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<nettime> Habermas on Faith, Knowledge and 9-11
Kermit Snelson on Sun, 18 Nov 2001 04:16:23 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Habermas on Faith, Knowledge and 9-11

Faith and Knowledge -- An Opening

Speech by Juergen Habermas accepting the Peace Price of the
German Publishers and Booksellers Association
Paulskirche, Frankfurt, 14 October 2001

Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 15 October 2001
[translated from German by Kermit Snelson]

When current events become so overwhelming that they rip the choice of topic
out of our own hands, so to speak, the John Waynes among us intellectuals
are of course greatly tempted to compete instead as to who can be the
quickest to shoot from the hip.

Only a short time ago the spirits moved us to discuss the question of
whether and how far we should subject ourselves to genetic technology for
self-instrumentation or even for pursuing the goal of self-optimization.
Our first steps along this path were beset by controversy between the
advocates of those two great rival faiths:  organized science and organized
religion.  One side feared obscurantism and the revival of atavistic
suspicion against science.  The other accused the scientistic belief in
progress of a crude naturalism that undermines morality.

But after 11 September, the tension between secular society and religion
exploded in an entirely different way.  As we know from Atta's testament,
these suicidal murderers, who turned civilian means of transport into living
missiles against the capitalist citadels of Western civilization, were
motivated by religious convictions.  For them, those symbols of globalizing
modernism were the embodiment of the Great Satan.

But we too, the universal eyewitnesses to these "apocalyptic" events, were
moved to Biblical imagery by what we saw on the TV screen.  The language of
retribution used at first (and I repeat, at first) by the US President in
reaction to the events resounded with Old Testament overtones.  Synagogues,
churches and mosques filled up everywhere, as if the blind attacks had
struck a religious chord deep within the innermost core of secular society.
This subterranean symmetry did not, however, go so far as to lead the
religious memorial gathering at the New York Stadium three weeks ago to a
symmetric display of hate.

Despite its religious language, fundamentalism is, as we know, an
exclusively modern phenomenon.  What struck us immediately about the Islamic
perpetrators was the imbalance between their ends and their means.  This
reflects an imbalance that has emerged in the perpetrators' home countries
between culture and society in the wake of an accelerated and radical

What under more fortunate conditions might have been considered a process of
creative destruction offers these countries no prospect that can adequately
compensate for the suffering caused by the collapse of traditional ways.
The prospect of improved material living conditions is merely one of these.
What is decisive is that the prospect of spiritual freedom, which finds its
political expression in the separation of church and state, has been impeded
there by feelings of humiliation.

Even in Europe, where centuries have been spent trying to work out a
sensible accommodation with the Janus head of modernity, "secularization" is
still accompanied by highly ambivalent feelings, as evident in the
controversy over biotechnology.  There are obdurate orthodoxies in the West
as well as in the Middle and Far(ther) East, and among Christians and Jews
as well as Muslims.  Those who wish to avoid a "clash of civilizations" must
therefore keep in mind the still-unresolved dialectic inherent in our own
Western process of secularization.

The "war against terrorism" is no war, and in terrorism is expressed also --
and I emphasize the word "also" -- the ominously silent collision of worlds
that must find a common language beyond the mute violence of terrorism
against military might.  Instead of a globalization that consists of a
market without boundaries, many of us hope for a return of the political in
another form.  Not in the original form of a global security state, tied to
the spheres of the police, intelligence services and now even the military,
but instead as a world-wide, civilizing power of formation.

At the moment we don't have much more to work with than a pallid faith in
rationality and a little self-awareness, because this lack of language has
also divided our own house against itself.  The risks of disruptive
secularization elsewhere may be addressed only when we are clear on what
secularization means in our own post-secular society.  So with this aim in
view, I return today to an old topic, Faith and Knowledge.  But don't expect
a polarizing Sunday sermon that causes some to leap out of their pews while
others remain seated.

First of all, the word "secularization" has a juridical meaning that refers
to the forcible appropriation of church property by the secular state.  This
meaning has since been extended to the emergence of cultural and societal
modernism in general.  Since then, the word "secularization" has been
associated with both of these opposed judgments, whether it is the
successful taming of ecclesiastical authority by worldly power that is being
emphasized or rather the act of unlawful appropriation.

