Many thanks to Rob who has invited me to contribute to this blog.
Last week Jürgen Habermas visited Ireland and received a prize from University College Dublin, where I teach philosophy to adult classes.
Habermas is considered the most important European living philosopher and belongs to the second generation of the 'Frankfurt School'. This is a group of philosophers and sociologist based in Frankfurt who, in the middle of last century, presented a criticism of capitalism (but also of Soviet socialism) often called 'critical theory'. It was an attempt to update the thought of Karl Marx taking inspiration from psychoanalysis and sociology.
Habermas philosophy is a ongoing response to the first generation of Frankfurt School theorists.
In this short note I want to concentrate on a particular idea that Habermas, who is now 81, has presented in the last years. He maintains that in the past it was commonly accepted that modernity and secularization proceed together. The more a nation embraces the principles of democracy, rights and participation, the more it becomes secular in the sense that religious ideas have less relevance in the public life. The core of the process of secularization is the separation of church and state. Habermas, who is a secular thinker, doesn't deny the importance of this separation but criticises the assumption that history goes necessarily in that direction and religion is destined to become irrelevant in the public square.
He shows that if religion has lost its traditional power in Europe, especially in terms of its ability to have a strong influence on the masses, this is not always the case in other modern western societies such as the United States and it is even less the case in the non-western world. We witness an on-growing role of religions on the world scale, a role that was not expected by theorists of the previous generation. They considered religion as a configuration of the past, which was destined to become more and more irrelevant. But Habermas reckons the continuing existence and relevance of religious traditions even in societies which are largely secularised. Europe seems to be the exception rather than the norm in this apparent coincidence of modernisation and secularisation but what will the future be like? It seems that also in Europe things are going in unexpected directions.
Here is an extract from an interview that appeared on The Irish Times:
Journalist: I used the expression “post-secular” to describe a shift in public consciousness in such predominantly secular countries as Canada, Australia, New Zealand or western Europe. Here the resurgence of religion that we are observing in other global regions has unsettled a dominant but unspoken presumption. In these countries it is no longer a cultural commonplace that religion is outdated, that it is destined to disappear with the advance of modernisation. All are now coming to the realisation that religious communities are destined to remain with us, even as the surrounding environment becomes increasingly secular.
Habermas: I associate this sociological observation with a diagnosis of a more philosophical kind. Secularly minded people should recognise religion as a contemporary intellectual formation. Over the past two millennia, western philosophy has repeatedly borrowed images, meanings and concepts from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and has translated them into its own secular language. We cannot tell whether this process of appropriation has run its course or whether, on the contrary, other semantic potentials remain untapped. Of course, such a receptive and dialogical relation is only possible towards non-fundamentalist traditions that do not close themselves off from the modern world.