Chapter 7 The Fragile Supremacy of Reason: Jürgen Habermas and the Concept of Post-Secularity

In: The Post-Secular City
Paolo Costa
Search for other papers by Paolo Costa in
Current site
Google Scholar
Open Access

Faith and Knowledge: Duel at Ground Zero

When, a little over a month after the spectacular collapse of the Twin Towers, Jürgen Habermas, taking everyone by surprise, announced in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche, before an audience eager to hear the opinion of one of Europe’s most influential intellectuals, that secularization was “derailing” and that the time had come to interpret its unfinished dialectic within a post-secular horizon, even the most cautious observers had to take note and recognize that something had indeed changed in the general perception of the relationship between religion and modernity in the West.1 The public gesture of the German philosopher – the champion of Enlightenment ideals, who had defended with all his intellectual energy the vitality of the modern project even during the short-lived but virulent postmodern wave that followed the crisis of Marxism in the late 1970s – has come to embody better than any book or scholarly article the change in intellectual atmosphere investigated in this book.

Since then, the true meaning of the words pronounced on that solemn occasion has been at the centre of a worldwide debate, in which sociologists, theologians, political scientists, jurists and, of course, philosophers of all persuasions have spoken.2 Habermas himself, who had begun his speech by confiding his reluctance to “compete with the John Waynes among us intellectuals to see who is the fastest shot”, placidly admitted a few years later that his position was “not yet sufficiently developed”.3 This curious indecision is not only explained by Habermas’s argumentative style, which requires an ongoing dialogue with other thinkers and competing philosophical perspectives, but is more generally the symptom of an intricate and unresolved relationship with ‘religion’.

On the one hand, Habermas has never hidden his own sense of alienation from the experience of faith. Using an image made famous by Max Weber, he usually describes himself as religiös unmusikalisch – a person without religious sensitivity.4 This distinctive type of tone-deafness to the doctrinal contents and ritual practices of the various creeds and cults has its intellectual counterpart in a non-polemical form of atheism or methodological agnosticism. In other respects, however, ‘religion’, elegantly escorted off the premises, reenters, as it were, through the window in Habermas’s work. As the leading living member of the Frankfurt School and an advocate of an updated (if weakened) variety of critical theory of society, Habermas has always remained faithful to two constitutive elements of this school of thought: rejection of quietism and antipositivism. In other words, like any committed intellectual worthy of the name, even a postmetaphysical critical theorist cannot give up the belief that what is de facto – the current state of affairs – is not “all there is” – the awareness, that is, that “something is missing” – and the hope that the last word in judging what is there does not fall to the most outrageous, pathological, even horrible aspects of the present.5 It is no accident that religiously resonant terms have always been part of the vocabulary of social criticism since the beginning. Extending the analogy as far as possible, one could say that the trait d’union between a modern critical theorist and the prophets of the great religions is precisely the aspiration to judge the world against a truer, fairer and more beautiful mirror. What separates them is the former’s desire to bring back to earth the horizon of redemption or transcendence, entrusting men and women with the task and responsibility of bridging the gap dividing the existent in its desolating facticity from its ideal term of comparison.

The coexistence in a single person and in a single system of thought of the two contrasting drives towards disenchantment and hope has made Habermas’s view of the relationship between faith and knowledge unstable and dynamic. For a thinker who is fond of ‘third ways’ and committed – like the Kantian spider cursed by Nietzsche in a furious anathema of the Antichrist6 – to weaving a web capable of encompassing all the compelling reasons surfacing in the experience of modern individuals, it has not been easy to harmonize the departure from a cumbersome and yet inalienable cultural legacy such as that of the great religions with its selective and actualizing custody over the years. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, Habermas has ingeniously combined Kant’s respect for the limits and irretrievable ‘fissures’ of the modern form of life with a thoroughly Hegelian taste for a genealogy of reason aimed at a creative re-appropriation of figures of the human mind that have become obsolete but not insignificant.

Since the 1970s – a decade marked by the subsequently discarded project of reconstructing historical materialism – a stadial view of human development has been the cornerstone of Habermas’s thought about religion.7 For the changes in the religious mind more easily appear as a decisive junction in the process of rationalization leading to the modern world if observed from an evolutionary point of view. It is important to observe right away that what fosters Habermas’s reflection and motivates his reconstructive project is the opacity and inconsistency of ‘modernization’. The key point, for a historically determined consciousness, is to understand how (i.e. through which intermediate stages) humanity could have arrived here from a radically different condition. And since ‘today’ is characterized by the high level of specialization and intellectualization of the varied spheres of action, ‘yesterday’ stands out in mirror image for its undifferentiated and rigid character. It is evidently no coincidence that the metaphor of “fluidification” (Verflüssigung) recurs so frequently in Habermas’s reasoning. Like for many other modern apologists before him, modernization means above all the unpacking of an originally homogeneous complex, which has an empowering and emancipating impact on its hidden potentialities.

Specifically, Habermas’s genealogy of reason is an affirmative genealogy in a strong sense, since it is based on a conception of human development as a teleological process of differentiation, which is describable also as a learning process. In other words, modern scientific, social, moral and aesthetic rationality has a non-extrinsic relationship with its own history – hence, a mistaken identification may result from neglecting its vast temporal horizon. But this history, in turn, incorporates a vector showing, in a para-Hegelian fashion, a growth of reflexivity or rather – to be faithful to the linguistic turn enthusiastically embraced by Habermas in the second phase of his career – the progressive unfolding of potentialities inherent in speech (the very medium of mutual understanding) on which the only real moments of (weak) unconditionality at work in historical contingency depend.

Communicative Reason and the Unfinished Project of Modernity

In order to fully understand the importance of this evolutionary account of the dialectical nexus between religion and modernity, it may be useful to sketch out the complex architecture of Habermas’s thought.8 The cornerstone is the idea of rational critique, that is of the duty to justify and the right to see justified with good arguments the claims to validity that are continually raised, more or less explicitly, in everyday interactions between individuals or between individuals and the institutions on which society is built. Habermas is a staunch defender of the modern form of life precisely because he believes that the essence of cultural modernity lies in the recognition of rational critique as the only legitimate source of authority. Ideally, in a modern Lebenswelt, justifications based solely on reference to texts considered infallible or customs handed down authoritatively should give way to rigorous arguments, to which individuals can freely give or withhold their reasoned assent.

Unlike the most prominent figures of the first generation of Critical Theorists, however, Habermas is persuaded that this kind of criticism lies at the heart of modern democracies and that the process of economic and bureaucratic rationalization has not completely inhibited the power of good arguments. For such a capability to be possible, though, there must be ideal – i.e. normative – standards that not only counterfactually transcend everyday reality, but are at least partly already at work in ordinary activities and relationships. Habermas is a rationalist not only because he regards reason as a sui generis power, endowed with its own unique persuasive force that cannot be reduced to other coercive forms of influence, but also because he is convinced that it is already at work in daily life. This is not to deny that our lives could be much more rational than they are today. The world is far from perfect. Its flaws, however, only prove that modernity, with its ideals of autonomy, authenticity, freedom, rationality, represents an unfinished project that needs to be continually updated, not dismissed on the spur of the moment, with flippant gestures that are as emphatic as they are unthoughtful.

For Habermas, therefore, the main challenge is to reconstruct the enabling conditions of social criticism. To this aim, the German philosopher has over the years built up a complex theory of speech acts and, on this basis, an understanding of human rationality in which the full development of a communicative competence appears as the bedrock of cultural evolution, something like a primary anthropological endowment rooted in humans’ linguisticity, which only in modern living conditions would unfold its full potential.

Following Weber, Habermas interprets the slow historical development leading to cultural modernity as a process of rationalization and disenchantment of the mythical images of the world in which a holistic mindset unable to keep the three value spheres (cognitive, moral, expressive) clearly separate made way to a more rigorous grasp of the differences between the various claims to validity (truth, rightness, authenticity). This evolutionary transition rendered the life conditions of moderns deeper and thicker, increasing exponentially the need and the ability to control and manage both natural processes and interpersonal dynamics. Hence, the process of rationalization is also seen by Habermas as the collective emancipation from forms of life that were inadequate because insufficiently differentiated and, in Kantian terms, as a process of maturation analogous to that experienced by individuals in the course of their lives when they go through a decentralizing shift from ‘I-’ and ‘we-centered’ perspectives.

From the beginnings of his career, Habermas has sought in the communicative competence of speakers – in interaction, in linguistic practice – rather than in the minds of individuals or in the instrumental efficacy of their actions, the cognitive resources that have made such an evolutionary leap possible. The intuition around which his “linguistic Kantianism” revolves9 is that human communication has a telos, an ideal purpose: agreement (Einverständnis). That is, when human beings communicate to coordinate their actions, they cannot help but assume that the ultimate goal of their linguistic exchanges is a ‘rational’ (i.e. determined solely by free conviction) accord. Needles to say, Habermas is not naïve and is well aware that people most often use language not to understand each other, but to surreptitiously induce others to do things that will benefit them. However, these uses of language that he calls strategic presuppose, in his view, communicative uses and are parasitic with respect to them. There is therefore a so-called ‘formal-pragmatic’ (that is, attestable through a formal analysis of speech acts) preeminence of communicative rationality over instrumental rationality, even when the latter assumes the very effectual guise of domination.

