equalvoices 07


Faith and knowledge by
Jürgen Habermas


In his speech of the occassion of the 2001 Peace Price awarded by the German Book Trade, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas focussed on the role of religions in the modern society.

If the depressing news of the day takes away from us the choice of subject matter, the temptation is great, with John Wayne's "among us intellectuals", to compete with the fastest shot from the hip. Just a short time ago our minds were divided about another subject - the question of whether and to what extent we are subject to genetic selfinstrumentalisation or indeed should pursue the goal of self-optimisation. A battle of religious forces had flared up between the spokesmen of organised science and the Churches about the first steps on this path. One side was fearful of obscurantism and a scientific, sceptical fencing in of archaic remnants of feeling, and the other side turned against the scientist's belief in progress, stemming from a crude naturalism that undermines morals. But on 11 September the tension between secular society and religion exploded in a quite different way.

The murderers, intent on suicide, who turned civilian aircraft into living missiles and flew them into the capitalist citadels of Western civilisation were, as we now know from Atta's testament, motivated by religious convictions. For them, the symbols of the globalised modern age embody the Great Satan. But for us as well, the universal witnesses of the "apocalyptic" events on television, biblical images also came to mind. And the language of retaliation, with which it was not only the American president who first reacted to this incomprehensible act, had an Old Testament ring to it. As if the deluded attack had struck a religious chord deep within secular society, the synagogues, churches and mosques filled up everywhere. This underlying common feeling did not, by the way, lead the civil and religious mourners in the New York Stadium three weeks ago to adopt a symmetrical attitude full of hatred.

Modern phenomenon
Despite its religious language, fundamentalism is entirely a modern phenomenon. What was immediately striking about the Islamic perpetrators was the lack of simultaneousness of motives and means. This reflects a lack of simultaneousness of culture and society in the perpetrators' own countries, which has only come into being as a result of an accelerated and radically uprooting process of modernisation. What under happier circumstances we could nevertheless have seen as a process of creative destruction, does not provide in these countries the prospect of any kind of compensation for the pain of the decline of traditional ways of life. The prospect of an improvement in material living conditions is only one aspect. What is decisive is the change of attitude that is clearly blocked by feelings of humiliation, which has its political expression in the separation of religion and State. In Europe as well, where history has taken centuries to find a sensitive attitude towards the Janus-like view of the modern age, there are still ambivalent feelings about "secularisation", as can be seen from the dispute about gene technology.

There are hardened orthodoxies in the West just as in the East and the Far East, among Christians and Jews, just as among Moslems. Anyone wanting to avoid a battle of cultures must call to mind the unfinished dialectic of our own Western process of secularisation. The "war against terrorism" is not a war, and terrorism also expresses the disastrously speechless collision of worlds which must develop a common language beyond the silent violence of terrorists and of missiles. In the face of a globalisation which is taking place over markets from which borders have been removed, many of us hoped for a return of the political in another form - not in the Hobbist original form of the globalised security State, in the form of the police, secret services and now also the military, but as a civilising, creative power worldwide. At present we have little more than the faint hope of a stratagem of reason - and a little stocktaking. Because that gulf in speechlessness also divides our own house. We will only be able to assess the risks of secularisation coming off the rails elsewhere if we are clear what secularisation means in our postsecular societies. It is with this intention that today I am once again taking up the old subject of "Faith and knowledge". You should not therefore expect a "sermon" that polarises, that makes some of you jump up and others remain seated.

