Peter Berger on Professor Habermas

What Happens when a Leftist Philosopher Discovers God?

Peter Berger

Society is the social science journal superbly edited by Jonathan Imber. In its fall issue it carries an article by Philippe Portier (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris), entitled “Religion and Democracy in the Thought of Juergen Habermas”. Coincidentally, in a recent issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, Habermas is on a list of German celebrity intellectuals who pop up continuously in the media. (The list includes Margot Kaessmann, the Protestant bishop who resigned after being caught driving under the influence. Curiously, she only became a celebrity after this unfortunate incident.) Habermas has been a public intellectual (a more polite term for celebrity) for a very long time. I have never been terribly interested in Habermas, but the coincidence made me think about him. Portier’s article does tell an intriguing story. It might be called a man-bites-dog story.

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

Habermas first received a doctorate in philosophy, but moved toward sociology under the influence of the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, then acquired a second doctorate in the latter field under the fiercely Marxist Wolfgang Abendroth. In 1964 he became a professor in Frankfurt, as successor to Max Horkheimer, who by then was a neo-Marxist icon. Habermas was a hero of the so-called student revolution which erupted in the late 1960s. His students fanned out across West German academia, creating a network which for a while administered an effective ideological hegemony in the human sciences. At the time I found Habermas’ role in this rather objectionable. But I gave him credit for distancing himself sharply from the more radical wing of the student movement, as he later distanced himself from the anti-Enlightenment views of  the postmodernists. In 1981 Habermas published his magnum opus, The Theory of Communicative Action, a strong endorsement of reason as the foundation of public life in a democracy. He retired from his professorship in 1993, but not from his role as an active advocate of Enlightenment rationality. It is debatable how far his more recent work still continues under a neo-Marxist theoretical umbrella. His views on religion have shifted considerably.

Portier distinguishes three phases in Habermas’ treatment of religion. In phase one, lasting up to the early 1980s, he still viewed religion as an “alienating reality”, a tool of domination for the powerful. In good Marxist tradition, he thought that religion would eventually disappear, as modern society comes to be based on “communicative rationality” and no longer needs the old irrational illusions. In phase two, roughly 1985-2000, this anti-religious animus is muted. Religion now is seen as unlikely to disappear, because many people (though presumably not Habermas) continue to need its consolations. The public sphere, however, must be exclusively dominated by rationality. Religion must be relegated to private life. One could say that in this phase, at least in the matter of religion, Habermas graduated from Marxism to the French ideal of laicite—the public life of the republic kept antiseptically clean of religious contamination.

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

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

I am not sure what Habermas’ personal beliefs are. But I don’t think that his change of mind about religion has anything to do with some sort of personal conversion. Rather, as has been the case with most sociologists of religion, Habermas has looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory—that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion—does not fit the facts of the matter. Beyond this acknowledgement of the empirical reality of the contemporary world, Habermas admits the historical roots in Biblical religion of modern individualism, and he thinks that this connection is still operative today. Yet, when all is said and done, Habermas now has a positive view of religion (at least in its Judaeo-Christian version) for utilitarian reasons: Religion, whether true or not, is socially useful.

Let us stipulate that smoking is unhealthy. Let us then assume that a tribe in some remote jungle believes that tobacco smoke attracts malevolent spirits. A public health official sent into the region does not, of course, share this superstition. But he makes use of it in dissuading people from acquiring a taste for newly available cigarettes—because he knows that some people do the right thing for a wrong reason. Eventually, he thinks, people will do the right thing for a better reason. And that will be the end of the demonological theory of tobacco smoke.

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

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

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 4
Man Shoveling Snow in Lexington while Break Dancing
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 3
Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’– The Interview Part 5
  • Bryant

    It sounds a lot like main street USA where you see everyone with a bumper sticker on their car saying “coexist” with all the worlds symbols nicely embedded in the logo. Are we (humanity) that blind to an absolute truth of relying on a moral/immoral consistency taught through the pages of scripture of biblical proportions?


  • Mag1102009

    Thank you for your well written and thoughtful post on such a difficult subject. I appreciate the clarity of your writing and your obvious desire to communicate. This particular subject has been on my mind a lot lately. The question of how we integrate the search for objective external truths, within the various traditions and the general world view of the church? Perhaps better understood as, how much of our belief is true and how much is an anthropomorphic projection of our need to answer what might be unanswerable questions. This is especially true of the tendency towards overly neat, systematic theologies.

    A few weeks ago I was watching “River Monsters” on the discovery channel. In case you not familiar with the show; it’s hosted by Jeremy Wade, a British biologist and extreme angler. Wade travels to some of the most exotic locals on earth examining myths regarding monstrous freshwater fish. In almost every instance there is a logical basis for these stories, one that isn’t very far removed from the truth.

