An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age

In 2007 Jürgen Habermas conducted a debate with philosophers from the Jesuit School for Philosophy in Munich, Germany. This little book, An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (Polity Press, 2010), includes Habermas’ speech, the contributions of his interlocutors, and Habermas’ reply to them. According to Habermas, secular reason is unsettled and opaque, for it never truly is secular, as it always seeks clarification through its relation to religion. In this sense secularization functions less as a filter separating out the contents of tradition than as a transformer which redirects the flow of tradition.

The background of this text is set against the the sociological debate on secularization of the 1970s and 1980s. In western countries, sociologists posited that religions where destined to lose ever more of their importance with progressive modernization and individualization. Yet this hypothesis has not been confirmed; on the contrary, today religions play an extremely important role in western societies.

The social traces of religions are to be found in several domains: (1) They take positions on political questions or engage in public debates—Christianity of course but also other religious communities, including Muslim, Buddhism,  and Hinduism, are all becoming increasingly important actors within western civil societies. (2) Religious symbols and language games are being transposed into other, not genuinely religious, domains. Unmistakeable borrowings from religious traditions can be found in film, theater, and advertisement and in how mass events are orchestrated. (3) From a global perspective, religious communities play an important role in very many regions of the world. Indeed, today global political strategies are difficult to conceive without reference to the relation between religion and politics. (4) The discourse concerning secularism has also undergone a pronounced change. Today almost no one speaks of an imminent “extinction” of religions or of the religious. (5) Philosophy, too, has dealt with this phenomenon in recent years.

Religion is thus once again a topic of debate. It is not strictly a return to religion; rather, what we are witnessing is a renewed attention to the religious.

Over several decades of work, Jürgen Habermas has consistently responded to political and social developments surrounding the topic of religion. In his early work, we find references to the social role of religion that are clearly influenced by the secularization hypothesis.

In this early work Habermas sees religion in the Comtian sense, in a historical developmental phase, soon to be replaced. Habermas assumes, for example, that with the development of modern democratic society, the function of religion in fostering social integration is essentially transferred to secularized communicative reason. Religion is in danger of blocking precisely this communicative action because it does not leave the religious participants in discourse free to enter the “presuppositionless” space of rational communication, but instead equips them with clear directives concerning the goal of the discourse. Hence Habermas calls on the religious citizens not to absolutize their one-sided judgments but instead to submit to the conditions of a liberal state.

Later in his career Habermas seems to change directions. On the occasion of Gershom Scholem’s eightieth birthday, Habermas says: “Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human.”

A decade later Habermas evinced even more clearly the importance of religion in modern society. For Habermas now stresses the need to reflect on the religious if we are to be able—for example—to understand the central concepts of the history of ideas, which in many cases developed out of religious convictions.

From the mid-1990s onwards, Habermas has addressed the topic of religion explicitly, inquiring into the relation between religion and the basic assumptions of his own social theory and ethics.

In his Peace Prize lecture (2001), Habermas develops the idea that the secularization hypothesis has now lost its explanatory power and that religion and the secular world always stand in a reciprocal relation. Faith and knowledge, although clearly separate from one another, inherently depend on a constructive coexistence.

This relation of mutual dependence between faith and knowledge was emphasized once more in Habermas’ conversation with Cardinal Ratzinger, conducted at the Catholic Academy in Munich in 2004. According to Habermas, democracy depends on moral stances which stem from “prepolitical” sources, for example from religious ways of life. They play an important role for democracy as a background and a source of motivation, even though they cannot serve as normative guidelines for the democratic procedures. Religious utterances also take on a more positive function, for instance in virtue of their meaning-endowing potential, for deliberative democracy as part of the plurality of opinions within society. Religious and secular utterances cannot be clearly separated in any case, which for Habermas is a further pointer to the need for a process of mutual translation.

The first contribution is made by Norbert Brieskorn, who offers a commentary on Habermas’ text. He begins by analyzing in what sense does Habermas use the term “missing.” Brieskorn makes the distinction between negatio and privatio, and argues that Habermas is concerned with the latter, a deficiency in the sense of privatio. “Reason lacks something which it could have but does not and which it painfully misses. It lacks something which belong to it and is part of its constitution.”

