as they go. I won’t look to sociologists and political theorists to make sense of theological claim regarding God or to make complete sense of ritual. The same should be said for the ability of art and literature to make sense of religion. Like any theoretical approach, they only go as far as it goes (will only explain so much). Everything overlaps with everything in a Venn diagram. This allows for interdisciplinary approaches to the understanding of anything.

    In general, I think one tries to get as much mileage out of whatever methodological gas as one can get, without reducing the phenomenon (in this case, religion) to method.

  5. While I agree that Berger is giving Habermas short shrift — and that philosophers seeking to re-engage with religion should be paying very careful attention to what goes in Beit Shemesh and, yes, Gaza — I also think that the argument Berger puts forward in the penultimate paragraph is, if put a little differently, the articulation of a real dilemma for much (and perhaps almost all non-Orthodox) contemporary Judaism. Ethics, however understood, is perhaps the last element of Jewish tradition really left standing in the non-Orthodox movements, because, inter alia, it’s the only one that still, conceivably, has some genuinely normative, commanding power. And yet, to ask a very cliched question, what are ethics’ ultimate foundation — in the areas where one is really needed, i.e. when making hard moral choices and when confronting radical evil. That is where the absence of some strong connection between metaphysics and ethics becomes most keenly felt and Berger is right to suggest that at those junctures somebody around here really has to believe in it.
    And therein lies a very real problem.
    As my friend Ely Sitllman put it once – for Rav Kook, nothing is more important than ethics, but to him it’s also unethical to eat a cheeseburger. (And not, I hasten to add, out of his ostensible vegetarianism, which was indeed far more ostensible than usually thought.)
    Now, it may be that Habermas’ new position, thought through to its deeper assumption and unfolded towards its broader socio-cultural implications, does indeed lead to something like religion, and maybe even, in some contexts, to something like Judaism. But Berger is asking a very good question.

    • Which is why Habermas has consistently rejected any non-cogntivist metaethics. But what he offers in its place (some version of moral constructivism) is only “like religion” in the sense that it is real. There is no recourse to metaphysics (see his “A Genealogical Analysis of the Cognitive Content of Morality” in The Inclusion of the Other)

      But setting Habermas aside, you offer the strange and rather insulting idea that only Orthodox Jews hold to ethics when push comes to shove because only they think it has some ultimate foundation? If I were Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated I have lose any ability to ground ethics in the existence of a deity because I’m more certain in the fact that God wants justice (or insert moral imperative here) and far less certain that God cares whether I eat a cheeseburger? If I’m an atheist I revert to egoism or nihilism when things get tough?

      What you are essentially claiming then is that if you remove ritual and leave only ethics, then what remains is nether religion nor ethics. In that case, yes, Berger has a good question. Absent that assumption, not so much.

      Arguably, holding up R Kook as an ideal is dangerous as it reinforces the idea that ethics and religion (or the ethical and ritual aspects of religion) occupy equal epistemic positions. This leads to two fundamental problems: first, it means that in sacrificing ethics for religion there is no actual sacrifice involved – it is simply a matter of routinely setting aside one for the other. Second, it implies that revelation is merely rational, or that ethics can be as irrational as religion.

  6. I did not mean to give offense and am sorry if I did; indeed I was writing, perhaps too much so, out of my own dilemmas.
    What I was trying to get at, however clumsily, was a quasi-sociological observation that in the Jewish world at the present time, it seems that Orthodoxy as a community seems to offer a seemingly robust enough commitment both to metaphysical grounding and to Jewish particularism to sustain a God-based commitment to ethics over the long haul, and beyond the contemporary identification of political liberalism (to which I personally subscribe, but do not presume that you necessarily do, since there are various forms of human flourishing) with Jewish ethics.
    (I don’t think we need God-talk for most of our ethical life, but we may well need it, and Him, to ground it all the way down.)
    Inasmuch as I personally am not doctrinally Orthodox, I do not mean this at all triumphantly, but rather apprehensively — especially since Orthodoxy can and does regularly lead in the direction of to say the least ethically undesirable results, and Rav Kook is one tragic (and internally, very complicated) example. My citing Rav Kook and the cheeseburger was meant to suggest the ways in which, for Orthodoxy, ethics and ritual (for lack of a better word) and thus transcendence, may and often are deeply entwined. (The nearly-structural inability of Orthodoxy to train its ethical intuitions on halakha itself is a related but different matter.) I hope I’ve made myself clearer, and my apologies once again.