    In one program he spent a week on a small island, inhabited by a tribe of exceptional but unorthodox fishermen. In their culture they practice a blend of Christian and ancestral forms of worship, one where sharks are treated as sacred. Wade’s desire is to catch a shark without a pole, using only a hand line. On his first attempt he almost catches one, but it escapes. On his second try, one of the tribal elders uses a large rattle, made of bones that is rattled in the water to attract the shark—a supernatural method that is intended to call the spirit within the shark. Inevitably, Wade is successful in catching a six footer, made all the more difficult, because the small, narrow canoe that he and the elder are fishing from is barely big enough to hold the two of them, let alone a six foot, angry shark.

    The point of all of this isn’t how one catches dangerous fish in a small canoe, but the method used in attracting the shark by rattling bones in the water—which is apparently done by these expert fishermen because it works! The question of course, is why? Sharks have what are called ampules of Lorenzini along their snout and bodies, which detect minute vibrations in the water—something that is unknown by the tribe. They have however, observed a truth and applied a kind of primitive science to solve their problem. Does the blessing come as the result of the shark’s electronic sensors—or as the result of the rattling of bones?

    I realize that this is a fairly circuitous route to my question, which is, how do we integrate our faith into the serious search for rational explanations; within the framework of what is essentially the product of an ancient world view and culture? Are we rattling bones in the water—or have we observed “the one” great eternal truth? Thanks once again for your enormous output, it has most certainly been a blessing to me!


  • Bryant

    It comes down to a simple question, and if I may by using a quote from the movie shawshank redemption. It is at the point in the movie where Andy is talking to Red after being in the hole for 2months for trying to exonerate his self from a life of false imprisonment. Andy tells Red “it’s time to get busy living or get busy dying”, A very simple statement, indeed. The point being in all the hoopla about to view God from the left or really any compass point is simple enough, you either believe or you do not believe in the God of the ancient scriptures. Unfortunate man believes in himself more than the creator and yes redeemer of mankind. How sad and yet the perseverance of the saints steadily get busy living for Christ. Common grace perhaps, but a remnant indeed.

  • Mag1102009

    Hello Bryant, I appreciate your response. The question of belief is loaded with meaning. For the ancient Jew it meant, to believe in your heart, at the very core of your being. Something that was intended to be trans-formative, not simply an affirmation. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “you must be born again”. The Church has taken that to indicate a literal spiritual rebirth. Is that what Jesus meant? Or did he mean that we should take that core of faith that resides in all of us and then see the world differently–as God sees it. Understanding the word of God according to Jesus’ radical new vision, directed by the Holy Spirit–and then living it!

    I have heard one too many times that the most important question for the believer is, “where will you spend eternity.” It seems to me to be a case of putting the cart before the horse. I get weary of hearing about justification, sanctification and born again, as categories, to say nothing of heaven and hell, what have become the alpha and the omega of church-speak. Christianity is articulated as the deferment of this life for the next one. Completely disregarding Jesus’ numerous parables like, the good Samaritan.

    Our traditions have evolved through a long complex process. Jesus was a Jew from an Asian culture speaking Aramaic. His words were then translated into Greek and then disseminated throughout the Roman empire, whose primary language was Latin. Within forty years of his death this small Jewish sect of Aramaic speaking believers increasingly became gentile, with his words reshaped in the light of an ever changing culture as Christianity was spread throughout the empire.

    Eventually, Constantine is converted, with the result being an increasingly politicized religion. This wedding of church and state eventually produces, not surprisingly, a near complete corruption of Jesus’ teachings.

    Apologists and philosophers like Augustine shape what become the church’s core traditions; total depravity, the concept of grace redefined in something like apocalyptic terms. These teachings are reaffirmed following the long, dark night of the church of Rome, the Dark ages, the middle ages by Calvin and Luther. And they have been the core of evangelical belief ever since.

    The beautiful and simple teachings of Jesus; the “good Samaritan” and “the woman at the well” have been re-imagined to mean something very different than their original intent. Living for Jesus has come to mean; escaping hell and getting my ticket to heaven.

    I am not suggesting that Jesus was merely a good teacher, or that I am not a believer. I am in fact a Pastor. The question is, what did Jesus really mean?

    I agree, we should,”get living for Christ”! Perhaps its time for new metaphors, for a very different time and place. That is certainly what Paul did. Or as Jesus said, “new wine in new wine-skins.”


  • toddh

    I think I remember that Habermas is an atheist. I don’t think I’ve ever attempted a more difficult book to read than the Theory of Communicative Action. I dare anyone to pick a random sentence from Vol. 1 and try to make sense of it. Habermas’ change reminds me a little bit of Zizek, still an atheist, but recognizing the value of (at least part of) the Christian scriptures and tradition.