According to the first interpretation, religious ways of thinking and living
have been replaced by reason-based and consequently superior equivalents.
According to the second, modern modes of thinking and living are to be
regarded as the illegitimate spoils of conquest.  The "replacement" model
lends a progressive-optimistic meaning to the act of deconsecration, whereas
the "expropriation" model connotes theoretically-conceived corruption of a
rootless modernity.

But I think both interpretations make the same mistake.  They both consider
secularization as a kind of zero-sum game between, on one hand, the
productive powers of science and technology harnessed by capitalism and, on
the other, the tenacious powers of religion and the church.  This image no
longer fits a post-secular society that posits the continued existence of
religious communities within a continually secularizing society.  And most
of all, this too-narrow view overlooks the civilizing role of democratically
enlightened common sense, which proceeds along its own track as an equal
third partner amid the murmurs of cultural conflict between science and

>From the standpoint of the liberal state, of course, religious communities
are entitled to be called "reasonable" only if they renounce the use of
violence as a means of propagating the truths of their faith.  This
understanding stems from a threefold reflection on the role of the faithful
within a pluralistic society.  First of all, the religious conscience must
handle the encounter with other confessions and other religions cognitively.
Second, it must accede to the authority of science, which holds a social
monopoly on knowledge.  Finally, it must participate in the premises of a
constitutional state, which is based on a non-sacred concept of morality.
Without this reflective "thrust," monotheisms within ruthlessly modernizing
societies develop a destructive potential.  The phrase "reflective thrust,"
of course, can give the false impression of being something that is
one-sided and close-ended.  The reality, however, is that this work of
reflection in the face of any newly emerging conflict is a process that runs
its course through the public spaces of democracy.

As soon as an existentially relevant question, such as biotechnology,
becomes part of the political agenda, the citizens, both believers and
non-believers, will press upon each other their ideologically impregnated
world-views and so will stumble upon the harsh reality of ideological
pluralism.  If they learn to deal with this reality without violence and
with an acceptance of their own fallibility, they will come to understand
what the secular principles of decision-making written into the Constitution
mean in a post-secular society.  In other words, the ideologically neutral
state does not prejudice its political decisions in any way toward either
side of the conflict between the rival claims of science and religious
faith.  The political reason of the citizenry follows a dynamic of
secularization only insofar as it maintains in the end product an equal
distance from vital traditions and ideological content.  But such a state
retains a capacity to learn only to the extent that it remains osmotically
open, without relinquishing its independence, to both science and religion.

Of course, common sense itself is also full of illusions about the world and
must let itself be enlightened without reservation by the sciences.  But the
scientific theories that impinge on the world of life leave the framework of
our everyday knowledge essentially untouched.  If we learn something new
about the world and about ourselves as beings in the world, the content of
our self-understanding changes.  Copernicus and Darwin revolutionized the
geocentric and anthropocentric worldviews.  But the destruction of the
astronomical illusion that the stars revolve around the earth had less
effect on our lives than did the biological disillusionment over the place
of mankind in the natural order.  It appears that the closer scientific
knowledge gets to our body, the more it disturbs our self-understanding.
Research on the brain is teaching us about the physiology of our
consciousness.  But does this change that intuitive sense of responsibility
and accountability that accompanies all of our actions?

If we join Max Weber and turn our attention to the beginnings of the
"disenchantment of the world," we see what is at stake.  Nature is
depersonalized to the extent that it is made accessible to objective
contemplation and causal explanation.  Such a world of
scientifically-researched nature is far removed from a social framework of
persons who ascribe motive and intent to each other.  But what would become
of such persons, we may ask today, if they subject themselves and each other
to similarly scientific processes of description?  Will common sense in the
end allow itself not only to be instructed by the counterintuitive
discoveries of science, but altogether consumed by them?

The philosopher Wilfred Sellars answered this question in 1960 (in a famous
lecture on "Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man") with the scenario
of a society in which the old-fashioned language games of everyday life are
overthrown in favor of the objectifying description of conscious processes.
The point of departure for this naturalization of the spirit is a scientific
image of man that also thoroughly desocializes our self-conception.  Of
course, this can succeed only if the intentionality of human consciousness
and the normativity of our behavior in such a self-description disappears
without a trace.  Such a theory must explain, for example, how people can
obey or disobey rules -- whether grammatical, conceptual or moral.