    • I assure you that I only took offense philosophically.

      I understand the dilemma that you present, but I cannot help but feel that it results from what at root is a self-contradictory notion that conceives of “ethics” both in the abstract and a set of culturally grounded practices. Coming from an Orthodox perspective (as I do) it is then easy to identify Orthodoxy as a robust culture in which ethics feels phenomenologically grounded in a thick description of the world that comes from the metaphysically infused halakhic perspective. Absent that, ethics seems to float free – particularly in a society that consistently rejects the idea that we ought promote any kind of cultural regime where all sorts of arbitrary norms are enforced as more than strategically important, in favor of a broad multiculturalism.

      The result is a critique of modern liberalism for its inability to uphold ethics that simultaneously claims that ethics transcends culture, but that it nonetheless cannot survive without being instantiated in an existing, familiar, pre-modern cultural matrix. These two ideas are at least profoundly in tension with one another, and this recognition should give us pause to consider whether a reluctant (and quasi-sociological) suggestions that as far as Judaism goes, nothing other than Orthodoxy seems to work if we want to “sustain a God-based commitment to ethics” is similarly confused.

      [Josh, I think that it is relevant because the alternative that Habermas presented is that ethics grounds linguistic practices that transcend the specifics of particular cultures, but that are not themselves transcendent in the metaphysical sense. And once you realize this you don't need religion anymore. The revised (non-caricatured) Habermas says that it is a mistake to ignore the the religious genealogy of normative ethical concepts.]

  7. I don’t understand how Yehudah’s point about grounding ethics relates at all to Habermas. Habermas isn’t taking religion as normative. Even according to the caricature, he merely says that religion undergirds a lot of the stuff we currently have as normative. This is a version of the secularization thesis. Not a way of saying that only halacha can ground ethics. And even religious sittlichkeit would not need the particularism of Halacha!

  8. Hi Yehudah:

    Knowing you I knew you meant no offense, not even in your first post. Reading your two posts with the critical eye of a friend, I would point out the following.

    What strikes me in your second post is the word “apprehensively.” It is this apprehension I wish I could allay. In my experience, conservatives tend to worry too much not just about the grounds or foundations of ethics, but also about the ethics of other people, namely the ethics of liberals and of other non-conservatives. I sometimes think this apprehension is the Achilles’ heel of conservative thought.

    A compelling case could be made that the liberals are doing all right, and might have as at least as advanced understanding of social ethics, economic justice, and even personal morality than do conservatives. Certainly, liberals like FDR understood better than his Republican opponents how best to identify much less confront the radical evil of Nazi Germany.

    In my opinon, where conservatives trump liberals is how to sustain Jewish community. This is something that pains me, as a liberal. On the other hand, one might say that conservatives are better at maintaining the particular shape of a particularist or conservative community. But that’s a tautology, no? Conservatives tend to do less well in contributing to the shaping of a liberal community. And that’s another tautology. What’s not a tautology is the relative weakness with which liberal Jews sustain a liberal Jewish community. But that’s a liberal problem that I don’t think conservatives will be able to help solve.

    I appreciate the fact that you “don’t think we need God-talk for most of our ethical life.” My favorite saying on this (I’m going to garble it) is somewhere from b.Kiddushin that one can be good to God and bad to “man” and bad to God and good to “man.” But I’m not sure I’d even agree that “we may well need [God] to ground [ethics] all the way down.” My sense is that a lot of really bad things (unethical things) happen precisely when we try to ground or grind “things” (especially ethics, politics, and religion) “all the way down.”

    What I find more persuasive in liberalism is the ability to negotiate ethics and religion more at the surface of things, without the heavy foundationalism. And in the end, contrary to your apprehensions, I think there’s been more to liberal Judaism than just ethics. At least since Abraham Geiger, a lot of attention has gone into the articulation of ritual in liberal circles. To not see this is to miss what Eric Joffie called the Reform Revolution of the last twenty or so years. And then again, even Geiger had some very compelling things to say about “Gottesdienst.”

    So I’d recommend you to worry less about the liberals. To be honest, I’d also have to admit that I too am very apprehensive about the ethical and political shoals towards which conservative thought is taking us, both in the U.S. and in Israel. The difference is that, as a liberal, I tend not to worry too much about the personal morality of other people, at least not categorically.

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