To sum up, for Habermas human beings are rational animals not by nature, but because they are beings endowed with language, and language is a medium of communication with the inherent telos of undistorted (domination-free) understanding. This goal is pursued by speakers by making justifiable claims to validity and by redeeming them discursively. The unforced coercion of the best argument that counterfactually orients human communication is, in its own way, a ‘natural’ and therefore potentially universal endowment of our species that has found in the scientific community and in modern democracies two significant institutional embodiments. Since human societies reproduce themselves – i.e., they maintain order and coordinate actions – also thanks to language, the communicative dimension of social practice contains potentials for criticism that can be relied upon by all those who want to improve and advance things within society. In modernity, individuals who criticize their societies are thus never powerless or lacking in reasons: it is the very way in which they are socialized that provides them with tons of them. Reasons are everywhere you look, so to speak.

This does not mean that Habermas’s diagnosis of modernity is all sunshine and rainbows. On the contrary, Habermas believes that the modern process of rationalization is irrationally skewed in favour of instrumental rationality and that it underutilizes communicative reason. Specifically, this means that the functional logics of the capitalist market and the bureaucratic state prevail in modern society. The steering media of money and power, that is, bypass the communicative logic of understanding and tend to colonize the lifeworld, where horizontal and not vertical, personal and not anonymous forms of integration should instead at least offset them. The pathological drift of capitalist modernization consists precisely in the growing gap between the Lebenswelt and the subsystems of the market economy and state power. Habermas’s social theory thus fulfils its critical function primarily through the denunciation of this imbalance and the description and vindication of an integral model of rationality that is not confined to the heaven of good intentions, but is already at work in the daily routine of agents who cooperate and establish bonds of solidarity among themselves.

Postsecularity and Postsecularism

In a systematic manner in the Theory of Communicative Action, but in later writings as well, Habermas has thus investigated the historical background of European civilization from a specific understanding of the communicative competence of speakers and the imperfect realization of the conditions for its institutional embedding in the modern world (which is, precisely, an unvollendetes Projekt – a project that is still waiting to be accomplished).10 The genealogy of modern reason proceeds in his work in parallel with, on the one hand, a critical reading of the present situation and, on the other hand, an increasingly precise characterization of the nature and limits of reason itself. This explains why his soziologische Zeitdiagnose clashes head-on with the postmodern farewell to modern ideals and instead joins forces with a postmetaphysical view of reason, which he interprets as a justified internal development of its concept and historical embodiments, in other words as a growth in reflexivity.

But what about ‘postsecularity’? What kind of progress does it represent in human history? What form of learning lies behind the recognition of the limits of the theorem of secularization? How does (or should) our view of reason, its potentialities and its genealogical background, change in the light of the recontextualization attested to by the assent given to the use of the prefix ‘post’ in this regard?

When Habermas describes today’s societies as postsecular, he has two different things in mind.11 Firstly, he wants to signal his endorsement of the new sociological doxa which, starting from the empirical observation of the non-residual vitality of religious communities and convictions around the world – particularly the more “orthodox and conservative” ones, and this, as we shall see below, is a crucial detail for him – has encouraged a revision of the standard secularization thesis.12 The persistence in modern consciousness of semantic potentials of religious origin which, while remaining opaque, cannot be dismissed as mere “relics of the Axial age”,13 brings to light a structural deficit of the former mainstream view and calls for an updating of all staged visions of human history, including his own. The main shortcomings of these theories, apart from their vectorial nature, are, on the one hand, the hasty way in which they conceive of human evolution and, on the other hand, the inadequate representation of the relationship between religiosity and secularity as a zero-sum game.14 “Philosophy cannot fail to be disconcerted by this contemporaneity of religion”, Habermas frankly admitted in the preface to Nachmetaphysisches Denken II,

because a relationship of parity between philosophy and religion would profoundly alter the constellation that became established in the eighteenth-century. Since that time, philosophy, in an alliance with the sciences, had either treated religion as an obscure object in need of explanation (as did Hume, for example) or subsumed it under its own concepts as a past but transparent intellectual formation (as from Kant to Hegel). But now, by contrast, philosophy encounters religion not as a past but as a present-day formation, however opaque. What does this mean for philosophy’s self-understanding?15

Habermas’s self-criticism has certainly not gone unnoticed, but it has been seen by some members of the nouvelle vague as a late and opportunistic move. David Martin, for example, dismissed the turn as a manoeuvre that was “at least as sociologically naive as it is philosophically sophisticated”.16 The point, as Hans Joas has pointed out, is that “the term ‘post-secular’, if it is to be meaningful, must refer to a change vis-à-vis an earlier phase. But it is not clear when this previous ‘secular’ society is supposed to have existed, and what is really meant by the term”.17 It is precisely the suddenness of the diagnosis that raises the suspicion that behind the proclamation of historical novelty lies a familiar short-circuit between the autobiographical and world-historical planes. “As so often in his life”, Joas observed with a hint of malice,

Habermas’s sure instincts had enabled him to build a bridge between his systematic thought and current events. He not only managed to satisfy the general hunger for interpretation of a public stirred up by the events of September 11, 2001, he also offered a way out, particularly to all those liberally inclined intellectuals who had long harbored the happy notion that secularization is a quasi-automatic feature of modernization.18

Indeed, Habermas describes a double change of today’s world. The most macroscopic one is the de-secularization of socio-political dynamics at a global level (the examples are well known and range from the Shiite revolution in Iran to the religious turn taken by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). From the point of view of a mentality shift, however, an indirect but not independent consequence of this unforeseen event is the erosion of the secularistic belief that “cultural and social modernization can advance only at the cost of the public influence and personal relevance of religion”.19 The two data of reality end up intertwining and make the traditional link between modernization and the decline of religion progressively less obvious. But what are the most plausible theoretical implications of this empirical observation?

The question is more complex than it might appear at first sight as it brings into play a plurality of levels of explanation. Michael Warner hit the nail on the head when he noted that

the currently fashionable talk of the ‘post-secular’ […] rests on a conflation of secularity with a specific program of political secularism; the latter may be in crisis, but there is no way of telling how deep that crisis is without understanding how political secularism is only one manifestation of secularity.20

If, for example, one uncritically assumes the standard meaning of secularization as a process of dissolution without remains of the ‘religious-in-history’, then post-secularity should be understood as the inexplicable reversal of a long-term historical development along the lines of the more polemical uses of the category of ‘post-modernism’ (a highly improbable event – and, in fact, Habermas himself hesitates to go that far).21 Put concisely, the change is there, but the discontinuity is not such as to justify the picture of a historical revanche. The surprising resilience of ‘religion’ even in a generally unfavourable context leads the German philosopher to place, with due caution, a ‘transitive’ interpretation of secularization alongside the ‘intransitive’ one. The former, as I pointed out in the introduction, understands secularization not as a mere decline or exhaustion of the religious form of life, but as a slow process of ‘translation’ (in the double meaning of the term) of a cultural substratum (“a legacy”) that, while undergoing significant alterations, remains “substantially unchanged” over time.22 Assuming that all of this in no way calls into question the legitimacy of the modern wager (which rests on the solid foundations of communicative rationality), how then do we explain the fact that the semantic potentials of the great religions have not dissolved into thin air? Is it just a matter of social function, or do they convey contents that cannot be apprehended autonomously by secular reason?

Habermas answers these questions by blending the acknowledgment of the vitality of religion and the signs of an impending crisis in secular culture with a judgement on the non-self-sufficient character of secular reason and its dependence on experiences and orders of discourse that go beyond its sphere of competence. At this juncture, however, Habermas’s thought process becomes tortuous and makes the interpreter’s task more difficult, as we are forced to disentangle the various strands of a long argument that wavers between daily news and the deep history of mankind. On the one hand, as we have just seen, the term ‘postsecular’ designates a historical phase in which the long wave of the simultaneous processes of de-Christianization, confessionalization and pluralization triggered by the appearance of a radically secular type of humanism is running out. This is the historical phenomenon that falls under the heading of Taylor’s ‘Immanent Frame’. From this standpoint, post-secularity can be interpreted as a twist toward a less shielded variety of the ‘Frame’. A postsecular society, strictly speaking, is not a society that has lost its secular, profane character. On the contrary, the word indicates a civilization that, although it has been profoundly shaped by exclusive humanism, is not without significant spiritual and religious dynamism.