Brieskorn then asks what, exactly, is missing? Modern reason does not take the finitude, the mortality of humanity sufficiently seriously, or at any rate it leaves this “phase” to itself, or even suppresses it altogether. Modern reason is also too individualistic in character, and thus must transform itself in intersubjective terms. To judge from Habermas’ own remarks, modern reason is missing religious rites, solidarity, and knowledge of whether the political community is aware of being founded on secure and resolute convictions concerning its legitimacy.

Michael Reder is the following essay, where he argues for a stronger interconnection between faith and reason, through which the cultural expressions of religious forms can also ultimately be “thematized.”

According to Reder, Habermas sees modernity in danger of “spinning out of control.” The liberal state, which depends on the solidarity of its citizens and their motivation to participate in public discourses, finds itself confronted with this problem. If sources of motivation dry up as a result of uncontrolled secularization, the whole project of deliberative democracy is at jeopardy.

By contrast, says Reder, Habermas sees in religion the social function of a moral resource. But as Reder correctly points out, religions perform a range of social functions beyond morality: “Shaping culture life, coping with contingency, and he thematization of the relation between transcendence and immanence are further functions of religions.”

Friedo Ricken takes as his starting point Habermas’ proposed “translation” of the contents of religious belief into the language of enlightened reason. If the proposed translation is not to remain superficial and abstract, Ricken argues, then we must attend to what Habermas calls the “genealogy” of faith and reason that points to their common origin. Philosophy and religion have a shared origin; they represent two “complementary intellectual formations.” By “complementary” he means that they supplement each other and depend upon each other. Philosophy expresses the fact that human beings bear a likeness to God, namely: they are beings endowed with and bound by freedom. Because every human being is an image of God, all human beings are equally free.

Ricken also offers a detailed treatment of Habermas’ major disagreement with the Pope, namely on the concept of Hellenization. Habermas understands by this “the synthesis of faith and knowledge forged in the tradition extending from Augustine to Thomas.” To this the Pope responds that this idea of a synthesis of Greek metaphysics and faith is no longer viable in this form. Pope Benedict XVI understands Hellenization as an inner-biblical process which reaches its conclusion in the prologue to the Gospel of John. According to Ricken, the Pope’s primary concern is to draw attention to the fact that the connection with Greek philosophy can already be found in the earliest documents of Christianity,  from which it follows that reason plays an indispensable role in the representation of the contents of faith. Thus the encounter between Athens and Jerusalem takes place already within the Bible, not in late antiquity or the medieval period, which Habermas maintains.

Finally, Josef Schmidt argues that the condition for a successful dialogue between faith and reason highlighted by Habermas requires that people must speak with and not about each other. The partners in dialogue should take each other seriously, in particular regarding their core convictions. They must assume at least the intelligibility of  the latter and thus introduce their own convictions into the conversation in a “reasonable” manner. “A fair dialogue is characterized by the fact that the partners take each other seriously, and hence do not speak about one another but with one another. But this requires that one should not assume from the outset that the other’s convictions are irrational, so that one does not regard them as even capable of being true nor, as a consequence, as worthy of discussion, but merely as in need of explanation.”

The volume concludes with Habermas’ reply to these contributions. The question of how societies will develop during the twenty-first century and of the challenges that this will pose in the light of global dynamics must remain largely open. However, it is more than probable that religion will play a continued and decisive role in these social processes.

Myths about Science and Religion: The Rise of Christianity was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science

David C. Lindberg begins with one of the most common myths found in the science and religion debate, that “the rise of Christianity was responsible for the demise of ancient science.” He relates the story of Hypatia, a young pagan philosopher and mathematician, popular and influential because of “her defense of science against Christianity.” But she was murdered, as the story has it, by the early church father Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 376-444), along with a mob of enraged Christians zealots.

Lindberg argues that this story has been “a staple of anti-Christian polemics since the early Enlightenment.” Beginning with Irish “freethinker” John Toland’s 1720 pamphlet Hypatia: or, The History of a Most Beautiful, Most Virtuous, Most Learned and in Every Way Accomplished Lady; Who Was Torn to Pieces by the Clergy of Alexandria, to Gratify the Pride, Emulation, and Cruelty of the Archbishop, Commonly but Undeservedly Titled St. Cyril to more recently Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (2003), Hypatia’s death has been indicative of the “inherent” conflict between science and religion. However, this interpretation of the event is purely mythological. According to Lindberg, Hypatia’s death had “everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science.” It is an old myth used to portray early Christianity as a “haven of anti-intellectualism.”

