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Faith and Knowledge with Jürgen Habermas

Religion in a 'post-secular' Society


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 4/2008, pp 270-280
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Jürgen Habermas' catchword of a "post-secular society" has received great attention in public. MARKUS KNAPP, professor of fundamental theology at the Ruhr University in Bochum, examines the dimensions of this concept and explaines its significance in view of current social developments.


The adjective "post-secular" has quickly made a career and has often almost become a catchword, after Jürgen Habermas, in his speech on the occasion of the awarding of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in 2001 called modern societies "post-secular societies" {1}. But that term seems by no means to be clear, and it should therefore not be used without closer inspection, for in any case it can be extremely misunderstood, and consequently its choice may not be particularly fortunate. At a first, unbiased glance the speech of a post-secular society can easily suggest the idea of a lineal historical development. According to it after the pre-secular world first secularization had come and was for its part replaced by the post-secular society. But it is just not meant in the sense of such a development logic, which possibly is even charged with philosophy of history, when Habermas calls today's society post-secular, although this adjective may suggest such a misunderstanding and in this respect seems to be misleading. If you therefore want to estimate the meaning as regards the diagnosis of history of Habermas' concept 'post-secular' and to assess the status of religion that appears there (diagnosis), it is essential first to clarify this term as precisely as possible.


What is a post-secular society?

The modern secularization process includes a series of phenomena. The focus is on the emancipation of the worldly areas from religious supremacy. Politics, economics, law, science, education and art increasingly elude the guidelines and the control of religion and develop each according to their own logic. Thus religion is gradually pushed away from the social public into the private sphere - with the result that religious convictions begin to erode and their handing down increasingly often no longer succeeds. The waning influence of the churches corresponds to it, both in society and in the life of individuals. That estrangement from the churches had originally started with what the term secularization legally involves: the forced transfer of church property to the State.



Considerable gains are connected with that secularization process: e.g. a significant increase in individual liberty due to the declining influence of the churches, as well as the enormous increase in knowledge of a science no longer subjected to ideological limitations or the far-reaching checking of religiously motivated conflicts by the secular State and a corresponding legal system. Such undeniable gains have often nourished the conviction the secularization process was a lineal process of progress, which will inexorably lead from the darkness of unenlightened states into the bright light of scientific thinking, technical innovations and facilities, as well as to a civilization determined through a liberal way of life. Religion, according to the expectation of many, would on that road be increasingly marginalized or even completely disappear.

But now just that did not happen: religion continues to exist also in secular life contexts. Today, even a new interest in religion must be established: not only in the private sphere but also in public. It also belongs to that context when Habermas speaks of a post-secular society. It is based on the observation that the relation of secularized society and religion is changing, and the tension between the two appears in a new, altered form. As a warning to the 21st century that had just started the events of 11 September 2001 have then engraved themselves on the awareness of the secularized societies as expression of that altered situation. They show unmistakably that in the globalised world, despite all secularization, religion remains a major power and provides a tremendous potential of motivation.

But Habermas' focus of attention is on a very specific issue, which in his view makes it necessary to reflect anew on the relationship between religion and secularization, namely the development of the life sciences. In particular the possibilities of prenatal interventions in the genetic characteristics of a man opened up by them could yield consequences which shake the "ethical conception of humankind as a whole" {2}. In modern societies this is essentially characterized by the fact that the interpersonal relations have an egalitarian character, that is, relations between people who are fundamentally equals. This "egalitarian universalism" offers "in ideologically pluralistic societies the only rationally acceptable basis for a normative regulation of conflicts" {3}. So it is here about the very fundamental question of a living together that is felt to be free and fair and seems under modern conditions only possible when everybody in principle can understand himself as equal among equals.



Through the possibilities of manipulative interventions in the human genome opened up by the life sciences Habermas sees the foundations of that egalitarian universalism endangered and questioned. So for him it is, please note, not about gene-technical operations for therapeutic purposes; as long as they follow the "logic of healing" {4} they are performed on the basis of the apparently well-founded assumption that the embryo would agree, if it was able to do so. What Habermas rather aims at are interventions determined by the judgment of those who induce them. Such manipulative operations in the genetic disposition of a human being make it an object of foreign intentions and projections; for they exercise "over their genetically modified products a kind of disposal that intervenes in somatic basics of the spontaneous self-relationship and the ethical freedom of another person, and that - as it seemed up to now - must not be exercised over persons but only over things" {5}.