Things are different, however, if by ‘postsecular’ we mean something like ‘postsecularist’. Here we come across a different strand of Habermas’s argument and his claim about postsecularity becomes almost a corollary of his diagnosis regarding the ‘postmetaphysical’ character of late modern thought. By changing the name, the theoretical background also changes, as does the field of positions in need of clarification which, in keeping with the architectural impulse that permeates Habermas’s work, demand a recontextualization within a broader and more inclusive horizon. Here, the traditional aversion of critical theory to positivism and, more specifically, Habermas’s dissatisfaction with the results of the radical secularization of contemporary geistlichen horizons made possible by the combination of an unrestrained global capitalism and a morally insensitive scientistic naturalism, takes on decisive importance. This was also a key concern in The Future of Human Nature, one of the German philosopher’s most audacious and controversial writings. Published just a few months before the speech from which this chapter took its cue, the book, with its extravagant appeal to “moralize human nature” against the risks of a liberal eugenics, understandably aroused a surge of interest in Catholic circles, to the annoyance of more liberal-minded readers.23

In his attempt to trace a third way between a reductionist naturalism that threatens to “reinforce a normatively hollowed-out human self-understanding”24 and a fanaticism hostile to modernity as such, Habermas recognizes a potential ally not so much in religion per se as in the religious traditions descending from the Axial turn. There are two characteristics of the latter that he considers crucial from an evolutionary point of view. The first is the verticality of the reference to an absolute capable of relativizing every subjective claim as a point of view on the whole and thus disclosing the possibility of a true universal brotherhood. The second is the desacralization of all earthly powers. The latter, among other things, establishes the primacy of criticism over coercion or, if you like, upholds the (noumenal) power to demand compelling reasons for action in spite of the (factual) power to impose one’s own will regardless of any reasons that might oppose it. Habermas’s antipathy for all variants of neo-paganism that advocate a return from logos to myth and are willing to disavow these valuable achievements of human mind is no less vehement than Moses’ anger against the worshippers of the golden calf.25 However, the alliance with the great post-axial religious traditions does not occur on a level playing field. Although the secular philosopher inherits these precious gifts from the past, she can only use them creatively, by transposing them into her own intellectual environment after disencapsulating them from their original context of use. In short, she can only enhance them if she can translate them into a contemporary language.

How can one describe the new philosophical situation that Habermas presents as an irreversible epistemic gain, behind which, that is, it is no longer possible to recede deliberately and without catastrophic consequences? The term that best characterizes it, as I said above, is ‘postmetaphysical’. Unlike ‘postmodern’, however, ‘postmetaphysical’ does not indicate a departure from “the inconstant spirit of modernity, which is oriented toward innovation, experimentation, and acceleration”, but rather a further radicalization of it.26 Indeed, it is thanks to it that the philosophical culture of the Neuzeit definitively frees itself of any residual links with the metaphysical mindset.

What does this departure entail, specifically? First of all, it means a fallibilist and procedural weakening of the claim of philosophical Reason to operate as the organ of the “Truth of the Whole” (Hegel). Such a privileged position in the field of knowledge is not within the reach of any disciplines that today would claim for themselves the old foundational and transcendental role of metaphysics. This also applies to philosophy, which “can no longer refer to the whole of the world, of nature, of history, of society, in the sense of a totalizing knowledge”.27 This means that postmetaphysical thought has definitively cut its ties with “mythological thinking that focuses on origins” and gave up once and for all the hope of acting “as an equivalent for the unifying power of religion”.28

From a theoretical point of view, this renunciation is tantamount to a de-transcendentalization of the cognitive enterprise. In other words, there is no longer a terminus a quo and a terminus ad quem of scientific investigation that can serve as a view from nowhere with respect to the empirical investigations of the Einzelwissenschaften (single disciplines). The postmetaphysical turn thus also implies the abandonment of the Cartesian dream of bringing the totality of experience back to consciousness as the ultimate foundation of all certainty. The knowing subject is replaced by language as the tangible context of understanding for individuals who interact in concrete communicative situations, agreeing on something in the objective, social or inner world. In this way “world-constitutive (weltkonstituierenden) accomplishments are transferred from transcendental subjectivity to grammatical structures. The reconstructive work of the linguist replaces a kind of introspection that cannot be readily checked on”.29

From a practical point of view, however, the departure from any claim to totality and ultimate foundation takes the form, first and foremost, of a farewell to utopia and the Enlightenment dream of a complete emancipation of the human beings. This residue of salvific imagery must surrender to the idea that “neither social collectives nor society as a whole can be regarded as a subject writ large”.30 The renunciation of utopia also goes together with the recognition of the impossibility of realistically imagining the emergence from the condition of minority for which humanity must blame itself. “The concept of modernity”, Habermas admitted with a fatalism that has a close link with his religious tone-deafness, “no longer comes with a promise of happiness. But despite all the talk of postmodernity, there are no visible rational alternatives to this form of life”.31 In terms of political culture, finally, the abandonment of dreams of radical transformation of the existent amounts, in essence, to the recognition of the fact of pluralism and the endorsement of a variety of political liberalism that Habermas, with his usual love of subtle distinctions, labels as “Kantian republicanism”.32

In short, Habermas sees postmetaphysical thought as a form of fallible, detrascendentalized, anti-foundationalist and anti-dogmatic knowledge. It is the product of a “skeptical”, “weak”, “profane, yet not defeatist” reason that “can contribute its best to a nonexclusive division of labor, namely, its persistent tenacity in posing questions universalistically”, only if it does not break its bond with common sense.33 “Even if philosophy does find its niche in this way within the scientific system”, Habermas observes with sovereign detachment, “it need not by any means completely surrender the relationship to the whole that had distinguished metaphysics”.34 The crucial difference is that, in a postmetaphysical context, the place of the whole is occupied by the life-world, that is, by “a totality (Ganzheit) that is unproblematized, nonobjectified, and pretheoretical”, what is called common sense in English. “In an awkward way, philosophy”, he points out,

has always been closely affiliated with the latter. Like it, philosophy moves within the vicinity of the lifeworld; its relation to the totality of this receding horizon of everyday knowledge is similar to that of common sense. And yet, through the subversive power of reflection and of illuminating, critical, and dissecting analysis, philosophy is completely opposed to common sense. By virtue of this intimate yet fractured relation to the lifeworld, philosophy is also well suited for a role on this side of the scientific system – for the role of an interpreter mediating between the expert cultures.35

This Janus-face image of philosophy is captured by Habermas through the powerful mantra of the “unity of reason in the diversity of its voices”.36

If secularism, just like the bald naturalism of scientists and unlike the soft naturalism advocated by Habermas, is seen as a form of dogmatic monism, which endorses an untenable ideal of epistemic self-sufficiency, then Habermas’s postsecularism appears as the offspring of a postmetaphysical mentality capable of recognizing its own limits and with them the need, if necessary, to rely on non-scientific and non-modern sources of knowledge. “Along with fundamental metaphysical concepts”, Habermas admitted as early as 1988, “a metaphysically affirmed atheism is also no longer tenable. […] In our parts of the world, the grounds for a politically motivated atheism or, better, for a militant laicism, have also, by and large, fallen away”.37 With the decline of secular religions, alliances can vary without becoming opportunistic. The main rivals of postmetaphysical reason, after all, are nowadays the opposite extremes of religious fundamentalism and scientific reductionism. It is in keeping with this pragmatic stance that in the Future of Human Nature, the German philosopher made his concern about the weakness of the postmetaphysical arguments in favour of the anti-utilitarian and anti-individualistic goal of stabilizing a form of life compatible with modern universalist morality prevail over the fight against religious fanaticism. In the face of such a deficit in modern procedural reason, it is not surprising that what Habermas often calls the “un- or not yet exhausted semantic potentials” encapsulated in the great religions should gain in importance.38

From the Sacred to the Logos

The idea that religious beliefs are beliefs of a special kind and that, in their pure form, they are incompatible with the modern form of life is an intuition that has accompanied Habermas’s thought from the outset and was developed in detail in the second volume of The Theory of Communicative Action. The kindred metaphors of the ‘linguistification’ (Versprachlichung) or communicative fluidification (Verflüssigung) of the sacred are based on this insight, thanks to which the stadial view of history embraced by the German philosopher takes on a plastic form. Both suggest the image of something stiffened, crystallized, condensed: a bulk of undifferentiated contents that are interwoven into an organic totality and whose meaning depends crucially on such resistance to being broken down.

A key point in Habermas’s argument is precisely the attribution of a sui generis status to the semantic contents coagulated in religious faiths and practices. From his point of view, if religion is to be understood as an independent and historically significant intellectual figure, its definition cannot be diluted to the point where any generic aspiration to a good or ‘full’ life is included in the ‘religious’.39 Religion, in short, is something different from an existential project. In particular, its definition cannot fail to include a reference to myth and ritual as indispensable collective devices for coping with the contingencies of existence and justifying the pain and injustice distributed unequally and apparently at random among individuals. Hence, it is not surprising that in his writings on the subject Habermas often draws on the concept of religion developed by the sociologist Martin Riesebrodt, according to whom “religion is based on communication with superhuman powers and is concerned with warding off misfortune, coping with crises, and laying the foundation for salvation”.40 The diversity that has enabled religions to resist the colonizing aims of secular agencies to this day precisely depends on the constitutive link with worship and propitiatory rites. It is the “archaic unity of myth and rites” together with the “aura of rapture and terror that emanates from the sacred” that suggests to “profane but nondefeatist reason […] not to get too close to religion (der Religion zu nahe treten)”, respecting its substantial difference from other competing normative practices.41

