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Jürgen Habermas on the Vision of a Post-Secular Europe Jürgen Habermas on the Vision of a Post-Secular Europe
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-03-06 08:04:21
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"A European community grounded only in political and economic cooperation of the member states would lack an intrinsic common bond. It would be built upon sand."

The above quote is lifted from a brilliant essay published in the Fall of 2002 by Klaus Held titled “The Origins of Europe with the Greek Discovery of the World” (reviewed in this very magazine in a piece titled “Klaus Held on Religion, Science and Democracy in European Culture” (See here). The essay is a must read for anybody interested in exploring the very origins of European culture and concerned about its present trajectory and its future destination. Now that the whole Western world is in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, his words on the inadequacy of a mere economic vision with an attendant banal trade treaty parading as a constitution of sort, resonate with special vibrancy.

Held insists throughout his essay that to forget the vital component of religion which was at the root of science and democracy’s appearance in ancient Greece is to understand precious little of what makes Western cultural in general the unique culture that it is. This is a theme previously explored by Christopher Dawson (in his The Making of Europe, 1932; see my piece on him in Ovi (See here), as well as  by George Santayana, an atheist who nevertheless held that the enigma that is Europe will forever elude us without a clear and unbiased understanding of the phenomenon of Christianity.

Two years later, on June 9, 2004, that watershed article was followed by a report by the European Policy Center in Brussels drafted by a senior research fellow, Dr. Jocelyne Cesari. In it Ms. Cesari reports that Europe is the only region of the world which has a general hostility toward religion; that Europeans have a tendency to explain every sign of backwardness in terms of religion…

The European tendency, according to this scholarly report, is to equate Muslim religion, and indeed all religions, with fanaticism. This phenomenon unique to Europe was also documented by the World Values Survey conducted by a group of social scientists who identify its roots in the Enlightenment Period, the period of Voltaire, the very icon of Enlightenment who while asserting that he would defend to death the right of dissent and free speech of any citizen, at the same time, and paradoxically, writes the famed “Mahomet, of Fanaticism” in 1745, without ever retracting his misguided tract. In fact, he dies cursing Dante whom he considered a bigoted Medieval (Gothic was his favored slur) poet and therefore not a great poet. That spirit, according to Cesari and the World Values Survey lives on today. But there are signs that the anti-religion virulence is in abeyance in Europe and one who detects those signs is none other than the most admired and respected of present day European philosophers, Jürgen Habermas. He seems to detect what he calls a “post-secular” age on the European horizon. This has all the self-proclaimed secular humanists, who generally disdain religion and advocate its liquidation, a bit worried lately. Their strident vitriolic statements against religion has been on the increase lately. For they have always fantasized of being at the very cutting edge of what it means to be modern and “enlightened” and now feel such a position challenged not only by theologians and religious leaders but fellow scientists, as we have seen in the previous contribution.

I have written a half a dozen articles in this magazine on this misnomer of “secular humanism” which was certainly not invented by the original European humanists in 14th century Italy. Its acknowledged father, Francesco Petrarca was a deacon of the Church and indeed most humanists were and remained pious believers. Secularism by itself is a neutral term distinguishing the sacred from the secular or temporal. Dante certainly made the distinction and places three Popes in hell for failing to make that distinction and confusing the sacred with the temporal. On the other hand Humanism by itself does not indicate an unfriendly stance toward religion.

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

This fallacy was egregiously and aggressively pursued and defended, often with abusive and boorish language, for close to two years by a self-proclaimed guardian of current political correctness in the pages of this very magazine; a magazine I should mention that has commendably tolerated over the top language in the interests of free speech. For whatever reason, he is inactive at the moment but readers who have been reading the magazine for more than a year know exactly who he is; his language and posture vis-a-vis religion is unmistakable; but not as unique as one may think. It resembled quite closely this kind of language by a famous avowed atheistic scientist Richard Dawkins, whose book The God Delusion we have briefly surveyed in the previous posting. Here is a statement in such a book: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” If it sounds familiar, it is because a similar language has been utilized in our magazine.

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

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

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

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


  
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