Such eugenic interventions with manipulative intention can produce considerable consequences. They first change the relationship of a man to himself: Who knows about the irreversible programming of his genome, sees himself and his life determined and disposed of by the decision of others. As a result of this also a new, in the previous human history unknown type of interpersonal relations is created, which Habermas judges as follows:

"This relationship of a new type violates our moral feeling, because it is a foreign body in the legally institutionalized relationships of recognition of modern societies. The fundamentally existing symmetry of responsibility among free and equal persons is restricted by one person making for another one an irreversible decision that deeply intervenes in its organic disposition. {6}

For the person who knows about his being genetically manipulated possibly no longer sees himself fully responsible for himself; on the contrary, for unwanted effects of such an intervention he can make responsible those who ordered the operation. In that case he will then no longer be capable of understanding himself without reservation as the author of his own life.

This has considerable consequences particularly with regard to morality. For as moral person we of course regard one who irreplaceably judges and acts in his own responsibility, so that, as Habermas says, no other voice speaks out of him than his own {7}. Just that no longer seems guaranteed without doubt where - due to a change in the genome - the possibility of a human being to be itself could be restricted by the manipulative intervention of others.

So for Habermas in his critical examination of the development of the life sciences it is about fundamental intuitions concerning man's free, undisturbed relation to himself.



For the potential disturbances, which cannot be ruled out in view of the manipulative interventions in the human genome, threaten to undermine the foundations of man's unlimited responsibility for his own life. But thus a fundamental moral pre-condition of a liberal living together in modern, pluralistic societies would for a long time be damaged.

In this context Habermas now directs our attention to the religions, because he knows: The philosophical reason has not rarely also learned from religions. They therefore belong without doubt to the history of reason.

Habermas then explicitly refers to Hegel {8}, though without adopting his view that religion was subordinated to philosophy, because it merely remains in the form of the idea and does not reach the form of the concept {9}. But he assumes a "coexistence" of religion and philosophy where "philosophy also in its post-metaphysical form (will) neither be able to replace nor to displace religion" {10}. For both are two related figures of reason, in so far as they have their common origin in the revolution of the conception of the world taking place in the axis time in the middle of the first pre-Christian millennium:

"Under the aspect of the cognitive leap from the myth to the logos metaphysics gets its place beside all the world views developed at that time, including the Mosaic monotheism. They all allow you to look at the world as a whole from a transcendent point of view, and to distinguish the flood of the phenomena from the underlying entities. And with the reflection on the position of the individual in the world a new awareness of historical contingency and of the responsibility of the acting subject emerged." {11}

That has still also consequences for today's secular reason. If namely "religious and metaphysical world views started similar learning processes, both methods, faith and knowledge, with their traditions based on Jerusalem and Athens belong to the history of the origin of the secular reason". From it for Habermas results:

"This modern reason will only learn to understand itself if it clarifies its position to the contemporary religious consciousness that has become reflexive, by understanding the common origin of the two complementary forms of the mind from that leap during the axis time." {12}

Then it cannot be excluded from the outset that religions also today - in view of new challenges - contain a fundamental, perhaps even essential rational potential. This is particularly true also for the issues raised by the life sciences, because "religious traditions have a special power of articulation for moral intuitions, especially with regard to the sensitive forms of a human living together.



That potential makes the religious speech in the corresponding political issues a serious candidate for possible truths, which can then be translated from the vocabulary of a particular religious community into a language generally accessible." {13}

Habermas therefore argues that religion is also in secular societies not to be marginalized and to be excluded from the public discourse, so that this semantic potential of the religion is not lost. Unlike Max Weber Habermas understands religion in the "disenchanted" modern age therefore not as "the quintessential irrational and anti-rational super-personal power" {14}. He is rather convinced that it is also important for modern, liberal and egalitarian societies, at least as long as these want to preserve a certain "sense of humanity" {15} that originally gained recognition in religions.

