Friday, October 17, 2008

Jürgen Habermas - Notes on Post-Secular Society

Jürgen Habermas is certainly not well-liked among the anti-postmodernists, but that doesn't seem to impact him at all over in Europe. He continues to be a provocative and influential thinker in European discourse. And I think he has a lot to offer those of us on this side of the pond, as well, even though we are a couple of decades behind the Europeans.

This is an important article that deals with the reconciliation of postmodernism relativism and the human need for belief -- the post-secular society will not be void of faith.

This article appeared in the fall issue of New Perspectives Quarterly.

Notes on Post-Secular Society

Jürgen Habermas, one of Europe’s leading intellectuals, is noted for such seminal works as Legitimation Crisis. He has long explored how “constitutional patriotism” might bind people together in community rather than the religious or national sentiments of the past. Of late, however, he has become concerned about the inability of post-modern societies in the West to generate their own values, drawing instead on the heritage of Judeo-Christian values as the source of morality and ethics. In this article, based on a lecture at the Nexus Institute at Tilberg University in the Netherlands last March, Habermas argues that modernity no longer implies the march toward secularism. In a democracy, the secular mentality must be open to the religious influence of believing citizens.

The controversial term “post-secular society” can only be applied to the affluent societies of Europe or countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where people’s religious ties have steadily or rather quite dramatically lapsed in the post-World War II period.

These regions have witnessed a spreading awareness that their citizens are living in a secularized society. In terms of sociological indicators, however, the religious behavior and convictions of the local populations have by no means changed to such an extent as to justify labeling these societies “post-secular” even though trends in these societies towards de-institutionalized and new spiritual forms of religiosity have not offset the tangible losses by the major religious communities.

Reconsidering the Sociological Debate on Secularization

Nevertheless, global changes and the visible conflicts that flare up in connection with religious issues give us reason to doubt whether the relevance of religion has waned. An ever smaller number of sociologists now support the hypothesis, and it went unopposed for a long time, that there is close linkage between the modernization of society and the secularization of the population. The hypothesis rests on three initially plausible considerations.

First, progress in science and technology promotes an anthropocentric understanding of the “disenchanted” world because the totality of empirical states and events can be causally explained; and a scientifically enlightened mind cannot be easily reconciled with theocentric and metaphysical worldviews. Second, with the functional differentiation of social subsystems, the churches and other religious organizations lose their control over law, politics, public welfare, education and science; they restrict themselves to their proper function of administering the means of salvation, turn exercising religion into a private matter and in general lose public influence and relevance. Finally, the development from agrarian through industrial to post-industrial societies leads to average-to-higher levels of welfare and greater social security; and with a reduction of risks in life, and the ensuing increase in existential security, there is a drop in the personal need for a practice that promises to cope with uncontrolled contingencies through faith in a “higher” or cosmic power.

These were the main reasons for the secularization thesis. Among the expert community of sociologists, the thesis has been a subject of controversy for more than two decades. Lately, in the wake of the not unfounded criticism of a narrow Eurocentric perspective, there is even talk of the “end of the secularization theory.” The United States, with the undiminished vibrancy of its religious communities and the unchanging proportion of religiously committed and active citizens, nevertheless remains the spearhead of modernization. It was long regarded as the great exception to the secularising trend, yet informed by the globally extended perspective on other cultures and world religions, the US now seems to exemplify the norm.

From this revisionist view, the European development, whose Occidental rationalism was once supposed to serve as a model for the rest of the world, is actually the exception rather than the norm—treading a deviant path. We and not they are pursuing a sonderweg. Above all, three overlapping phenomena converge to create the impression of a worldwide “resurgence of religion”: the missionary expansion; a fundamentalist radicalization; and the political instrumentalization of the potential for violence innate in many of the world religions.

A first sign of their vibrancy is the fact that orthodox, or at least conservative, groups within the established religious organizations and churches are on the advance everywhere. This holds for Hinduism and Buddhism just as much as it does for the three monotheistic religions. Most striking of all is the regional spread of these established religions in Africa and in the countries of East and Southeast Asia. The missionary successes apparently depend, among other things, on the flexibility of the corresponding forms of organization. The transnational and multicultural Roman Catholic Church is adapting better to the globalizing trend than are the Protestant churches, which are nationally organized and the principal losers. Most dynamic of all are the decentralized networks of Islam (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa) and the Evangelicals (particularly in Latin America). They stand out for an ecstatic form of religiosity inspired by charismatic leaders.

As to fundamentalism, the fastest-growing religious movements, such as the Pentecostals and the radical Muslims, can be most readily described as “fundamentalist.” 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. By contrast, the “new age movements” which have mushroomed since the 1970s exhibit a “Californian” syncretism; they share with the Evangelicals a de-institutionalized form of religious observance. In Japan, approximately 400 such sects have arisen, which combine elements of Buddhism and popular religions with pseudoscientific and esoteric doctrines. In the People’s Republic of China, the political repression of the Falun Gong sect has highlighted the large number of “new religions” whose followers are thought to number some 80 million.

Finally, the mullah regime in Iran and Islamic terrorism are merely the most spectacular examples of a political unleashing of the potential for violence innate in religion. Often smouldering conflicts that are profane in origin are first ignited once coded in religious terms. This is true of the “desecularization” of the Middle East conflict, of the politics of Hindu nationalism and the enduring conflict between India and Pakistan and of the mobilization of the religious right in the US before and during the invasion of Iraq.

The Descriptive Account of a “Post-Secular Society”—and the Normative Issue of How Citizens of Such a Society Should Understand Themselves

I cannot discuss in detail the controversy among sociologists concerning the supposed sonderweg of the secularized societies of Europe in the midst of a religiously mobilized world society. My impression is that the data collected globally still provide surprisingly robust support for the defenders of the secularization thesis. 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 individualization of religious practice.

However, as Jose Casanova correctly points out, the loss of function and the trend toward 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. 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.” 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.

Go read the whole article.

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