No doubt, there were early Christian writers who condemned Greek philosophy, as when the apostle Paul warned the Colossians to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” (Col 2.8), or Tertullian’s (ca. 160-240) famous (if not much maligned) declaration “what indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

But as Lindberg correctly points out, “the very writers who denounced Greek philosophy also employed its methodology and incorporated large portions of its content in their own systems of thought.” When looking at early Christian writers we need to “look beyond rhetoric to actual practice; it is one thing to deride the classical science and the philosophical systems that undergirded them…another to abandon them” completely. In fact, these early Christian writers must be seen as “insiders to this [Greek philosophical] tradition” who attempted to formulate an alternative philosophy based on Christian principles. Their opposition was to certain aspect of the classical tradition, and in fact had very little to do with the classical sciences.

For example, although Augustine of Hippo (354-430) cautioned Christians against using pagan writing, he also said that knowledge of natural phenomena is important for proper biblical exegesis. Augustine even decried the ignorance of some Christians:

Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to, as being certain from reason and experience. Now it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel [a non-Christian] to hear a Christian…talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

Lindberg concludes his short essay with three important points worth mulling over: (1) early Christian writers may have seen the sciences as secondary because their primary concerns were, appropriately enough, the establishment of Christian doctrine, defense of the faith, and the edification of believers—in other words, pastoral obligations; but (2), secondary concern does not mean no concern, and, despite what others have maintained, Christian theology often provided the presuppositions, sanctions, and motivations for examining nature; and (3) no institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.

Myths about Science and Religion

I have just finished reading Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009), edited by Ronald L. Numbers. It is quite the gem. Most of the chapters serve as good introductions to various issues in the history of science, each also providing an abundant bibliography to pursue further studies. Besides other books I will be reviewing here, I will go over some of my favorite myths found in this book from time to time in future posts. For anyone who is interested, this is a great introductory text.

Companies and their Macinations

A recent New York Times article, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” written by Charles Duhigg, provides an excellent example of how our habits can make us easy targets for marketers and corporations.


Finding the time

It is difficult finding the time to write. Our school is still in “spring” break, so I have taken the opportunity to start planning for the next semester, brainstorming projects, exams, activities, and games for the high school students. The entire day is full of this.

When I get home I go to the gym and then study French. I also want to finish off some books I’ve wanted to read for some time.

Too many excuses. But they are good excuses. Finding a balance will be difficult. Perhaps I can devote the weekends to posting some lingering thoughts. Yet another goal.


Big Questions Indeed

I recently found this website, Big Questions Online. Published by the John Templeton Foundation, it aims “ to ask and explore the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality, with a focus on science, religion, markets, morals, and the dynamic intersection among them.” One of its leading articles is an interview with Robert Bellah about his new book Religion in Human Evolution. I also recently read Bellah’s 1964 essay “Religious Evolution” in the American Sociological Review. I will post my reflections on Bellah’s theoretical scheme for the evolution of religion sometime this weekend.

Back to work

My wife and I have just returned from a busy week vacationing in Seoul and other parts of northern South Korea. My teaching schedule for the new semester will begin on Monday. It will be good to get back to work. I also need to continue my French studies.

Yesterday I spent the day catching up on news articles, downloading articles from different journals, organizing my bookmarks, etc., etc. Whenever I do that I feel like I’ve wasted an entire day. But I needed to do it. I cannot function otherwise. I need order.

Today will be dedicated to finishing the next chapter of Carl Olson’s Theory and Method in the Study of Religion: A Selection of Critical Readings (2003). The text is slightly dated, but the articles and authors selected in this reader set the precedent for much of the discussion today. I will discuss each chapter in future posts.

Also, a good bit of French today. I feel like I’m so far behind my peers. I must remember: La patience est l’art d’espérer.


I’m a recent graduate with a BA in Religious Studies and Philosophy and an MA in Church History. Somehow, I find myself today teaching English to Korean high school students in a small village in on the southeastern side of South Korea. My experiences in Korea have been exciting, disappointing, frustrating, and educational, sometimes in that order and sometimes all at once. (Of course I will have to write about them in future posts.) At the same time, I’m using my time here to prepare for doctoral studies in the near future.

I’ve also recently turned 30, and I think it’s high-time to start jotting down my philosophies, musings, and general thoughts on life. I will use this site for such purposes.