I was lately pointed to this a review by Stanley Fish in the New York Times of the book An Awareness of What is Missing, by Jürgen Habermas and interlocutors, on the matter of secularization. (A while ago I semi-colluded with Amod in too-easily dismissing Fish--this was with regard to a different review--so this may seem like a bit of back-pedaling here, but my interest here is with Habermas, who is a much heavier hitter). Fish describes Habermas as "the most persistent and influential defender of... Enlightenment rationality" (which, I would say, he is, along with his contemporary the late Hans Blumenberg), so it is of some interest to compare Habermas' recent thinking on religion and secular society with those of Tzvetan Todorov, whose book In Defence of the Enlightenment occasioned the conversation between him and A.C. Grayling on which I remarked last post.
One can also check out Habermas' views in this interview, or this article.
In thinking over the issues raised in the comments to my little rant about Grayling's dismissive attitude towards religion (specifically, but not limited to, Christianity), I've been asking myself, what sort of relationship do I envision between various religious traditions and secular discourse? On some accounts, Fish's included, Habermas would seem to be ready to be satisfied with secularism playing nice, and the religions offering their essentially therapeutic and pastoral insights for the purposes of laying pedagogical foundations in ethics.
“…the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate into its own, in principle universally accessible, discourses.”So Habermas. Fish comments:
Religion must give up the spheres of law, government, morality and knowledge; reason is asked only to be nice and not dismiss religion as irrational, retrograde and irrelevant. The “truths of faith” can be heard but only those portions of them that have secular counterparts can be admitted into the realm of public discourse. (It seems like a case of “separate but not equal.”) Religion gets to be respected; reason gets to borrow the motivational resources it lacks on its own, resources it can then use to put a brake on its out-of-control spinning.The very basic notion here is that liberal rationalism, or rational liberalism, can tell us how to be reasonable, or tolerant, or kind, but not why, and therefore that it is defenseless when challenged by those who accuse it of bankruptcy or ask it flat-out to defend its values. Habermas thus proposes that these values shall be justified not by secular discourse at all, but by the traditional discourses--i.e., religions--which have always provided such rationale.
So far as this goes, I am more or less sympathetic to this, though I don't doubt that many a nonbeliever will be able to insist that "we can be good without God," (a claim I do not dispute, assuming we mean "without believing in God").
But it's important to note that Habermas' revisiting the question of secularism is essentially a sociological, not a philosophical, intervention. He is questioning whether "the decline of religion" really is a foregone conclusion. (Blumenberg also came to suggest that this was not so; that religion, or at least myth, was likely to be always with us.) Habermas' reasons for this reconsideration are at least as empirical as they are formal. Religions are in fact not retreating like glaciers in the face of secularist warming trends. The dangers of this sort of empirical reasoning are, I trust, apparent, and I certainly do not hang my own hopes upon them. Trends come and go and even a century does not provide a good statistical data set, especially in our age of accelerating change. In fact I do not think there is any way to settle such empirical questions about history except the old fashioned wait-and-see method.
This isn't to rule such exhibits out of court; just to reiterate Lessing's point that no amount of historical facts can get us to the eternal.
The most interesting and, to me, congenial thinking on secularism is being currently done by Charles Taylor, whose book A Secular Age, and talk here (hat tip to Archive Fire), go a long way to articulating the ways I think we can fruitfully think the secular, and within the secular. (The site Immanent Frame also offers a good deal of worthwhile speculation and thought following on, among other things, Taylor's proposals). Taylor offers, it seems to me, a coherent (albeit somewhat revisionist, in today's academic climate) historical account of the genesis of secularism and, more importantly, a plausible vision of how religious (and not only religious) values can function within a society that sees itself as secular in a sense, precisely by showing the ways that religious encounters are served by the terms of secular vocabulary (which, a questioner during the Q&A following the talk astutely points out, are essentially liberty, equality, and fraternity). This turns around the situation that Habermas envisions; Taylor not only suggests what's in it for religions, but intimates that this is really one ultimate reason for defending a secular world.
I largely agree with Taylor here, so I want to conclude with a very brief sketch of what I envision as the desirable balance between a secular "suspension" or "bracketing" of spiritual questions, and the various traditions which pursue them. My sketch here focuses on Christianity, but I fancy it could be expanded. However, it's in part a critique of a good deal of contemporary Christianity, and this I don't feel competent to undertake with regard to other traditions.
While these musings on what's amiss with Christianity are essentially moves in an intra-Christian polemic, and so not always of interest to those on the outside, I do want to offer a brief expansion, because this polemic is for me one side of a two-front war. (I can't really apologize for the combative language; I use the metaphors that lie to hand, and at the moment this is how I see it).
In the last post, I said: there is all the difference in the world between having a star to steer by, and riding a tram car. What I meant here is that there is a genuine territory called spirituality, for which the great religious traditions offer descriptions, maps, compasses, even sometimes guides, but no instant and easy access. Getting there, and finding your way around there, is up to you. (This is a call for responsibility, not for some "theology of works," I am obliged to say in the interest of forestalling a predictable Protestant objection. Doubtless there is a moment or a sense in which it makes sense to realize and say that "I have done nothing at all, God has done everything." But the notion that faith will settle all your questions is of such evil fallout that one is bound to fight against it. Count me, in this respect, on Bonhoeffer's side against the notion of "cheap grace.")
Far too many, on either side, think that the tram car is what is offered; they only disagree with whether there is a tram car or not. I maintain that there is no tram car and that there is a real mountain.
The critics on the one hand have concluded that since the tram car does not exist, neither does the territory or the journey itself: those who are on the journey are really, I don't know, sitting in their rooms pretending. But those on the other side have decided that they will line up for any tram car, even one that is really just a waiting room and a travel brochure, rather than "settle" for an actual journey; if they can't have the tram car, they don't want the territory.
I don't want to take this metaphor and run away with it; to get snagged by arguments over who says "the territory is real but you can only reach it via this mountain pass," for instance. But I do know that I am hard pressed to say which are worse, those who settle for a pretend tram, or those who claim that the journey itself is only pretend.
What I hope for in a rapprochement between secularism and spiritual traditions is not the detente Habermas seems to envision, nor even Taylor's secularism-for-religious-encounter, though he comes closer. What I hope for is the acknowledgment that the territory is real, and that the real journey is far more interesting and worthy (and less dangerous) than an imaginary ride on an imaginary chairlift.