Habermas explains this semantic potential of religion, which continues to be of fundamental importance also for modern secular societies and therefore must time and again be sought by them for instance in the following example:

"On doomsday, so we who were brought up as Christians have learned, each of us will - individually and irreplaceably, without the protection of worldly titles and goods - go up to the face of a judging God, on whose grace we depend just for the reason that we do not doubt the justice of his judgement. With regard to the uniqueness of each biography, for which everybody is responsible himself, all - one after the other - may expect the same treatment. From this abstraction of the Last Judgement also that conceptual connection of individuality and equality on which still the universalistic principles of our Constitution are based have emerged, even when they are cut out for the fallibility of man's ability to judge." {16}

Through the term "post-secular society" the insight gains expression that also modern societies, in view of their advanced and continuing secularization, remain referred to the rational potential contained in the religions. Habermas wants by this term to make clear that in the relationship of the secularized society and culture to religion a new stage of reflection is required. For it becomes more and more clear that the secularization process is not only attended by gains but also by losses and threats - an insight which in Habermas' opinion is today particularly fostered through the development of the life sciences. In order not gradually to go blind to these losses and risks also secularized societies must still take religions seriously and include them in the process of forming their conception of themselves. Provided they do so they are post-secular societies.

Thus the question arises under what conditions religion in view of such "tendencies of a modernization going off course" {17} in the political and cultural public of a pluralistic society religion can be present and win recognition without thereby damaging the principles of freedom and democracy.



In such a perspective secularization is no longer seen as continuing marginalization of religion, but as a process that is intertwined with the heritage of religion and remains referred to it. Habermas talks of a "complementary learning process", in which the non-religious and religious citizens " then also for cognitive reasons mutually take their contributions to controversial topics in the public seriously" {18}.


Religion and Secular Public

Religious convictions are in secular contexts not entitled to a privileged importance; they are regarded as in principle equivalent to non-religious conceptions of the world. Well, you will have to say: In the opinion of many unbelievers religious beliefs cannot be reconciled with a modern world view mainly moulded by the sciences. It is therefore anything but trivial when Habermas expects also from non-religious citizens that they with religious utterances in the political public "do not exclude ... a possible cognitive content of those contributions". At the same time he is fully aware of the fact that this " on the part of the secular citizens presupposes a mentality which is anything but natural in the secular societies of the West." {19} But only on this condition a joint learning process of non-religious and religious citizens does not seem hopeless; one would from the outset take away its basis if one would on principle not accept that the other side possibly contributes relevant insights.

Habermas puts the call for such a change of mentality in concrete terms by a proposal that certainly not a few people feel to be a provocation. According to it secular majorities are only allowed to make decisions in elementary questions (as they e.g. arise in the area of bioethics) through which religious citizens feel hurt in their religious beliefs, before they have not listened to a sufficient degree to their objections; the secular majorities "must regard this objection as a kind of suspending veto, in order to examine what they can learn from it" {20}.

What is required is the willingness to a change of perspective; for a learning process can only take place when the perspective of others is included and appreciated, in order to see whether with it new, important hints and insights result. But the readiness to such a change of perspective will only exist where the own secular view is not set up as absolute. That is why "an epistemic attitude is necessary, which emerges from a self-critical ascertainment of the limits of the secular reason" {21}.



The indispensable precondition of a post-secular society therefore consists in the insight that the secular reason at least reckons with the possibility that in religions a certain rational aspect could be embodied that remains important also for it.

Now it is just not about a learning process of the unbelievers alone, but about a complementary learning process, that is a learning process which has to be completed by religious citizens as well as by non-religious. One can say: The religious citizens must considerably contribute to make the learning process of the non-religious possible. And that requires that they themselves have gone through a corresponding learning process. The demands made on them appear no less severe than those on the non-religious citizens. Above all two things are expected of them: They must endeavour to translate their religious beliefs into a secular language, in order to make their importance understandable also for non-religious citizens. And they must also give secular reasons for them which make plausible and support these semantic contents of religion. It is not enough, for instance, to refer to the biblical speech of man's likeness to God. When this is to become relevant in the process of forming the concept of a secular society, this theologumenon must be transformed into a secular context of language and reasons.