Cults, rites, traffic with the supernatural and, later on, myths and world pictures constitute that “sacred complex” in which religious beliefs are embedded. Such indissoluble union with ritual practice is something arcane for secular reason, which it can only hope to illuminate by exploiting the analogy between the context in which religious beliefs are engrained and that “horizon of impenetrable and opaque experiences” within which even rational discourse continues to move.42 Similarities aside, however, a person moving within a postmetaphysical horizon will experience a characteristic sense of alienation when faced with the “strukturellen Einschränkungen der Kommunikation” (systemic restrictions placed on communication) which, in the case of Christianity, for example, originate from the amalgamation of “ontic, normative, and expressive aspects of validity, which must remain fused together in the conception of the creator and redeemer God, of theodicy, and of the event of salvation”.43 In these cases, “faith is protected against radical problematization by its being rooted in cult”, and such a restriction of accessible reasons represents an unacceptable barrier for religiously unmusical people or, at least, for those of them unwilling to recognize external limits to the authority of discursive reason.44

This is the specific “religious excess”45 against which secular reason must measure itself when it sincerely renounces all autarchic aspirations and ceases to see the fluidification or sublimation of the sacred complex as an unremitting dismissal of an irremediably outdated life- and mind-form. The question of whether “we must take religion seriously in a philosophical sense as a contemporary intellectual formation (Gestalt des Geistes), where by ‘religion’ I understand religious observances (Kultus) in connection with conceptions of redemptive justice” must remain open in a genuinely postmetaphysical perspective.46 Indeed, a philosophy that, while maintaining its role as a critical instance, draws its vigor from communicative reason, “is no longer in possession of an affirmative theory of the good life” and is aware of “the weakness of the motivational power of good reasons”.47 Put simply, it has come down to earth, it has lost “its extraordinary status”.48

This is the ground on which profane philosophy and religion are destined to meet in a post-secular age. And it is an indispensable encounter because, as Habermas maintains in an eloquent passage of Postmetaphysical Thinking,

even after this deflation, ordinary life, now fully profane, by no means becomes immune to the shattering and subversive intrusion of extraordinary events. Viewed from without, religion, which has largely been deprived of its world-view functions, is still indispensable in ordinary life for normalizing intercourse with the extraordinary. For this reason, even postmetaphysical thinking continues to coexist with religious practice – and not merely in the sense of the contemporaneity of the noncontemporaneous. This ongoing coexistence even throws light on a curious dependence of a philosophy that has forfeited its contact with the extraordinary. Philosophy, even in its postmetaphysical form, will be able neither to replace nor to repress religion as long as religious language is the bearer of a semantic content that is inspiring and even indispensable, for this content eludes (for the time being?) the explanatory force of philosophical language and continues to resist translation into reasoning discourses.49

The Urgency of an Asymmetrical Dialogue

All clear, then? Not at all. As I have already claimed at the beginning of the chapter, Habermas’s thought about religion is characterized by a series of tensions and hesitations that reverberate on a theoretical synthesis which is redundant and, in some respects, unstable. From a sociological point of view, for example, there are in his writings (especially those going back to the 1970s, but not only) clear traces of a parafunctionalist reading of the social and evolutionary role of the sacred complex in human history. However, Habermas’s long-standing interest in the semantic (and not just pragmatic) content of religious belief and practice suggests that one of the main motives for his hermeneutic efforts, and also for his attempts at a general framing of the subject, depends on and demands taking the participant’s stance in a philosophical conversation that is becoming not only desirable, but increasingly urgent.

The especially problematic character of moral and legal normativity is the axis of this promising but not symmetrical dialogue between believers and unbelievers. For Habermas’s urge to genealogically reconstruct the common source of faith and knowledge arises from a non-detached, indeed alarmed understanding of the sui generis nature of the “normative consensus (Einverständnis) about values and reciprocal behavioural expectations”.50 In short, his leading hypothesis is that claims to truth and authenticity, on the one hand, and normative rightness, on the other hand, emerge in the course of human evolution from two distinct processes of linguistification. The first is the direct product of our ancestors’ need to understand each other about themselves and the world with a view to effective cooperation. Here, the modes of communication between co-specifics advance in a relatively linear fashion from gestures to propositionally articulated language within ordinary, pragmatically oriented mundane interactions. In the second case, instead, communicative fluidification proceeds from normative contents that are embedded in rituals, i.e., in extra-quotidian coordinated actions whose purpose is not prosaic at all. In this sphere, linguistification takes place in a less linear manner, and the traces of this long-term process through myth and the Axial religious traditions are still recognizable today. Philosophy, for example, inherits a range of global cognitive questions whose holistic and never fully clarified character reiterates, at a higher reflexive level, the same fluidification of semantic contents originally fulfilled through the mimetic force of collective rites and taken over by myth in the pre-axial age.

There is, therefore, a specific complexity and fragility of the claims to rightness/justice (Richtigkeitsansprüche) which can be traced back to their being exposed to a radical suspicion about the binding nature of the prescriptions they convey. “Motivationally binding claims to rightness”, observes Habermas, “come into play only when speech acts are embedded in normative contexts that are already assumed to be obligatory or to be capable of justification”.51 We are faced here with a circle that is always on the verge of becoming vicious. Consequently, an additional effort is required to preserve them from defeatist doubts as to their consistency, and this labor is basically a work of retrieval. That is, it is oriented towards a bottomless historical background, in the recesses of which lurk the sacred semantics buried under the myths and world images that have anciently first disenchanted them, then fluidified them and finally exposed them to discursive criticism and the acid of reflexivity. Herein lies the challenge that the non-residual vitality of religions poses to a postmetaphysical secular consciousness. It takes shape at the intersection of a conjectural genealogy of reason, a felt concern about the self-destructive tendencies of globalized modernity and the fragile counterfactual force of idealizations that arise spontaneously in people’s daily practice.

The heart of the matter, in short, is the desirable but unlikely solution to the enigma of practical normativity, torn as it is between the urgency of strategic rationality, the need for coordination between individuals, and the impossibility of disregarding the boundless ideal horizons that the eccentric position opens up to human beings, granting them a plurality of accesses to the space of reasons. Habermas handles this conundrum modestly by distributing the normative burden weighing on the shoulders of modern individuals between: (1) a post-secularist secular state that respects in principle the plurality of (reasonable) worldviews of its citizens; (2) a moral universalism that recognizes its dependence on an ethical self-understanding of the species;52 and (3) a procedural interpretation of the relative superiority of postmetaphysical secular reason. The latter, however, demands of its followers a maturity that goes even further than the courage to think “without direction from another” urged by Kant in his essay on the Enlightenment.53 For secular reason must carry out the world-historical task of verbalizing the sacred complex while maintaining a sober abstention with respect to the ultimate question of who is really right in the long-standing dispute between those who have faith in the “powers of salvation and misfortune” and those who are satisfied with a disenchanted trust in “a weak but not defeatistic concept of linguistically embodied reason”.54

The cognitive challenge posed by the irreducible opaqueness of religious beliefs is made all the more laborious by the fact that the gap dividing the conversation partners and rendering risky translation indispensable cannot be bridged by appealing to their emotional resources. Although moral feelings play an important role in the perception of moral phenomena, in the application of norms to individual cases, and even in ensuring access to the moral point of view, “in the final analysis”, as Habermas frankly admitted in an interview with Hviid Nielsen,

it is the moral judgments which bridge a gap which it is not possible to fill emotionally. In the end, we have to rely on moral insight if all of human kind is to have the right to enjoy moral protection. It is difficult enough to grasp the counterfactual idea that all men and women are brothers and sisters; even more fragile is the broad mindscape of mankind if it is to be filled with spontaneous feelings. […] But they cannot be finally responsible for the judgment of the phenomena to which they introduce us.55

On the other hand, it can hardly be the task of secular reason to reconcile opposites, let alone console us. For Habermas, postmetaphysical reason is not a unifying power, except in a very weak sense. With the paradigm shift from consciousness to communication philosophy has in fact abdicated that emphatic sense of the unconditioned that is still present in the Hegelian idea of the absolute Spirit. “With the modern separation of knowledge from faith, philosophy renounced sacred knowledge (Heilswissen) once and for all”.56 It sets itself more modest goals by acting as a connector or lubricator in impoverished or stiffened communicative contexts. This is an enterprise of interminable maintenance in a world where something is always missing. “Postmetaphysical thought”, wrote Habermas, gently arguing with his internal ‘enemy’ Max Horkheimer,

differs from religion in that it recovers the meaning of the unconditional without recourse to God or an Absolute. […] The significance of unconditionality is not to be confused with an unconditional meaning that offers cosolation. On the premises of postmetaphysical thought, philosophy cannot provide a substitute for consolation whereby religion invests unavoidable suffering and unrecompensed injustice, the contingencies of need, loneliness, sickness, and death, with new significance and teaches us to bear them. But even today philosophy can explicate the moral point of view from which we can judge something impartially as just or unjust; to this extent, communicative reason is by no means equally indifferent to morality and immorality.57

Dialectics of Secularization

On the basis of this sophisticated theoretical arsenal, Habermas has worked hard, in a decade of extraordinary intellectual productivity, to get the train of secularization back on track, which, to general astonishment, began to derail just when it seemed to be speeding towards its final destination. If we are to believe what he says in Glauben und Wissen, the derailment is primarily the result of a crisis of the “the civilizing role of a democratically shaped and enlightened common sense that makes its way as a third party, so to speak, amid the Kulturkampf confusion of competing voices”.58 The remedy for the fault should therefore be sought in a middle path between the conversely excessive claims of a greedy naturalism and a blind religious devotion. But such a solution is only feasible if one is prepared to enter into variable alliances with the most reasonable exponents of both sides in order to preserve modern achievements.