The word "secularisation" first had the legal meaning of the forced transference of Church properties to the authority of the secular State. This meaning was then transferred to the emergence of the cultural and social modern age as a whole. Since then, conflicting judgements have been associated with "secularisation", depending on whether we emphasise the successful taming of the authority of the Church by temporal power or the act of misappropriation. According to one version, religious ways of thinking and living are replaced by rational, but in any event superior equivalents; according to the other version, the modern ways of thinking and living are discredited as being possessions that have been purloined illegitimately. The ousting model suggests itself as an interpretation of the demystified modern age that is optimistic of progress, while the dispossession model suggests itself as an interpretation of the theory of the decline of the homeless modern age. Both versions make the same mistake. They regard secularisation as being a kind of zero-sum game between the capitalistically unfettered productive forces of science and technology on the one hand, and the conservative forces of religion and the Church on the other. This image does not fit in with a postsecular society that is adapting to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secular environment. This too narrow a picture omits the civilising role of democratically enlightened commonsense, which in the babble of voices in the clash between cultures makes its own way as a third party as it were between science and religion. Certainly, in the view of the liberal State, only those religious communities deserve to be called "reasonable" which by virtue of their own reasoning do not attempt to impose their religious truths by force. This reasoning is due to a three-fold reflection on the part of the faithful with regard to their position in a pluralistic society. Religious awareness must first of all deal cognitively with encountering other denominations and religions. Secondly, it must adapt itself to the authority of sciences which have the social monopoly on world knowledge. Finally, it must agree to the premises of a constitutional State that justifies itself on the basis of a profane morality. Without this impetus for reflection, in thoughtlessly modernised societies, monotheisms develop a potential for destruction. The words "impetus for reflection" do of course suggest the false picture of a process that has been carried out and completed unilaterally. This reflective work is indeed continued as each new conflict breaks out in the trade centres of democratic society.

Ideological pluralismPhoto: Scanpix
As soon as an existentially relevant issue - for example, gene technology - comes onto the political agenda, citizens, believers and non-believers alike, clash with their convictions based in ideology, and as a result come across the shocking fact of ideological pluralism. When they learn how to deal with this fact without violence, aware of their own fallibility, they recognise what the secular bases for decisions as laid down in the constitution mean in a postsecular society. In the conflict between the claims of science and faith, the State, which is ideologically neutral, does not in any way prejudice political decisions in favour of any one side. The pluralised reason of the citizens follows a dynamic of secularisation only in so far as as a result it requires a uniform distance between strong traditions and ideological issues. But, without relinquishing its independence, it remains open to learn, by osmosis as it were, from both sides, namely science and religion.

Of course commonsense, which has many illusions about the world, must unconditionally be able to be explained by the sciences. But the scientific theories that find their way into the living world leave the framework of our everyday knowledge essentially untouched. When we learn something new about the world, and about ourselves as human beings in the world, the way in which we see ourselves changes. Copernicus and Darwin revolutionised the geocentric and the anthropocentric conception of the world. At the same time, the shattering of the astronomical illusion about the orbiting of the stars left small traces in the living world in the form of biological disillusionment about the place of man in natural history. Scientific knowledge appears to upset the way we see ourselves the more it affects us closely. Research into the brain teaches us about the physiology of our awareness. But does this change that intuitive awareness of authorship and soundness of mind that accompanies all our actions?

Nature and science
If with Max Weber we turn our attention to the beginnings of the "demystifying of the world", we see what is at stake. Nature, to the extent that it is made open to objective observation and causal explanation, is depersonalised. Nature as it has been researched by science falls out of the social frame of reference of people who mutually ascribe to each other intentions and motives. What becomes of such people if they gradually subsume themselves to scientific descriptions? Will commonsense in the end not just be taught by a counter-intuitive understanding of the sciences, but be entirely consumed? The philosopher Winfrid Sellars answered this question back in 1960 with the scenario of a society in which the old-fashioned speech acts of our daily life were annulled in favour of the objectivising description of processes of awareness. He first of all outlined this scenario. The vanishing point of this naturalising of the mind is a scientific image of man in the extensional concepts of physics, neurophysiology or the theory of evolution, that also fully desocialises the way we see ourselves. This can of course only succeed if the intentionality of human awareness and the normativeness of our actions become apparent without rest in such a self-description. The theories needed must for example explain how people can follow or break rules - grammatical, conceptual or moral rules. Sellars' adherents misunderstood the aporetic experimental ideas of their teacher as a research programme that they are still pursuing to this day. The intention of a scientific modernisation of our daily psychology has even led to attempts at a semantics that seeks to explain what we think in terms of biology. But even these most advanced approaches seem to fail because of the fact that the concept of expediency which we put into the Darwinian language of mutation and adaptation, selection and survival, is too poor to come near to that difference between what is and what should be, which we mean when we break rules.