It is true though that Habermas distinguishes between state institutions and the pre-institutional area of the social public, in order to do so justice to possibly all religious citizens. As for the latter he argues that here too political statements in a religious language should be tolerated, because otherwise a part of the religious citizens would de facto be excluded from the political discourse. It is necessary to take into account "the empirical realization that many citizens who from religious views take a stand on political issues have not enough knowledge and imagination to find for them secular, of their authentic beliefs independent reasons " {22}. But also for such citizens it must be clear: Beyond that informal public, when the threshold to the state institutions such as parliaments, courts or administrations is crossed, only a secular language and secular justifications can be accepted:

"Without a successful translation there is no prospect that the content of religious voices becomes established in the agendas and negotiations of state institutions and 'counts' in the further political process." {23}

Such translation processes require that one reflects on religious beliefs. Here too the willingness and the ability to a change of perspective are required. Religious citizens cannot stay inside the perspective of their religious beliefs;



on the contrary, they are to reflect their own beliefs also from the outside perspective, namely from the perspective of non-believers. Only on that condition it is possible to translate religious beliefs into the context of language and thought and to back them up with reasons.

In his Peace Prize speech in 2001 Habermas speaks actually of three steps of reflection that are to be taken by the faithful in the context of modern societies:

"The religious awareness must first digest the cognitively dissonant encounter with other denominations and other religions. Secondly, it must prepare itself for the authority of sciences, which hold the social monopoly on worldly knowledge. Finally, it must agree to the premises of the Constitutional State, which are based on a secular morality." {24}

Without those steps of reflection religions are endangered to ossify in fundamentalist attitudes in the pluralistic context of modernity, whereas by such a reflection upon themselves they place themselves upon the ground of the modern society and culture and can so also be recognized as in principle equal dialogue partners.

Finally it may now still be asked what a specific contribution of religions in the process of forming a concept of society can look like, in view of the threats which become evident today in the course of a one-sided and blind modernization.


Religion in a post-secular Society

Habermas focuses on religion because he fears that the progress of the life sciences could shake the foundations of a moral of equal justice for everybody. The emergence of new, previously unknown relationships of dependency threatens, which undermine the principle of autonomous self-determination. When his gaze then falls on religion, it happens out of the awareness that essential pre-conditions of a morality that on principle regards all people as free and equal are based on intuitions which have their origin in religious contexts {25}. Habermas wants to make these semantic contents of religion anew accessible, in order to meet the danger that the progress of modern science destroys the foundation of the modern society.

This conflict, which becomes more and more visible, makes it necessary to argue about fundamental anthropological questions. More precisely it is, as Habermas formulates, about "the ethical conception of oneself of mankind as a whole", "about man's identity as genus" {26}.



Thus the question arises in a very fundamental sense, how mankind understands its humanity, and how from there it forms its social living together. Here Habermas sees today the situation of an intensified conflict, which faces us in anthropological respect with fundamental alternatives and decisions:

"Naturalistic conceptions of man, which are expressed in the language of physics, neurology or evolutionary biology, are long since in competition with the classic conceptions of man of religion and metaphysics. The fundamental discussion happens today between a naturalistic futurism placing its hope in technical self-optimizations and anthropological views, which are - on the basis of a 'weak naturalism' - obliged to the insights of neo-Darwinism (and generally to the [latest] state of science) without scientistically to evade or constructivistically to outstrip the normative conception of subjects who are able to speak and act and for whom reasons count." {27}

The special significance of religion in this situation can above all be that it refers man to what in theological language is called his being a creature. By that of course not an anti-scientific creationism is meant - not even in the form of a somewhat polished up Intelligent-design theory. In a secular context the semantic import of the theological speech about man as a creature can appear when its anthropological implications are made accessible. They essentially contain three things: Firstly, man must start from the assumption that his life is irrevocably contingent. That in particular also means that he remains always influenced by his natural descent as well as by his socio-cultural origin. Secondly, the theological speech of man as a creature refers to the anthropological fact that no man originally owes himself to himself, to his own will and work. Thus also the ability to determine his life in an autonomous manner and therefore also to take the responsibility for it is not based on an act of autonomous self-determination. With that beginning of his existence man rather cannot catch up. And thirdly the theological speech of man as a creature draws our attention to the fact that man also in so far remains beyond his control as he cannot unlimitedly dispose of himself and his own life, notwithstanding all medical advances.

These fundamental, irreversible aspects of man's existence let any striving for self-perfection appear as illusory and doomed to failure. Conceptions of man taking that not into account prove to be ideologies. So it turns out to be then a fundamental ethical demand for the genus 'man' that each man must always accept himself as a somehow broken, finite and imperfect being, as then also the others must in the same way be recognized as such and approved of.