This third way corresponds to a dialectical and non-sectarian view of the modern decline of religion, once weighed up against the recent secularization debate. Not accidentally, Habermas has tried to do justice to a plurality of different intuitions, all equally plausible in his eyes, in his later work.

The first concerns the long-term historical process that Weber described alternatively as ‘rationalization’ or ‘disenchantment’. Here secularization is investigated from a disengaged standpoint and appears as a largely anonymous development. Habermas uses the term of art Versprachlichung – “linguistification” – to describe it. This is an open-ended process of communicative fluidification of archaic semantic potentials that are originally inhibited in their development by a systematic limitation of the critical use of reason that is functional to the preservation of a traditional form of life. Compared to Weber’s account, however, Habermas’s understanding of rationalization is significantly altered. For now it is speech, and more specifically language as the medium of understanding between individuals who depend on the structures of communication for their socialization, that constitutes the proper abode of reason. Even if religions, by their very substance, resist a total linguistification of popular devotional practices and their semantic contents, they too – particularly the great Axial religions – are ducts of secularization to the extent that they supplement myths and rituals with a systematic work of theological clarification and make therefore possible the preaching of religious virtuosi (prophets, bhikkhus, sages, etc.) who recursively use the normative instruments made available by faith communities to immanently criticize their own inadequacies and inconsistencies. The secular process of communicative fluidification is therefore not linear, even if it is vectorially oriented by the weak emancipatory pressure exerted from within human history by the counterfactual telos of an undistorted speech situation, which remains active even in a world where justice and truth certainly do not predominate.

Secondly, from Habermas’s perspective, secularization also consists in a process of non-impersonal metamorphosis of religion. In this regard, the semantic and alethic contents of the great religious traditions take on the opaque features of a ‘substance’ that endures beneath the cultural changes and is the object of a continuous creative re-appropriation and re-interpretation.59 Besides being a prelude to the elaboration of an essentialist definition of religion (which plays a significant role in Habermas’s argument), this substantialist conception fulfils two complementary tasks. The first is to explain the persistence of religion as “a contemporary intellectual formation (Gestalt des Geistes)” against the background of a long and not yet concluded “process of translating essential religious contents into the language of philosophy”. Concepts such as “person and individuality, freedom and justice, solidarity and community, emancipation, history and crisis” constitute semantic potentials that are appropriated in a secular context as the legacy of a “discourse that at its core remains inaccessible”.60 From this point of view, faith presents itself to the eyes of reason as “an uncomprehended other” (unbegriffenen Fremden) that fuels a self-critical examination.61 I have already noted above that this irreducible otherness stems from

the very solidarity-founding element of a communal practice of religious worship that sets it apart from all other figures of the modern spirit (Gestalten des Geistes). A religion that had lost the capacity to organize the encounter with the sacred (den Umgang mit Mächten des Heils und des Unheils) in the form of rituals and survived only in fleeting forms of religiosity would be indistinguishable from other ethical forms of life.62

Given these premises, the religious substance with which secular translators grapple seems also interpretable as a motivational resource for societies in constant, if not growing, legitimation crisis. If this were true, the criticism of those who have blamed Habermas for using religion as a “stopgap” for his own theoretical system, worn out by the tension between endorsement of a form of postmetaphysical proceduralism and the inability to ditch the Enlightenment ideal of personal and collective self-determination, would be amply justified.63 The acknowledgment of modernism’s multiple dependencies on Christian or, more generally, Axial religious ‘substance’ does not, however, lead the German philosopher to question either its legitimacy or its deeply innovative character. Reflecting with the benefit of hindsight on the debate between Blumenberg, Löwith and Carl Schmitt, Habermas rightly described it as an outdated debate (“today, this dividing line (Frontstellung) has completely lost its relevance […] that is why, when translating semantic contents from religious traditions into secular ideas, the question doesn’t even arise whther the secular side makes itself dependent on the theological side when it raises claims to validity”), while glossing over the fact that his substantialist interpretation of ‘religion’ is nevertheless exposed to Blumenberg’s criticism, regardless of the futility of judgments about the superiority of one age over another.64

The third aspect of secularization to which Habermas seeks to do justice in his theoretical synthesis is what he calls the “hard core” of Säkularisierung, namely state’s secularism.65 From the standpoint of the variety of political liberalism embraced by the German philosopher, the normative foundations of the democratic constitutional state do not require any ‘external’ justification of a metaphysical-religious kind because they respond to the entirely ‘internal’ logic of a political process of self-determination in which democracy and human rights are intertwined from the start. As he has reiterated on several occasions, “the constitution of the liberal state can satisfy its own need for legitimacy in a self-sufficient manner, that is, on the basis of the cognitive elements of a stock of arguments that are independent of religious and metaphysical traditions”.66 Compared to the Rawlsian model, the emphasis on the inclusive character of secular reasons – which, as Habermas noted in an instructive dialogue with Charles Taylor, “do not expand the perspective of one’s own community, but push for mutual perspective taking so that different communities can develop a more inclusive perspective by transcending their own universe of discourse”67 – is counterbalanced by the importance accorded to a positive conception of freedom in his Kantian republicanism. The latter requires citizens not only to obey the laws of a state that is legitimate in the first place because it is impartial, but also “to make active use of their rights to communication and to participation […] with an orientation to the common good”. That is, they have to feel themselves as co-authors of the rules established to regulate their lives in a fair manner.68

The linguistic fluidification of the sacred complex takes place in the most egalitarian and horizontal way possible in the public sphere. For here believing and non-believing citizens have the right and duty to make use of any reason that they consider in their full autonomy relevant for public deliberation, including those that, out of respect for the principle of neutrality, must remain beyond the threshold separating the contexts of informal discussion from the institutional ones. At least from the point of view of the normative self-sufficiency of the secular state, therefore, secularization appears to be an accomplished historical, intellectual and moral process. In principle, a liberal-democratic state should be able to count on the willingness of its citizens to actively support it even in the absence of unconditional religious or ideological commitments. Procedures that unite in a virtuous circle legality, legitimacy and the emotional resources encapsulated in modern constitutional patriotism, which has supplanted the old, exclusionary nationalism of the nineteenth-century, are sufficient for this purpose. This, however, does not mean that liberal-democratic political culture does not suffer from specific pathologies that weaken its effectiveness and worth in the eyes of citizens. Typical malaises of modern liberal democracies are, for example, the sense of impotence and uselessness instilled by the colonization of all spheres of life by the logic of the economic subsystem or the “tendency to depoliticize the citizens”.69 Here, indeed, the pre-modern symbolic resources of Axial religions – particularly Christianity – constitute a repository of fundamental ethical intuitions, especially in the area of solidarity and civic self-sacrifice.

As it was the case with modernization, the outcome of the secularization process is also ambiguous, for its apparent accomplishment goes hand in hand with the emergence of new risks, dysfunctions and challenges. This unreconciled condition gives rise to a dialectic, which is at the same time a ‘dialogic’, of secularization. The failure of modern rationalization is in fact immediately translated into a cognitive challenge for those who are not deaf to the malaises of modern civilization. From this point of view, the public discussion organized by the Catholic Academy of Munich in January 2004 between Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, at the time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and main candidate to the succession of Pope John Paul II, appears as an exemplary episode. To begin with, it is a dialogue between essentially different perspectives. The critical theorist is not accidentally eager to belabor the point:

a philosophy that is aware of its fallibility and of its fragile position within the differentiated structures of modern society will insist on the generic distinction (which is not at all meant in a pejorative sense) between the secular discourse that claims to be accessible to all men and the religious discourse that is dependent upon the truths of revelation.70

Faith constitutes, that is, the Other of Reason, to which, however, Reason is genealogically related. There is a distance between the two, but it is not unbridgeable. This is an ideal precondition for a demanding cognitive challenge to materialize.71

From Habermas’s point of view, the dialogue is in any case asymmetrical. On the one hand, the “determining authority of secular reason over cognitive worth” is an argumentative bedrock that, even in a condition of reasonable disagreement, allows it to occupy a privileged position from which it can, for example, exercise the right to condescendingly grant religious beliefs “an epistemological status that is not purely and simply irrational”.72 On the other hand, however, religion has the advantage over postmetaphysical secular reason of having preserved

something that has been lost elsewhere and that cannot be restored by the professional knowledge of experts alone. I am referring to adequately differentiated possibilities of expression and to sensitivities with regard to lives that have gone astray (Sensibilitäten für verfehltes Leben), with regard to societal pathologies, with regard to the failure of individuals’ plans for their lives, and with regard to the deformation and disfigurement of the lives that people share with one another.73

Making use of the theoretical framework laid out by Habermas in The Future of Human Nature, the question could be summed up by saying that, if compared to the ethical abstentionism of postmetaphysical thought, religious traditions have the advantage of being able to satisfy the need for an ethical self-understanding at the level of the entire human species and to do so with a symbolic and affective power that is now inaccessible to secular reason.