When one describes how a person has done something which he did not want to do, and which he also should not have done, then it is described, but not in the same way as a scientific object. For when we describe people, we tacitly include moments of the way in which subjects who are capable of speech and action see themselves, in pre-science terms. When we describe a process as the action of a person, we know, for example, that we are describing something that can be described not only as a process of nature, but that can also be justified if necessary. In the background is the image of people who can demand an explanation from each other, who from the beginning have been engaged in interactions regulated by norms and who meet each other in a sphere of public reasons.
This perspective which accompanies us in our daily lives explains the difference between the language of justification and that merely of description. The explanation strategies which are not reductionist also find their limit with this dualism. These too produce descriptions from the perspective of the observer to which the participant's perspective of our everyday awareness (on which the justification for research also feeds) cannot casually be put in a superior or inferior position. In our routine activities we deal with people we refer to as "you" in the familiar form. Only with this attitude towards other people can we understand "Yes" or "No" from other people, the statements that can be criticised, which we owe each other and expect of each other.

This awareness of authorship which must be accountable is at the centre of the way we see ourselves that develops only from the perspective of those involved and not of observers, but which is beyond a revisionary scientific observation. The scientist's belief in a science which one day not only replaces the way we see ourselves personally by an objectivising self-description, but also supersedes it, is not science, but bad philosophy. No science will take away even from scientifically enlightened commonsense the ability to assess, for example, how we, with molecular-biological descriptions which make genetic interventions possible, should deal with human life at the stage before it becomes a person.

Commonsense is therefore interlaced with the awareness of people who can take initiatives, make mistakes and rectify mistakes. Compared with the sciences, it asserts its own stubborn structure of perspectives. This same awareness of autonomy, that is not tangible in a naturalistic way, is on the other hand also the reason for the distance from a religious tradition on whose norms we also depend. With the demand for rational justification, scientific enlightenment does indeed seem to attract to its side a commonsense that has taken its place in the edifice of the democratic-constitutional State constructed on the basis of the law of reason. Certainly, the egalitarian law of reason also has its roots in religion. But this reason-based legitimisation of law and politics nourishes itself from springs that have long become profane. Compared with religion, democratically enlightened commonsense insists on reasons that are not only acceptable to followers of a religious community. This is why the liberal State once again arouses the suspicion on the part of believers that Western secularisation could be a one-way street that marginalises religion.
The reverse side of religious freedom is indeed a pacifying of the ideological pluralism which proved to be unevenly problematical in itself. Hitherto, the liberal State has only expected the believers among its citizens to split their identity as it were into public and private elements. It is they who must translate their religious convictions into a secular language before their arguments have any prospect of finding the agreement of majorities. So today Catholics and Protestants, if they claim for the fertilised egg cell outside the mother's body the status of an entity with basic rights, are seeking (perhaps prematurely) to translate the image of God of human creation into the secular language of the constitution. The search for reasons aimed at finding general acceptability would not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from the public sphere nor cut off secular society from important resources of meaningfulness if only the secular side also maintained a feeling for the ability of religious languages to articulate themselves. The boundary between secular and religious reasons is fluid anyway. Therefore establishing this disputed boundary should be understood as being a cooperative task that requires both sides also to take up the perspective of the other.

Democratically enlightened commonsense is not a singular concept, but describes the mental state of mind of a public that has many voices. In such questions, secular majorities should not push through decisions before having listened to the objections of opponents who feel offended by them in their religious convictions; they must regard these objections as being a kind of delaying veto in order to test what they can learn from them. In view of the religious origin of its moral bases, the liberal State should reckon on the possibility that in the face of completely new challenges, the "culture of common human understanding" (Hegel) does not make up for the level of articulation of its own history of development. The language of the market is now with us everywhere and forces all interpersonal relationships into the schema of orientation, each to his own preferences. But the social bonds that are tied out of mutual respect are not taken up in the concepts of agreement, rational choice and the maximising of benefits.

