I was perusing the New York Times this week and came upon a pretty interesting op-ed by Stanley Fish. It’s titled, “Does Rationality Know What’s It’s Missing?” In it, he discusses German philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ recent change of heart concerning religion; once a staunch secularist, he is conceding that religion plays an important role in our post-metaphysical world (with a few caveats). He even goes further to say that we need it, which, according to Fish, is a pretty radical turnaround from Habermas’ previous devotion to the principle of rationality. The central claim is that, in ignoring religion, we have begun to lose our common humanity and our sense of “common moral action.”
A couple housekeeping items: First, if you’re interested in reading the full article, you can find it here. Second, I have to say that I haven’t read Habermas’ whole text, so what I’m commenting on is just Stanley Fish’s conclusions as to what he thinks Habermas said. Hopefully a review of the book itself will be forthcoming in the next issue of the Ichthus! (I know, I know, shameless plug.)
So what I thought was interesting was that Habermas’ claim is somewhat predicated on the failures of science and the shortcomings of a faith founded “naively” in science. Habermas defines a faith as, “science’s ability to provide reasons, aside from the reason of its own keeping on going, for doing it and for declining to do it in a particular direction because to do so would be wrong.” In essence, science in and of itself lacks some sort of general implication, that, as many have argued against religion, it fails to provide a substantial argument for why we should continue to pursue it and pursue it to a certain goal. Science fails to give us a certain human “self-awareness,” and is simply unable to satisfy that need at either the individual or group level.
That’s interesting, but what’s Habermas’ solution? For Habermas, the post-secular world is one in which both sides make caveats in order to pursue this common good of an enlightened but also self-aware world. However, even Fish concedes that this exchange is largely one-sided, and religion is asked to give up authority in most areas of life. Habermas argues that religion should transfer its authority to reason in “law, government, morality, and knowledge,” while reason is only asked to respect the presence and, essentially, personal emotional importance of religion.
So I have to admit that I was initially kind of excited about all this. Not that I pit religion against rationality (I’m writing for the Harvard “Magazine of Christian Thought,” after all), but I would like to see a world in which both are equally respected and important. I agree with Habermas in that religion should probably relinquish its authority in certain areas, mostly in order to begin the process of finding a middle ground that satisfies most sections of the moral spectrum in a diverse world of moral convictions. However, what I have a problem with is Habermas’ demand that religion give up its authority in the sphere of knowledge; in and of itself, religious knowledge is still knowledge; if religion did not have authority in knowledge, then Habermas wouldn’t need to write about it. He also doesn’t support his claim that religion provides a common point around which human beings can rally; he seems to emphasize the more personal importance of religion rather than its benefits for humanity as a whole.
In the end, I was disappointed. As expected, religion was relegated to an inferior status to reason. Every time this happens, it always begs the question, “Why?” I’ve never been able to understand why religion was considered irrational, and I have to say that I still don’t completely understand. Fish’s article still leaves me without an answer, still in search of some kind of balance. Perhaps I’ll provide my own answer to the post-secular world question in a future post… Interesting question to ponder in the meantime.
Comment! What does a post-secular world look like to you?