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Battle of the Titans? Faith, Reason, and Secularism

This new book, with its cover photo of the two intellectual eminences talking to each other, seems to offer the promise of a dialogue, debates, or even battle between reason and faith.   But this “debate” more closely resembles an American presidential “debate” than a true Parliamentary or forensic  debate.  Instead of an exchange of views, dialogue, cross-examination, or rebuttal, we have merely two set pieces about reason and religion which only very rarely even mention the other thinker.   The reader is left to imagine what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would say about Jürgen Habermas or what Habermas would say about Ratzinger (I say Cardinal Ratzinger because this “exchange” took place in January of 2004, before he was elevated to the Papacy).  Moreover, the extremely civil and respectful tone of these addresses blunts and blurs the differences between the views of the two men.   Here courtesy becomes an obstacle to truth-seeking.  Both men strive to be so darn moderate, tolerant, and rational, that you could practically reverse the names on the two addresses.

Habermas poses the fundamental question of whether a liberal, secular polity “can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence.”  In other words, are there purely secular grounds for affirming the liberty and equality of every individual person?   Many secular scholars doubt that human equality, for example, can be defended apart from theological views of creation in the image of God.  Habermas argues that there are purely secular grounds for affirming the liberty and equality of persons;  indeed, Habermas’s own massive “Theory of Communicative Action” attempts to elucidate just such grounds.  But Habermas concedes that these secular arguments may be so abstruse that they fail to motivate democratic citizens.  In other words, ordinary citizens may still need religious reasons for respecting human rights even if the philosophers have their own arcane arguments.   Habermas himself is highly motivated to defend high-modern ideals of rationality against what he sees as a destructive and corrosive post-modern skepticism.   He reaches out to the Catholic tradition of natural law (“lumen naturale”) to find an ally against post-modern skepticism.  Habermas seeks for more than a modus vivendi between religious and non-religious citizens: he seeks a sincere commitment to basic principles of political justice that are neutral between competing comprehensive views of human life.  Habermas is more accommodating of religious citizens than other political liberals, such as John Rawls and Robert Audi, because Habermas emphasizes the right of religious citizens to make their arguments in the public square on explicitly religious grounds, whereas other leading political liberals ask religious citizens to translate their arguments into secular language before presenting them to the public. Finally, Habermas calls for a “postsecular” society in which the religious and the secular are not seen as mutually exclusive; on this view, the state must be neutral in relation to both religious and secular conceptions of a good human life.

If Habermas focuses on the power and truth of reason and of religion, Ratzinger focuses on the limits of both reason and religion.   He calls religious fanaticism and religious terrorism “pathologies of religion”; he also insists that reason has its own pathologies, namely the various ideologies that have led to distinctively secular forms of fanaticism and violence.   Ratzinger argues that reason needs religion as a check on its excesses just as religion needs reason as a check.  Faith and reason, he says, “are called to purify and help one another.”   Of course, in Ratzinger’s view the Catholic Church itself claims to be an authoritative interpreter of both natural law as well as divine revelation and so the Church’s learning from reason must be in an extended and evolving sense.   Ratzinger explicitly welcomes Habermas’s call for a postsecular conception of society, which aims to transcend the old Enlightenment battle lines.

Unfortunately, Ratzinger and Habermas often talk past each other because they have different conceptions of the same general concepts.  For example, Ratzinger talks about the limits of “reason” by citing the examples of the power gained by human beings from both nuclear weapons and bioengineering.    Ratzinger says that we need religious values in order to know how to make humane use of these new and terrible powers.   He also cites the power of democratic majorities to run amuck unless guided by more than mere reason.  Given the dangerous powers that result from the exercise of mere reason, Ratzinger asks: “Does this then mean that it is reason that ought to be placed under guardianship?”  Here Ratzinger is clearly referring to mere “instrumental reason,” which is undoubtedly dangerous if not guided by humane values.  But Habermas, and indeed Ratzinger himself in other writings, rejects this instrumental view of reason.  Habermas has developed a quasi-Hegelian conception of reason that incorporates moral ideals within the notion of rationality itself.   So Habermas naturally has more confidence in reason here than does Ratzinger because they are talking about very different conceptions of reason.

Habermas, like many other contemporary philosophers, distinguishes morality from ethics.  Morality refers to the objectively-valid standards of justice that define our rights vis-à-vis each other.  Ethics, by contrast, concerns each individual person’s subjective conception of a good human life.  In Habermasian political liberalism, we must share a common morality but we are free to develop our own personal or religious ethics.   In this exchange, Habermas speaks only of morality while Ratzinger speaks only of ethics. Ratzinger, for example, wonders whether a “world ethos” might emerge to replace the existing plurality of cultural systems of ethical value.  Unfortunately, then, in this “exchange,” we are denied a genuine confrontation of the philosophies of these two formidable thinkers because they end up largely talking about different conceptions of related concepts.

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