The intuition behind Habermas’s account of the mutual asymmetry between faith and reason is similar to the one that led, for example, Charles Taylor and Peter Berger to talk about the mutual fragilization of different value systems typical of modern hyperpluralism. The difference, though, lies in the fact that, for Habermas, the “complementary learning process” of secular and religious mentalities does not exclude an essentially paternalistic understanding of the relation between believers and unbelievers, given that the medium in which the reconciliation between faith and knowledge may take place is basically a product of modern rationality.74 In his dialogue with Ratzinger, Habermas, following Benjamin, purposely speaks at one point of a rettende Übersetzung – a “translation that salvages the substance of a term”.75 The experience evoked by this pathos-rich expression is the “assimilation (Aneignung) by philosophy of genuinely Christian contents” thanks to which fundamental ethical intuitions are sedimented “in normative conceptual clusters with a heavy weight of meaning” (normativ beladenen Begriffsnetzen). And the goal is achieved “without emptying them through a process of deflation and exhaustion”.76

It is precisely at this point, however, that one wonders whether the victory of the neo-Enlightenment thinker is not a Pyrrhic victory after all. The doubt arises after noticing how in his speech Ratzinger succeeds in leveraging the difficult coexistence between the two pillars of Habermas’s post-secularism – postmetaphysical ethical abstinence and a genuine moral impulse of Kantian scope – to overturn the overall sense of his skilful theoretical operation. The appeal to the “responsibility of philosophy” as a discipline devoted to “keeping open our awareness of the totality”, the ingenious recourse to the intellectual tradition of natural law as an intermediate ground between secular reason and intellectus fidei, the rhetorical question about the possibility of justifying within a procedural horizon the normative fact that “man qua man, thanks simply to his membership in the species ‘man’, is the subject of rights and that his being bears within itself values and norms that must be discovered – but not invented”, are all expedient arguments functional to the proposal of a renewed alliance between Athens and Jerusalem against the old and new threats endangering the future of the human race.77 In Ratzinger’s Eurocentric perspective, “what holds the world together” is the “essential complementarity of reason and faith”, that is, the readiness of the Christian tradition and western secular rationality to learn from each other and limit one another.78 This complementarity is not only true, but also sensible, given that neither of the two is capable today of transferring its claimed universalism from a de jure to a de facto condition. “In other words”, is the simultaneously desolate and combative conclusion of the future Pope Benedict XVI, “the rational or ethical or religious formula that would embrace the whole world and unite all persons does not exist; or, at least, it is unattainable at the present moment. This is why the so-called ‘world ethos’ remains an abstraction”.79 Although Ratzinger refers here tacitly to Hans Küng’s project of a Weltethos, what he actually has in mind is European secularization as “an exceptional development […] that needs to be corrected”.80

Conclusion: Virtues and Flaws of Inclusive Secularization

If we ponder the core of Habermas’s decades-long reflection on the nexus between religion and modernity, the precariousness of a theoretical synthesis born with the aim of providing arguments “for the ‘self-maintenance of reason’ (Selbsterhaltung der Vernunft) through a critical appropriation of the religious heritage” stands out plain as day. At the end of the journey, Habermas has found himself in mid-stream, poised between an affirmative genealogy of the modern charisma of reason and the counterfactual telos of an “egalitarian-individualist universalism of Kantian provenance”.81 Since the publication of The Theory of Communicative Action (1981) Habermas has defended a “Janus faced” understanding of modernity.82 And if a realist-optimist Stimmung prevailed at the outset – with his gradual departure from any intellectual aspiration to totality and the endorsement of an idea of society that combined in a precarious balance Luhmann’s systemic positivism and the humanism of communicative reason – from The Future of Human Nature (2000) onwards, Habermas’s concern about the results of a profanation of the modern ethos, accelerated by the marriage of an unbridled global capitalism and a scientistic naturalism devoid of any moral scruples, has grown exponentially.83 Against this drift, and disregarding at least partially his previous plea for intellectual modesty, Habermas endorsed in that controversial book an ethically charged concept of species identity (Gattungsidentität). Since then, in a number of writings devoted to the unfinished dialectics of secularization, he has denied that a complete departure from ‘religion’ is really possible and desirable.

On balance, however, this diagnosis, which certainly shrinks the impulse to self-sufficiency of his early secularism, did not affect Habermas’s considered judgement on the superiority of secular reason over any religious comprehensive doctrines. This supremacy is attested to first of all by its ability to act as a kind of universal translator. Put otherwise, such proficiency is the evidence of a higher inclusiveness that can be explained in terms of the evolutionary primacy of postmetaphysical secular reason. From this perspective, post-secularity can appear as a self-reflective type of secularization. For Habermas, secular (postmetaphysical) reason has sufficient epistemic and moral resources to do justice even to the truth claims of religious otherness, by including it in its own discourse without distorting it. On the other side, however, in a spirit of fallibilism, reason is invited to take note of its non-self-sufficiency and acknowledge the need to join forces with ethical intuitions capable of balancing the fundamentalist or naturalistic drifts of a mentality that is all too often deaf to the reasons of the victims of injustice. ‘Post-secular’ are therefore first and foremost the necessary revisions of the theorem of secularization, which however never challenge the belief that modern secularism is the only cultural horizon within which a post-conventional self can flourish.

The sense of the oddity of this zigzag path is well summed up by a thought that Habermas developed after evoking, in a mood of deep puzzlment, his personal recollection of Max Frisch’s secular funeral, held in St Peter’s Reformed Church in Zurich, even though the Swiss writer was religiously unmusikalisch no less, and perhaps even more so, than the author at the centre of this chapter. “The philosophically enlightened self-understanding of modernity”, Habermas argued at the time, “stands in a peculiar dialectical relationship to the theological self-understanding of the major world religions, which intrude into this modernity as the most awkward element from its past”.84

If I may violate the golden rule of scientific sobriety for a moment, I would say that in order to grasp the deeper meaning of Habermas’s tangled relationship with humanity’s religious past, there is perhaps no better way than to indulge in a paronomasia of the motto that so well embodies the modern spirit of utopia. The result, it seems to me, is a catchphrase that accurately describes the mood of critical theorists in post-secular times: the awkwardness of what is missing.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, in Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, trans. by H. Beister/M. Pensky/W. Rehg, Cambridge: Polity Press 2003, p. 103 (“secularization miscarrying”). The expression “entgleisenden Säkularisierung der Gesellschaft” also occurs in Habermas, Jürgen, “Vorpolitische Grundlagen des demokratischen Rechtsstaates?”, in Jürgen Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion: Philosophische Aufsätze, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 2005, p. 106 (translated as “‘uncontrolled’ secularization” by Ciaran Cronin in Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion: Philosophical Essays, Cambridge: Polity Press 2008, p. 102). Detailed information about the context of Habermas’s lecture can be found in Müller Doohm, Stefan, Habermas: A Biography, trans. by D. Steuer, Cambridge: Polity Press 2016, pp. 327–329, and in Gordon, Peter, “What Hope Remains?”, in: The New Republic (14 December 2011), (date of last access: 31.03.2022).


For a comprehensive discussion of Habermas’s religious thought see Cunico, Gerardo, Lettura di Habermas. Filosofia e religione nella società post-secolare, Brescia: Queriniana 2009; Mendieta, Eduardo, “Introduction”, in Jürgen Habermas, Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press 2002, pp. 1–36; Mendieta, Eduardo, “Rationalization, Modernity and Secularization”, in Barbara Fultner (ed.), Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts, London: Acumen Press, 2011, pp. 222–238; Mendieta, Eduardo, “Appendix: Religion in Habermas’s Work”, in Craig Calhoun/Eduardo Mendieta/Jonathan VanAntwerpen (eds.), Habermas and Religion, Cambridge: Polity Press 2013, pp. 391–407; Maly, Sebastian, “Die Rolle der Religion in der postsäkularen Gesellschaft. Zur Religionsphilosophie von Jürgen Habermas”, in: Theologie und Philosophie (80/2005), pp. 546–65; Reder, Michael/Schmidt, Josef, “Introduction”, in Jürgen Habermas et al., An Awareness of What Is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Postsecular Age, trans. by C. Cronin, Cambridge: Polity Press 2010, pp. 1–8; Arens, Edmund, “Theologie nach Habermas. Eine Einführung”, in Edmund Arens (ed.), Habermas und die Theologie: Beiträge zur theologischen Rezeption, Diskussion und Kritik der Theorie Kommunikativen Handelns, Düsseldorf: Patmos 1989, pp. 9–38; Junker-Kenny, Maureen, Habermas and Theology, London: T&T Clark 2011.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, p. 101; Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking. A Reply”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking II: Essays and Replies, trans. by C. Cronin, Cambridge: Polity Press 2017, p. 77. Habermas may have changed his mind now that his magnum opus on religion has seen the light of day. Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, Auch eine Geschichte der Philosophie. Band I: Die okzidentale konstellation von Glauben und Wissen, and Band II: Vernünftige Freiheit. Spuren des Diskurses über Glauben und Wissen, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 2019. To get an idea of the arguments of those who claim that the book represents only a fine-tuning of Habermas’s position see the reviews by Ingolf U. Dalfert, Hans Joas and Vittorio Hösle respectively in Theologische Literaturzeitung (March 2020), pp. 231–238, Theory, Culture & Society (37/2020), pp. 47–52, and Philosophische Rundschau (68/2021), pp. 164–207.