Sellars's students misunderstood their teacher's aporetic thought-experiment
as a research program, and they are pursuing it to this day.  The
application of a scientific modernization of our everyday psychology has
even led to attempts at a semantics that postulates a biological explanation
for the very content of our thoughts.  But even these most advanced theses
still appear unable to explain that difference between Is and Ought that
comes into play whenever we disobey rules.

When one describes how a person has done something that he didn't mean to do
and also shouldn't have done, then that person is not being described as
natural science would describe one of its objects.  This is because in the
description of persons there is a silent moment of pre-scientific
self-conception of what it is to be a subject capable of language and
behavior.  When we describe a phenomenon such as a person's behavior, we
know for example that we're describing something not as a natural process,
but as something that can be justified if necessary.  Behind this is an
image of personhood, persons who can hold each other accountable, who at
home and away are involved in normatively regulated interactions and who
encounter a universe of public fundamentals.

This perspective that accompanies everyday life explains the difference
between the language games of justification and pure description.  In this
dualism, non-reductionistic strategies of explanation also encounter a
limit.  The concept of individual accountability is the core of a
self-conception that develops only the perspective of a participant and not
that of an observer.  The scientistic faith in a science that will one day
not only fulfill, but eliminate, personal self-conception through
objectifying self-description is not science, but bad philosophy.  Moreover,
no science will take away from scientifically enlightened common sense the
ability to judge how we are to deal with its effects on human life, as we
do, for instance, the descriptions of molecular biology that make possible
genetic intervention.

Common sense is thus concerned with the consciousness of persons who are
able to take initiative, make mistakes and correct those mistakes.  It
asserts against the sciences a stubborn perspectival structure.  With this
consciousness of autonomy which cannot, I think, be grasped
naturalistically, common sense on the other hand asserts also the
perspective of a religious tradition whose normative rules to which we
equally assent.

Certainly, the democratic common sense of the citizenry has, when so
desired, taken its place among the reason-based constructions of the
democratic constitutional state.  The idea of egalitarian law based on
reason also has religious roots.  But this reason-based legitimation of law
and politics drinks from long-profaned springs.  Religion therefore contests
democratically enlightened common sense for reasons that are acceptable not
only to those who are members of a religious community.  This naturally also
awakens suspicion among the faithful that Western secularization may be a
one-way street that leaves religion standing on the curb.

The reverse side of religious freedom is actually a pacification of
ideological pluralism that has unequally distributed consequences.  After
all, the liberal state has so far imposed only upon the believers among its
citizens the requirement that they split their identity into public and
private versions.  That is, they must translate their religious convictions
into a secular language before their arguments have the prospect of being
accepted by a majority.  Today's Catholics and Protestants do this when they
argue for the legal rights of fertilized ova outside the mother's body, thus
attempting (perhaps prematurely) to translate the "in the image of God"
character of the human creature into the secular language of constitutional

But the search for reasons that aspire to general acceptance need not lead
to an unfair exclusion of religion from public life, and secular society,
for its part, need not cut itself off from the important resources of
spiritual explanations, if only the secular side were to retain a feeling
for the articulative power of religious discourse.  The boundaries between
secular and religious reasons are, after all, tenuous.  Therefore, fixing of
this controversial boundary should be understood as a cooperative venture,
carried on by both sides, and with each side trying to see the issue from
the other's perspective.  Democratically enlightened common sense is not a
singularity, but is instead the mental constitution of a public with many
different voices.  Secular majorities must not reach a conclusion without
first having given a hearing to the objections of opponents who believe
their religious convictions to have been injured; they must also make an
effort to learn something from them.

Giving due consideration to the religious heritage of its moral foundations,
the liberal state should consider the possibility that it may not be able to
meet the completely new challenges it faces simply by relying on the
formulations it developed earlier to meet those attending its origins.
Today, the language of the market penetrates every pore and forces every
interpersonal relation into the schema of individual preference.  The social
bond, however, is based on mutual recognition and cannot be reduced to the
concepts of contract, rational choice and the maximization of utility.

