Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jurgen Habermas - Notes on a Post-Secular Society

Sight and Sound ran an interesting article the other day by one of Ken Wilber's favorite philosopher's, Jurgen Habermas.

In Notes on a Post-Secular Society, Habermas suggests that -- among other things -- that a society cannot be post-secular until it has become secular. While this includes several European countries (affluent societies of Europe or countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand), it would seemingly not include the United States, since we are far from being a secular country.

He also equates Pentacostalism and radical Islam as both being forms of fundamentalism, which is sure to piss off conservatives. But he says this:
They either combat the modern world or withdraw from it into isolation. Their forms of worship combine spiritualism and adventism with rigid moral conceptions and literal adherence to the holy scriptures.
Quite true. One only need look at how "fundamentalism" in this country rejects science and evolution, while taking a very literal reading of Genesis as divine truth.

Here is a lengthier quote from what is a very long article:
My impression is that the data collected globally still provides surprisingly robust support for the defenders of the secularization thesis.(8) In my view the weakness of the theory of secularization is due rather to rash inferences that betray an imprecise use of the concepts of 'secularization' and 'modernization'. What is true is that in the course of the differentiation of functional social systems, churches and religious communities increasingly confined themselves to their core function of pastoral care and had to renounce their competencies in other areas of society. At the same time, the practice of faith also withdrew into more a personal or subjective domain. There is a correlation between the functional specification of the religious system and the individualisation of religious practice.

However, as Jose Casanova correctly points out, the loss of function and the trend towards individualization do not necessarily imply that religion loses influence and relevance either in the political arena and the culture of a society or in the personal conduct of life.(9) Quite apart from their numerical weight, religious communities can obviously still claim a 'seat' in the life of societies that are largely secularized. Today, public consciousness in Europe can be described in terms of a 'post-secular society' to the extent that at present it still has to "adjust itself to the continued existence of religious communities in an increasingly secularized environment".(10) The revised reading of the secularization hypothesis relates less to its substance and more to the predictions concerning the future role of 'religion'. The description of modern societies as "post-secular" refers to a change in consciousness that I attribute primarily to three phenomena.

First, the broad perception of those global conflicts that are often presented as hinging on religious strife changes public consciousness. The majority of European citizens do not even need the presence of intrusive fundamentalist movements and the fear of terrorism, defined in religious terms, to make them aware of their own relativity within the global horizon. This undermines the secularistic belief in the foreseeable disappearance of religion and robs the secular understanding of the world of any triumphal zest. The awareness of living in a secular society is no longer bound up with the certainty that cultural and social modernisation can advance only at the cost of the public influence and personal relevance of religion.

Second, religion is gaining influence not only worldwide but also within national public spheres. I am thinking here of the fact that churches and religious organisations are increasingly assuming the role of "communities of interpretation" in the public arena of secular societies.(11) They can attain influence on public opinion and will formation by making relevant contributions to key issues, irrespective of whether their arguments are convincing or objectionable. Our pluralist societies constitute a responsive sounding board for such interventions because they are increasingly split on value conflicts requiring political regulation. Be it the dispute over the legalisation of abortion or voluntary euthanasia, on the bioethical issues of reproductive medicine, questions of animal protection or climate change – on these and similar questions the divisive premises are so opaque that it is by no means settled from the outset which party can draw on the more convincing moral intuitions.

Pushing the issue closer home, let me remind you that the visibility and vibrancy of foreign religious communities also spur the attention to the familiar churches and congregations. The Muslims next door force the Christian citizens to face up to the practice of a rival faith. And they also give the secular citizens a keener consciousness of the phenomenon of the public presence of religion.

The third stimulus for a change of consciousness among the population is the immigration of "guest-workers" and refugees, specifically from countries with traditional cultural backgrounds. Since the 16th century, Europe has had to contend with confessional schisms within its own culture and society. In the wake of the present immigration, the more blatant dissonances between different religions link up with the challenge of a pluralism of ways of life typical of immigrant societies. This extends beyond the challenge of a pluralism of denominations. In societies like ours which are still caught in the painful process of transformation into postcolonial immigrant societies, the issue of tolerant coexistence between different religious communities is made harder by the difficult problem of how to integrate immigrant cultures socially. While coping with the pressure of globalized labor markets, social integration must succeed even under the humiliating conditions of growing social inequality. But that is a different story.

I have thus far taken the position of a sociological observer in trying to answer the question of why we can term secularized societies "post-secular". In these societies, religion maintains a public influence and relevance, while the secularistic certainty that religion will disappear worldwide in the course of modernisation is losing ground. If we henceforth adopt the perspective of participants, however, we face a quite different, namely normative question: How should we see ourselves as members of a post-secular society and what must we reciprocally expect from one another in order to ensure that in firmly entrenched nation states, social relations remain civil despite the growth of a plurality of cultures and religious world views?
Read the whole article.

I just found a couple of books by Habermas in a used bookstore -- I think I'm going to enjoy reading him.


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