Tuesday, April 22, 2008

But when worlds collide ....

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.

Schön wär's.

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.


Jura Watchmaker said...

I've not yet made it past the first page either, and knew I wouldn't for some days owing to the rude intrusion of real life into my blogospheric activities in the form of multiple copy deadlines.

The thing is, though, the very first sentence contains a howler. Rowan Williams may have made a complete dog's breakfast of his late intervention in the sharia debate, but he has not actually called for the inclusion of elements of sharia into statutory family law. Here Habermas is over-interpreting the archbishop's words.

To be fair on Norman Geras, he has not read Habermas' article, only an English-language précis. The points Norm has for some time been making about religion in modern society have some validity, in my opinion, and they are at least constructive and thoughtful. But I do think he is rather too accommodating of Habermas in this latest blog post. Somehow I don't think he would feel the same if he could read the original German text.

The term "Postsäkularen Gesellschaft" is almost Buntingesque in its ridiculousness. I see a deathbed conversion to Holy Mother Church.

Maybe I shall come back to this when I have time to spare for such philosophical fripperies.

Kris McCracken said...

As someone who chose (!) Habermas as the focus for my Honours thesis a few years ago, and ended up knee deep in The Theory of Communicative Action with no life jacket, I can truly empathise with the prospect of reading him after a long day at work. I can’t say that I’ve picked anything of his (beyond a few op-eds) up since. It is interesting that hear that he’s drifted towards the spiritual though, as Horkheimer definitely drifted down that path late on. Perhaps Jürgen is hedging his bets as time is close to being called?

The Wife said...

Francis, Kris,

Thanks for your comments! Fascinating to see that both of you made the deathbed-conversion point, which of course also crossed my mind (inevitable, probably).

I hope that I didn't come across as antagonising: I was aware that Norm hadn't read the original text. Neither did I, of course, but then I'm prejudiced to the bone and prone to making unfounded statements :-). See my failure to double check what the Archbish _actually_ said, or might have said (by that time it was getting rather late for me). A howler, indeed. And to be found in this eminent German vehicle of left-liberal thought, "Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik"!

Unlike Norm, however, I'm a bit more doubtful that Habermas is making "necessary points" in this article. How can anything taking place in the virtual reality of Habermas's social utopia be "necessary"?

All best,