For this reason, Kant did not intend his categorical imperative to be sucked
into oblivion by the undertow of enlightened self-interest.  He extended the
concept of freedom to autonomy and thus provided the first great example of
a completely secularizing, yet at the same time redeeming, deconstruction of
the truths of faith.  In Kant we find the authority of divine command
reestablished in the unconditional validity of moral duty.  In this we hear
an unmistakable resonance.  With his conception of autonomy, Kant certainly
destroyed the traditional conception of being "a child of God."  But in
doing so, he also avoided the banal consequences of a simply vacuous
deflation through his critical transformation of the religious stance.

Secular languages that simply eliminate what was once there leave behind
only irritation.  Something was lost when sin became guilt.  The desire for
forgiveness is, after all, still closely connected with the unsentimental
wish to undo other injuries as well.  We are rightfully disturbed by the
irreversibility of past suffering, the injustice that has been committed
against the innocently mishandled, debased and murdered, injustices that
exceed every human power of redemption.  The lost hope of resurrection has
left behind a palpable emptiness.  Horkheimer's justified skepticism of what
I consider to be Benjamin's indomitable faith in the redemptive power of
human thought -- "The killed really were killed," said Horkheimer -- does
not of course deny that impotent impulse to undo what has already been done.
(This correspondence between Benjamin and Horkheimer dates from early 1937.)

Both factors, validity of this impulse and its impotence, continued after
the Holocaust in the equally necessary and futile practice of a "redemption
of the past" (Adorno).  Disguised, as I perhaps should say from now on, this
same impulse is expressed in the ever-growing lament over the inadequacy of
this practice.  The unbelieving sons and daughters of the modern age appear
in such moments to believe themselves more obliged to each other, and to be
in greater need, as if the religious tradition were accessible to them in
translation, and thus as if its semantic potential were not yet exhausted.

However, this ambivalence can also lead to the reasonable position of
keeping one's distance from religion without at the same time excluding its
perspective.  This position could well lead the self-enlightenment of a
civil society, ridden with cultural conflict, in the right direction.  Moral
sentiments, which until now could be expressed only in a rather exclusionary
way through religious language, might find general resonance as soon as they
find a redemptive formulation for what has been almost forgotten, but is
still implicitly missed.

This approach very seldom succeeds, but sometimes it does.  A secularization
that does not annihilate is brought about as a kind of translation.  That is
what the West, as the great secularizing force in the world today, can learn
from its own history.  Otherwise the West will either appear simply as
another crusader on the behalf of a competing religious faith, like the Arab
world, or as the travelling salesman of an instrumental reason that subjects
all meaning to itself.

Allow me to close by illustrating the concept of non-annihilating
secularization with an example.  In the controversy over the use of human
embryos, many voices still allude to Genesis 1:27:  "So God created man in
His own image, in the image of God created He him."  It is not necessary to
believe that God, who is Love, created Adam and Eve as free beings like
Himself  in order to understand what "in His own image" means.  Love cannot
exist without knowledge of another, nor can freedom exist without mutual

Consequently, the "opposite stance" inherent in the nature of humanity must
remain free to repay this gift of God.  Despite his nature as a creature "in
the image of God," this "otherness" can itself be considered a creation of
God.  The created nature of "in His own image" expresses an intuition that
has something to say even to those who have no ear for religion, among whom
I count myself.  God remains a "God of free men" only as long as we do not
erase the absolute difference between the Creator and the created.  In other
words, only as long as the gift of a divine form to man is taken to mean
that no hindrance be placed on man's right of self-determination.

This Creator, because he is both Creator and Redeemer in one, need not
operate as a technician according to the laws of nature, nor as a computer
scientist according to the rules of code.  The voice of God, which calls to
life, operates from the outset within a morally tangible universe.  God can
thus in a sense "govern" man, in that He at once both releases and compels
man to freedom.

Now, it is not necessary to believe in these theological premises in order
to understand their consequences.  A completely different, causally
reimagined subjection would come into play if the difference inherent in the
concept of creation were to disappear and a peer were to take the place of
God -- if, for instance, somebody were to impose his own preferences on the
coincidence of parental chromosomes without being obligated at least
counterfactually to assume a consensus with the others affected.  This way
of stating the issue brings us close to a question that I have considered
elsewhere.  Did not the first person who subdued another person according to
his own purposes destroy exactly that freedom which exists among peers in
order to guarantee their difference?

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