Moral duties
For this reason Kant did not want the categorical 'should' to disappear in the maelstrom of self-interest. He extended arbitrary freedom to autonomy, and with it gave the first great example for what is indeed a secularising but at the same time a saving deconstruction of religious truths. In Kant, the authority of God's commandments finds an unmistakable echo in the unconditional worth of moral duties. With his concept of autonomy it is true that he destroys the traditional idea of being children of God. But he forestalls the banal consequences of an emptying deflationing by a critical relativising of the religious content.

Secular ways of speaking that simply eliminate that which was once intended leave confusion behind. When sin turned into guilt, something was lost. Because with the desire for forgiveness there is still the unsentimental desire to have the suffering inflicted on someone else not to have happened. We are truly unsettled by the irreversibility of any suffering that has been caused - that injustice to those innocents who have been mistreated, degraded and murdered, that goes beyond any measure of restitution within the power of man. The lost hope of resurrection leaves behind a perceptible vacuum. Horkheimer's justified scepticism about Benjamin's effusive hope for the restitutional power of human remembrance - "Those who have been struck down really have been struck down" - does not deny the powerless impulse still to change that which cannot be altered. The exchange of letters between Benjamin and Horkheimer took place in the spring of 1937. Both, the true impulse and its powerlessness, continued after the Holocaust in the practice of a "reappraisal of the past" (Adorno) that was both necessary and terrible. In a different way, the same impulse is still expressed in the growing lament about the inappropriateness of this practice. At such times the nonbelieving sons and daughters of the modern age seem to owe each other more and even to need more than is available to them from the religious tradition in translation - as if their semantic potentials were not yet exhausted.

This ambivalence can also lead to the sensible attitude of keeping religion at a distance, but without completely closing one's mind to its perspectives. This attitude can put in the right direction the self-enlightenment of a society torn apart by a cultural war. Moral feelings which hitherto can be expressed in an adequately differentiated way only in the language of religion can find a general resonance as soon as a saving formulation takes hold for something that is already almost forgotten but implicitly is missed. This succeeds very rarely, but sometimes. A secularisation that does not destroy is accomplished by way of translation. This is what the West, as the secularising power worldwide, can learn from its own history.

Mutual Respect
In the controversy about dealing with human embryos, today many people still refer to Moses, 1,27: And God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him. That God, who is love, created free beings in Adam and Eve, who are like him, it is not necessary to believe in order to understand what is meant by 'in the same image'. There cannot be love without recognition in another, there cannot be freedom without mutual respect. This is why the opponent in human form must for its part be free in order to be able to return the care of God. Despite its being in the same image, this other is still also presented as a creation of God. This ability of the image to be created expresses an intuition which in our context can also say something to those not in tune with religion. God remains a "God of free people" only for as long as we do not level out the absolute difference between creator and created. Only for as long means, namely, divine design - no definition that upsets the self-determination of man.

Because he is the God of creation and redemption in one, this Creator does not have to work by natural laws like an engineer, or in accordance with the rules of a code like an information scientist. The voice of God that creates life communicates from the outset within a morally sensitive universe. This is why God can "determine" man in the sense that at the same time he makes man capable of freedom and obliges him to be free. Now - we do not have to believe in the theological premises in order to understand the logic that a completely different dependence, presented as being causal, would be involved if the difference assumed in the concept of creation were to disappear and a peer were to take God's place - if, for example, a person were to intervene with his own preferences into the chance combination of his parents' sets of chromosomes without not actually having to assume a consensus at least with the other person concerned. This version raises the question that has occupied me elsewhere. Would not the first person who determines another person as he wishes in his natural essence also destroy those same freedoms which exist among equals in order to guarantee their difference?

Jürgen Habermas

was awarded the Peace Prize by the German Book Trade at the 53rd Frankfurter Book Fair in Germany on 15 October as the key German philosopher of the present and for continious upholding the tradition of critical enlightenment.

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