Habermas’ Idea of Public Debate and the Problem of Neutrality (pt. 2)

The following series is by Andre Costa, graduate student at Trinity Western University and contributor to The Humanist Lens. Andre’s research has to do primarily with political, historical and philosophical problems in the contemporary liberal democratic state and its difficult relationship to Christian commitment. In this piece, he sketches Habermas’ unique understanding of the secularization process. 

Habermas has an ambiguous relationship to religion. While he does receive it as a source of ethical values​​–a bearer of culturehe also believes religion reduces individual autonomy due to its fundamental irrationality.1 According to Habermas, despite the fact that religion contributes to society by providing values ​​and forms of life to modern citizens, it does not indicate the democratic state’s dependency on religion. Rather, the influence of religion in modern life testifies precisely to the self-sufficiency of the constitutional democratic state insofar as the religious symbols require translation guided by philosophy in order to become integrated into public debate.2 From this perspective, the real source of the social democratic state is the public sphere which is based on nothing but better arguments.3 Habermas believes that the constitutional state is able to renew its sources through the argumentative action of its individuals. The public sphere, guided by neutral rational discourse, is the only viable means of mediating the pluralistic and multicultural state. From Habermas’ perspective. multiculturalism is a practical problem. Once he believes neutrality is the way to deal with this issue, he chooses a very peculiar narrative of the process of secularization in order to legitimize neutrality.

Habermas presents a peculiar narrative of the process of secularization, affirming that it was actually seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophy that educated Christianity about “the state power that is neutral between worldviews.”4 He explains that the neutral state can only be articulated by non-religious and post-metaphysical justification.”5 He argues this perspective to such an extent that he suggests the church internalize” the logic of the neutral state as a way to resolve the conflict between its different groups. For Habermas, the development of European Enlightenment has a lot to teach the church, especially by fostering “those ideas that must prevail as much in democratic multicultural societies as in relations of acknowledgements… between the peoples and cultures of this world.”6 Many Christian theologians have accepted Habermas’ challenge and in response they have attempted to articulate a theology within the boundaries of his philosophy.7 In any case, what is remarkable is that Habermas’ obstinate defense of neutrality results in a fragile version of the process of secularization.8

Habermas sees secularization as an independent process in which religious contents are saved in terms of philosophic concepts.”9 That is to say, secularization for Habermas is not to be understood as a process attached to any religious tradition. To be sure, he presents a dialectic narrative that sees the very development of Christianity as an embryonic form of secularization. Indeed, he states,“unlike the range of early mythic narratives, the idea of God… signified a breakthrough to an entirely new perspective.”10 

To comprehend Habermas’ understanding of secularization, it is important to explore the relationship between his own philosophy and the Frankfurt School. It is true that in a more mature phase Habermas reacts strongly to the radical nature of Adorno and Horkeimer’s dialectic of Enlightenment due to its nihilism and embarrassment” of Nietzsche.11 Indeed he makes it clear that he does not share themoods and attitudesof Adorno and Horkeimer regarding a totalizing critique of reason.12 Habermas seeks to recover the credibility of reason by avoiding the radicalism of critical theory as a way to find a normative form for public debate. However, while narrating the process of secularization, Habermas seems to embrace some remnants of the dialectical approach of his masters. It is a dialectic that goes back to the Marxist reading of Hegel, according to which Christianity is only part of a greater process that culminates in the development of socialist state–or, in the case of Habermas, the democratic constitutional state.

1Adams, Nicholas. Habermas and Theology. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Print. 2

2 In fact, the self-sufficiency of the public debate points to the role of language in Habermas’ philosophy, as I will explain later. It works as an absolute in Habermas’ philosophy

3Simpson, Gary M. Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination. Fortress Press, 2002. Print.133

4 Habermas from Mendieta, op. cit,340

5 Habermas from Mendieta, op. cit,340

6 Habermas from Mendieta, op. cit, 300

7 For instance, in Critical Social Theory: Prophetic reason, civil societyand Christiam Imagination, Gary M.E. Simpson showts the latest development regarding Habermas’ critical theory and argumentative action can provide alternatives to the church regarding the way to understand missions in a multicultural society. Simpson expresses a confidence that Habermas’ philosophy is crucial to the contemporary church, not only for missions, but for ecclesial politics. He writes, I offer thecommunicativeturnof criticalsocialtheoryas aformidablecompanionforinstallingpropheticimaginationinmissionalcongregations(141).

8 Nicholas Adams characterized Habermas’ narrative of secularization as “mythic.” Adams observes that it is very difficult to understand where Habermas learned the story he tells in which “religion was superseded by philosophy and art.” As Adams explains, that the fact that Habermas describes modernity as essentially post-Christian is also related to his poor understanding of theology. (Adams, Op. Cit., 107) John Milbank also highlights Habermas’ precarious understanding of theology. Milbank even noticed that the average type of theologians Habermas is willing to engage in dialogue – from liberation and political theology – already denotes this fact. Both Milbank and Adams make it clear that Habermas is not aware of Trinitarian theology

9 Habermas from Mendieta, op. cit,334

10 Habermas from Adams, op. cit., 107

11 Habermas, Jurgen The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Cambridge: The MIT press., 1987. Print 110-26

12 Ibid, 106.


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