Cf., for example, Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, p. 114 (“tone-deaf to religious connotations”); Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Constitutional State?”, in Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, p. 112. See also the translation of the same essay in Habermas, Jürgen/Ratzinger, Joseph, The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, trans. by B. McNeil, San Francisco (CA): Ignatius Press 2006, p. 50 (“‘unmusical’ in religious matters”). There is no standard English translation of the evocative German expression. On its multiple meanings see Thaidigsmann, Edgar, “‘Religiös unmusikalisch’. Aspekte einer hermeneutischen Problematik”, in: Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche (108/2011), pp. 490–509; Kaesler, Dirk, “‘Religiös unmusikalisch’. Anmerkungen zum Verhältnis von Jürgen Habermas zu Max Weber“, in (6/2009): (date of last access: 31.03.2022); Costa, Paolo, “Reenchantment as Resonance”, in Michiel Meijer/Herbert De Vriese (eds.), The Philosophy of Reenchantment, pp. 143–148 (“Religious Unmusicality in Light of Disenchantment”).


On the Adornian and Blochian theme of “Etwas fehlt”, cf. Brieskorn, Norbert, “On the Attempt to Recall a Relationship”, in Jürgen Habermas et al., An Awareness of What Is Missing, pp. 24–35; see also Reder, Michael/Schmidt, Josef, “Habermas and Religion”, in Jürgen Habermas et al., An Awareness of What Is Missing, p. 14 (note 5).


Cf. Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Anti-Christ, trans. by H.L. Mencken, New York: A. Knopf 1924, p. 55 (§ 11): “This calamitous spinner of cobwebs passed for the German philosopher – still passes today!” [Dies Verhängnis von Spinne galt als der deutsche Philosoph – gilt es noch!]. In earlier texts, Nietzsche had already compared other rationalist philosophers such as Socrates and Spinoza to spiders.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, Communication and the Evolution of Society, trans. by T. McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity Press 1991, ch. 3; Habermas, Jürgen, “A Genealogical Analysis of the Cognitive Content of Morality”, in Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory, trans. by C. Cronin, Cambridge: Polity Press 2005, pp. 3–46, especially section 2.


For an overview of Habermas’s theoretical system see Cunico, Gerardo, Lettura di Habermas, part 1; Fultner, Barbara (ed.), Jürgen Habermas: Key Concepts; Ingram, David, Habermas: Introduction and Analysis, Ithaca (NY): Cornell University Press 2010; Outhwaite, William, Habermas: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press, second edition, 2009; Petrucciani, Stefano, Introduzione a Habermas, Rome/Bari: Laterza 2000.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, Truth and Justification, trans. by B. Fultner, Cambridge: Polity Press 2003, p. 7.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Die Moderne – ein unvollendetes Projekt” (1980), in Jürgen Habermas, Kleine Politische Schriften IIV, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 1981, pp. 444–464 (an English translation by Sheila Benhabib entitled “Modernity – an Incomplete Project” can be found in Hal Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture, London: Pluto 1985, pp. 3–16). Habermas’s point of view is only sketched out in this occasional paper (it was the speech given by Habermas at the award ceremony of the Adorno Prize). For the fully developed argument see Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. by F.G. Lawrence, Cambridge (MA): MIT Press 1990.


For a self-interpretation by the selfsame author see “The New Philosophical Interest in Religion. A Conversation with Eduardo Mendieta”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, pp. 62–64.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The Resurgence of Religion. A Challenge for a Secular Self-Interpretation of Modernity”, in: Diánoia (53/2008), p. 4; Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion in the Public Sphere of ‘Post-Secular’ Society”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, p. 212; Habermas, Jürgen, “An Awareness of What Is Missing”, in Jürgen Habermas et al., An Awareness of What Is Missing, p. 19. The major novelty represented by the introduction of the sociological predicate ‘post-secular’ in Habermas’s account of contemporary society is precisely the realization that “religious groups will continue to exist and that the different religious traditions will remain relevant, even if the societies themselves are largely secularized” (cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The New Philosohical Interest in Religion. A Conversation with Eduardo Mendieta”, p. 63). In essays dating back to the beginning of the 1970s, one can find instead sporadic references to the “collapse of religious consciousness”, to the “mass phenomenon [of] the loss of hope in redemption and the expectation of grace”, to a “mass atheism [in which] even the utopian contents of tradition have been lost”. Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Does Philosophy still Have a Purpose?” (1971) and “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness Raising or Rescuing Critique” (1972), both in Jürgen Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, transl. by F.G. Lawrence, Cambridge (MA): MIT Press 1983, pp. 17 et seq. and 141.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge: Reply to Objections, Response to Suggestions”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, p. 124.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Linguistification of the Sacred. In Place of a Preface”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, p. xiv; Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 149; Habermas, Jürgen, Faith and Knowledge, p. 104; Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking: A Reply”, p. 78.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Linguistification of the Sacred. In Place of a Preface”, p. ix.


Cf. Martin, David, The Future of Christianity: Reflections on Violence and Democracy, Religion and Secularization, Farnham: Ashgate 2011, pp. 149–152.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Do We Need Religion?, p. 106.


Cf. Joas, Hans, Do We Need Religion?, p. 135. Habermas’s responsiveness to the spirit of the times is also underlined in Mendieta, Eduardo, “Introduction”, p. 12; Mendieta, Eduardo, “Appendix: Religion in Habermas’s Work”, p. 403.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion in the Public Sphere of ‘Post-Secular’ Society”, p. 214.


Cf. Warner, Michael, “Was Antebellum America Secular?”.


Cf., for example, Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere of ‘Post-Secular’ Society”, p. 289–290 et seq. If one reads Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and Habermas’s The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity in parallel, one can detect a singular role playing by two key voices in the recent secularization debate. In A Secular Age, Taylor performs an operation analogous to that carried out by Habermas in his most significant contribution to the dispute between modernism and postmodernism. In short, the Canadian philosopher argues against an inadequate (because not sufficiently differentiated) understanding of secularity and tries to partly incorporate the antithesis between belief and unbelief within his framework, instead of hypostatizing it in a non-dialectical way. Simplifying the matter as much as possible, it could be said that just as one does not do justice to the modern age when this is portrayed as the cradle of an exclusively instrumental rationality, it is equally wrong to conceive of the secular age as an age without God. From the very beginning, after all, modernity has harbored a specific form of protest against rationalism. And, likewise, secularity has fostered the emergence of new forms of spirituality. For an astute comparison between the perspectives of the two authors see Spohn, Ulrike, “A Difference in Kind? Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor on Post-secularism”, in: The European Legacy (20/2015), pp. 120–135.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Conversation about God and the World: Interview with Eduardo Mendieta”, trans. by M. Pensky, in Jürgen Habermas, Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity, trans. by C. Cronin/E. Crump/P. Dews/P.P. Kenny/F.G. Lawrence/M. Pensky, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, Cambridge: Polity Press 2002, p. 148 (italics mine).


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, The Future of Human Nature. For an in-depth discussion of Habermas’s argument see Costa, Paolo “Che cosa significa moralizzare la natura umana? Una nota su Il futuro della natura umana di Jürgen Habermas”, in: Humanitas (59/2004), pp. 55–62.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 210.


For an eloquent example of the German philosopher’s aversion to the “small subcultural ersatz religions”, see Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p. 184: “In the mysticism of the New Paganism, the unbounded charisma of what is outside the everyday does not issue in something liberating, as it does with the aesthetic; nor in something renewing, as with the religious, it has at most the stimulus of charlatanry”. The topos of the “regression below the level of identity reached in communication with the one God” was already present in Habermas, Jürgen, “Does Philosophy still Have a Purpose?”, p. 18.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The Horizon of Modernity Is Shifting”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking, trans. by W.M. Hohengarten, Cambridge: Polity Press 1992, p. 3.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, trans. by T. McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity Press 1984, p. 1.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of its Voices”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking, p. 117; Habermas, Jürgen, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p. 84.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The Horizon of Modernity Is Shifting”, p. 7.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “What Theories Can Accomplish – And what they Can’t”, in Jürgen Habermas, The Past as Future, trans. by M. Pensky, Lincoln (NE): University of Nebraska Press 1994, p. 104. See also Habermas, Jürgen, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in the World”, in Jürgen Habermas, Religion and Rationality, p. 154: “The proceduralist concept of rationality that I propose cannot sustain utopian projects for concrete forms of life as a whole”.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “What Theories Can Accomplish – And what they Can’t”, p. 107.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “‘Reasonable’ versus ‘True’, or the Morality of Worldviews”, in Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other, p. 101: “Kantian republicanism, as I understand it, starts from a different intuition. Nobody can be free at the expense of somebody else’s freedom”.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Prefazione”, in Jürgen Habermas, Il pensiero post-metafisico, trans. by M. Calloni, Laterza: Rome/Bari 1991, p. 3; Habermas, Jürgen, “Themes in Postmetaphysical Thinking”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking, p. 38; Habermas, Jürgen, “The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of its Voices”, p. 142; Habermas, Jürgen, Faith and Knowledge, p. 113.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Themes in Postmetaphysical Thinking”, p. 38; Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, pp. 108–111 (“Democratic Common Sense and Religion”).


