Francis Sedgemore has kindly pointed us to Jürgen Habermas's recent article "Die Dialektik der Säkularisierung" and the surrounding debate in the anglophone blogosphere, which generally seems in favour of Habermas's critique of the West's belief in its own secularisation, and his suggestion that societies need to find a "balance" between the forces of secularisation and religion to solve the conflicts which haunt our globalised world.
At the risk of ruffling some feathers out there, I have to admit that I can't quite go along with the sense of agreement (whatever reservations accompany it, for instance over at normblog) with the general gist of his argument.
As a Hobbesian at heart, I've had a hard time with Habermas's naively optimistic view of humanity ("it's good to talk") for as long as I'd been trying to grapple with his difficult prose, and I've watched the veritable spiritualisation of St. Jürgen over the past several years with increasing concern (and I'm not alone, as Paolo Flores d’Arcais' much debated "Eleven Theses about Habermas" from last November reveal). As a testimony to this spiritualisation, Habermas published two books in 2005: Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion and Dialektik der Säkularisierung: Über Vernunft und Religion. The latter, it needs to be emphasised, was written together with Our Man in the Vatican.
Footnote: the Amazon.de page for the book lists Habermas, Joseph Ratzinger and Pope Benedikt XVI as authors -- an illustrious holy trinity indeed.
One of the first articles that I ever posted on this site, in which I was expressing my growing concern and confusion about an emerging academic fad for spirituality, was partly inspired by teaching chapters from Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion in a course on fundamentalism. The argument still stands, so you might as well just read the post. Needless to say, I also stand by its conclusion that it's not less rationalism that we need in this world, but more.
I suppose that Habermas's recent article might not be unrelated to these older statements, and ask forgiveness for not putting in a night shift to read "Dialektik der Säkularisierung" in its entirety; in fact, I admit that I haven't made it beyond the first page, partly because I simply have far too much to do at the moment (and Habermas is notoriously hard to read -- not the kind of fare you enjoy on returning knackered after a long day in the institution).
Suffice it to say for tonight that even the first page contains a considerable flaw that simultaneously (dialectically?) anchors and disturbs Habermas's airy (and not entirely clear) argument.
Towards the end of that page, he refers to "the visible conflicts sparked by religious issues," which in his eyes contradict our belief in the secularisation of our societies. As examples, he cites the Bishop of Canterbury's suggestion that parts of British family law should incorporate Sharia, French president Sarkozy's deployment of the police against riots in the Paris banlieue and a fire in an apartment house in Ludwigshafen, which caused the death of nine Turkish inhabitants. Initially suspected to be a racist attack, the latter turned out to have been caused by faulty wiring in the building's basement.
Forgive me for being finicky, but -- cold-hearted rationalist that I am -- I find it important to point out that only one (the first) of these examples is a clearly religious issue. The other two derive from conflicts that, strictly speaking, are socio-economic/ethnic. Since it is closer to home, I will dwell on the Ludwigshafen event, which, as far as I am aware, was never construed in religious terms (i.e. Muslims vs Christians), not even by the Turkish press, which ferociously attacked Angela Merkel, the Ludwigshafen police and fire department and Germany in general for all kinds of failings in this context.
Nevertheless, the contradiction in Habermas's opening gambit is interesting in that it affirms the sense of disconnection from reality that often characterises his work. Habermas's political philosophy always takes place in an abstract space -- that which ought to be -- removed from the real needs, motivations and urges of human beings -- that which is. In Habermas's hypothetical democratic theatre the talking is easy, communication always productive.
As part of his construction of the world as he would like it to be, Habermas, in this essay, transmutes a cultural conflict into a religious one, not only to make the point that ours is not yet a truly secular world, but also to argue that such clashes may be conducive to valuable social "learning processes."
Now, negotiation is in itself a fine and noble thing and it is cultivated even in this household. However, any conclusions reached on the basis of a false repackaging of complex cultural events as elevated theological debate seem wobbly at best.