From the reality that theologically is called being a creature the anthropological basis of a solidarity appears which on principle includes every human being, whatever damages the single individuals may be subjected to. When each human being is irreversibly contingent, does not owe itself to itself, and ultimately remains beyond its control, all must in their diversity, disability and imperfection be regarded as on principle equivalent, and accordingly treated as equals. This bond of solidarity then also prohibits arbitrary manipulative interventions in the human genome in accordance with self-made ideals.

The religious "surplus value" of the speech of man as creature certainly remains also in view of such a translation of its anthropological content into a secular language. This surplus value consists in the fact that man's existence can - also in its manifold brokenness and imperfection - be understood as one that is meaningful in its wholeness and can be approved of. For in a religious context people are allowed to know themselves just as such ones to be recognised and accepted. But that becomes accessible only in a devout confidence, and as a statement of faith it cannot be translated without break into a secular language.

This specifically religious belief has its reason in the experience of an unconditional loving attention to man, which communicates to him that he is unconditionally recognized and approved of {28}. According to Christian understanding this happened with final validity in the definitive proof of God's love, which occurred in Jesus Christ by proving to be a love that is finally meant for all people. Because of that surplus value religion remains also in a post-secular society an independent reality and can then as such become time and again also a thorn in the flesh of that society.



{1} J. Habermas, Glauben u. Wissen. Friedenspreisrede 2001, in: the same, Zeitdiagnosen. Zwölf Essays (Frankfurt 2003) 249262.

{2} J. Habermas, Die Zukunft der menschlichen Natur. Auf dem Weg zu einer liberalen Eugenik? (Frankfurt 42002) 32.

{3} In the same place 151.

{4} In the same place 93.

{5} In the same place 30.

{6} In the same place 30f.

{7} See in the same place 100.

{8} See J. Habermas, Zwischen Naturalismus u. Religion. Philosophische Aufsätze (Frankfurt 2005) 12f.

{9} See J. Habermas, Ein Bewußtsein von dem, was fehlt. Über Glauben u. Wissen u. den Defätismus der modernen Vernunft, in: Die Religionen u. die Vernunft. Die Debatte um die Regensburger Vorlesung des Papstes, edited by K. Wenzel (Freiburg 2007) 4756, 50.



{10} J. Habermas, Nachmetaphysisches Denken. Philosophische Aufsätze (Frankfurt 1988) 60.

{11} Habermas, Bewußtsein (note 9) 50.

{12} In the same place

{13} Habermas, Naturalismus (note 8) 137.

{14} M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie I (Tübingen 91988) 564.

{15} Habermas, Nachmetaphysisches Denken (note 10) 23.

{16} J. Habermas, Eine Art Schadensabwicklung. Kleine Politische Schriften VI (Frankfurt 1987) 120.

{17} Habermas, Bewußtsein (note 9) 51.

{18} J. Habermas, Vorpolitische Grundlagen des demokratischen Rechtsstaates?, in: the same and J. Ratzinger, Dialektik der Säkularisierung. Über Vernunft u. Religion (Freiburg 22005) 1537, 33.

{19} Habermas, Naturalismus (note 8) 145.

{20} Habermas, Glauben u. Wissen (note 1) 257.

{21} Habermas, Naturalismus (note 8) 146.

{22} In the same place 132.

{23} In the same place 138. See about it also J. Habermas, Replik auf Einwände, Reaktion auf Anregungen, in: Glauben u. Wissen. Ein Symposium mit Jürgen Habermas, edited by R. Langthaler and H. Nagl-Docekal (Wien 2007) 366414, 410412.

{24} Habermas, Glauben u. Wissen (note 1) 252.

{25} So Habermas can say "(I) do not think that we as Europeans can adequately understand concepts such as morality and morals, person and individuality, freedom and emancipation ... without acquiring the substance of the thought about the History of Salvation of Jewish-Christian origin" (Nachmetaphysisches Denken, note 10, 23).

{26} Habermas, Zukunft (note 2) 32, 152.

{27} In the same place 152f.

{28} See about it M. Knapp, Verantwortetes Christsein heute. Theologie zwischen Metaphysik u. Postmoderne (Freiburg 2006) 170ff.


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