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Themes in Postmetaphysical Thinking”, p. 39.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The Horizon of Modernity Is Shifting”, p. 9, and “The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of its Voices”.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in the World”, p. 69. This is not the only possible interpretation of overcoming metaphysics. A more polemical view of the relationship between (postmetaphysical) philosophy and religion can be found in earlier essays. See Habermas, Jürgen, “Does Philosophy still Have a Purpose?”, p. 12: “Postmetaphysical thought does not dispute determinate theological affirmations; instead it affirms their meaninglessness. It means to prove that in the system of basic terms in which the Judeo-Christian tradition has been dogmatized (and thereby rationalized) theologically meaningful affirmations cannot be set forth at all”.


The expression “noch nicht abgegoltene or noch nicht ausgeschöpfte semantische Potentiale” recurs frequently in Habermas’s thoughts about religion. Cf., for example, Habermas, Jürgen, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in the World”, p. 71; Habermas, Jürgen, “Linguistification of the Sacred. In Place of a Preface”, p. xii; Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 147; Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking: A Reply”, p. 83; Habermas, Jürgen, “Rawls’s Political Liberalism. Reply to the Resumption of a Discussion”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, p. 203; Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, p. 111; Habermas, Jürgen, “An Awareness of What Is Missing”, p. 18.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking: A Reply”, p. 112: “A religion that had lost the capacity to organize the encounter with the sacred in the form of rituals and survived only in fleeting forms of religiosity would be indistinguishable from other ethical forms of life”. Cf. also Habermas, Jürgen, “A Reply”, in Jürgen Habermas et al., An Awareness of What Is Missing, p. 79: “Religions […] raise a strict claim to truth not only for their moral principles but also for their theologically or cosmologically justified paths to salvation. They are not reducible to ‘ethical’ worldviews”.


Cf. Riesebrodt, Martin, The Promise of Salvation. A Theory of Religion, trans. by S. Rendall, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press 2010, p. xii. See also p. 72: “In their liturgies, religions usually claim the ability to ward off misfortune, surmount crises, and provide blessings and salvation by communicating with superhuman powers” (this passage is appreciatively quoted by Habermas in “A Hypothesis Concerning the Evolutionary Meaning of Rites”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, p. 235, note 1).


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Hypothesis Concerning the Evolutionary Meaning of Rites”, p. 44; Habermas, Jürgen, The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume 2: Lifeword and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason, trans. by T. McCarthy, Cambridge: Polity Press 1987, p. 77; Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, p. 113 (translation modified).


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The Lifeworld as a Space of Symbolically Embodied Reasons”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking II, p. 41.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume 2: Lifeword and System, p. 189; Habermas, Jürgen, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in the World”, p. 75.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in the World”, p. 75. See also Habermas, Jürgen, “The Boundary between Faith and Knowledge: On the Reception and Contemporary Importance of Kant’s Philosophy of Religion”, in Jürgen Habermas, Between Naturalism and Religion, p. 245, where he speaks of the “ratcheting effect of truths of revelation” (Sperrklinkeneffekt der Offenbarungswahrheiten; italics mine).


Cf. Cunico, Gerardo, Lettura di Habermas, p. 161.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The Lifeworld as a Space of Symbolically Embodied Reasons”, p. 42.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Themes in Postmetaphysical Thinking”, p. 50; Habermas, Jürgen, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in the World”, p. 81.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Themes in Postmetaphysical Thinking”, p. 51.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Themes in Postmetaphysical Thinking”, p. 51.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Linguistification of the Sacred. In Place of a Preface”, p. ix.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Linguistification of the Sacred. In Place of a Preface”, p. xi.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, The Future of Human Nature, p. 73: “a judgment which is part of the ethics of the species” (ein gattungsethisches Urteil).


Cf. Kant, Immanuel, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”, in Immanuel Kant, Practical Philosophy, trans. by M.J. Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005, p. 17.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The Lifeworld as a Space of Symbolically Embodied Reasons”, p. 234 (note 19); Habermas, Jürgen, “The Unity of Reason in the Diversity of its Voices”, p. 142.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Morality, Society and Ethics: An Interview with Torben Hviid Nielsen”, in: Acta Sociologica (33/1990), p. 112. On the role of emotions in Habermas’s thought, see also the eloquent dialogue between the deaf aroused by John Milbank’s article, “What Lacks Is Feeling. Hume versus Kant and Habermas”, in Craig Calhoun/Eduardo Mendieta/Jonathan VanAntwerpen (eds.), Habermas and Religion, pp. 322–346, 386 et seq. (Habermas’s laconic reply can also be found in “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking: A Reply”, p. 117 et seq.).


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 145.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “To Seek to Salvage an Unconditional Meaning without God is a Futile Undertaking: Reflections on a Remark of Max Horkheimer”, in Jürgen Habermas, Religion and Rationality, p. 108.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, p. 104.


The image of religion as a substance that persists in history recurs frequently in Habermas’s writings. Apart from the closing pages of the “Conversation about God and the World” with Eduardo Mendieta mentioned above (note 354) see, for example, Habermas, Jürgen, “Gershom Scholem: The Torah in Disguise”, in Jürgen Habermas, Philosophical-Political Profiles, p. 252 (the substance of religion and art salvaged by means of a radical supersession); Habermas, Jürgen, “Metaphysics after Kant”, in Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking, p. 15 (“I do not believe that we, as Europeans, can seriously understand concepts like morality and ethical life, person and individuality, or freedom and emancipation, without appropriating the substance of the Judeo-Christian understanding of history in terms of salvation”); Habermas, Jürgen, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in the World”, p. 68 (Hegel’s only partially successful sublation of the substance of Christian piety); Habermas, Jürgen, “The Boundary between Faith and Knowledge”, p. 245 (sublation of the Substanz des Glaubens into the philosophical concept); Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking: A Reply” (impact of individualization on the “evaporation of the religious substance”). Finally, Habermas’s exchange with Christian Danz is illuminating in this regard. See Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, pp. 124–127.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 63 et seq.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 84.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking: A Reply”, p. 90 et seq.


For an intelligent discussion of this ‘Bonhoefferian’ concern, see Bianchin, Matteo, È possibile un cristianesimo non religioso? in Matteo Bianchin, Ragioni e interpretazioni. Fenomenologia, società, politica, Rome: Meltemi 2006, pp. 157–175.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking: A Reply”, p. 90.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “The New Philosophical Interest in Religion, p. 60.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, in Jürgen Habermas/Joseph Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularization, p. 29.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen/Taylor, Charles, “Dialogue”, in Eduardo Mendieta/Jonathan VanAntwerpen (eds.), The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, New York: Columbia University Press 2011, p. 66.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, p. 30. The subtle differences between Rawls’s political liberalism and Habermas’s Kantian republicanism were directly discussed by the two thinkers in a dialogue published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1995. Habermas’s contributions to the debate have been reprinted in Habermas, Jürgen, The Inclusion of the Other, part 2. The exchange continued even after the death of the American philosopher, in particular with Habermas’s preface to the German translation of John Rawls, A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press 2009. See Habermas, Jürgen, “Rawls’s Political Liberalism”.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, p. 36.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, p. 41 et seq.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 125: “Postmetaphysical thinking cannot form an adequate understanding of itself as long as it fails to clarify its relationship to religion as an external element in terms of a genealogy of reason”.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Religion and Postmetaphysical Thinking: A Reply”, p. 97; Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, p. 50.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, p. 43.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, p. 42 et seq.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, p. 45.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State?”, p. 44 et seq. Habermas speaks of eine säkularisierende und zugleich rettende Dekonstruktion (a secularizing, but at the same time salvaging, deconstruction) and of a neutralisierende Übersetzung (neutralizing translation) of religious truths, respectively, in Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, p. 110, and Habermas, Jürgen, “Transcendence from Within, Transcendence in the World”, p. 75.


Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, “What Holds the World Together”, in Jürgen Habermas/Joseph Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularization, pp. 57 and 71.


Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, “What Holds the World Together”, p. 79.


Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, “What Holds the World Together”, p. 75.


Cf. Ratzinger, Joseph, “What Holds the World Together”, p. 76.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 168.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “Faith and Knowledge”, p. 102.


On this change of atmosphere, cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “A Symposium on Faith and Knowledge”, p. 192: “I must say, as far as I am concerned, that the shift in emphasis is not really due to a different evaluation of the religious phenomenon – all the more so if we think of the political abuse of fundamentalism in both East and West. Rather, it is due to a more sceptical assessment of modernity. I am no longer so sure that the spiritual potentials and social dynamics of globalized modernity have sufficient force in themselves to arrest its self-destructive tendencies (starting with the erosion of its own normative substance)”.


Cf. Habermas, Jürgen, “An Awareness of What Is Missing”, p. 16 (italics mine). The German original reads as follows: “Es besteht eine eigentümliche Dialektik zwischen dem philosophisch aufgeklärten Selbstverständnis der Moderne und dem theologischen Selbstverständnis der grossen Weltreligionen, die als das sperrigste Element aus der Vergangenheit in diese Moderne hineinragen”.

  • Collapse
  • Expand