Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Fish, Habermas, reason and religion

Stanley Fish chews at length over Jurgen Habermas’s new position on religion. Habermas, an ardent Enlightenment secularist, now recognizes that secularity is missing something essential to being human. That, he now believes, is the religious sense. Habermas now believes that we need religion, and it should be admitted into polite society as long as it knows its place, and doesn’t interfere with secular procedures. But this can’t work; if religion is wholly instrumentalized, it’s no longer religion, but an ethical system. Put another way, as soon as one is conscious that one adheres to religion not because it is true, but because it is useful, it loses its power to bind and to loose. It only has the power to affect behavior insofar as it is believed as religion.
So here Habermas finds himself, believing secularism cannot provide a fully satisfying account of life and how to live it, especially in community, but unwilling to make the leap out of the secular mode into the religious, because it would require giving up too much. Where have we heard this sort of thing before?
Fish concludes:


The borrowings and one-way concessions Habermas urges seem insufficient to effect a true and fruitful rapprochment. Nothing he proposes would remove the deficiency he acknowledges when he says that the “humanist self-confidence of a philosophical reason which thinks that it is capable of determining what is true and false” has been “shaken” by “the catastrophes of the twentieth century.” The edifice is not going to be propped up and made strong by something so weak as a reminder, and it is not clear at the end of a volume chock-full of rigorous and impassioned deliberations that secular reason can be saved. There is still something missing.

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posted April 13, 2010 at 4:34 pm

The thesis that a human “need” for what we call religion is actually an artifact of our evolution as social organisms is by no means new. And recognizing the reality of that need does not in itself affirm the rightness of it.
To get more specifically into Fish’s claims: in the context of full-bodied secularism, there would seem to be nothing to pass on to, and therefore no reason for anything like a funeral.
Yawn, just more gnawing on the dusty old “nonreligious people can’t possibly value life” bone. An intelligent and social person would always want some sort of acknowledgment or ritual for major life milestones. Does Fish really and truly suspect that an atheist wouldn’t be sad if her best friend died? Wouldn’t want a chance for closure and a public affirmation of what a good person they had been? Really and truly?

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posted April 14, 2010 at 12:29 am

Habermas is smarter than Fish, who is thinking well above his pay grade.

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posted April 14, 2010 at 3:42 am

Right. And those state-supported churches in China really preach the faith, don’t they?

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posted April 14, 2010 at 8:33 am

…but unwilling to make the leap out of the secular mode into the religious, because it would require giving up too much. Where have we heard this sort of thing before?
Oh noes, they’d have to give up the rampant orgies and big screen TV and other creature comforts to embrace the light of Christ!!!
Me, I prefer to not self-lobotomize myself.

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Clare Krishan

posted April 14, 2010 at 9:15 am

Its not helpful for Christians to pillory arguments favorable to dialog, which Habermas’ principles claim to be. A more nuanced approach that would discourage discord and encourage concord, would look like Mark Shea’s position on those most tricky of commandments*, the ninth and tenth, on “coveting” (at root of the horrors of the twentieth century, man’s capacity for craving**… what is not his by nature, the power and the glory)
Paul’s enormous insight about the law came from this experience, seen in the light of Christ. For Paul, the law is good as an x-ray machine is good. It is indispensable for the healing process, but it cannot heal us. Like the x-ray machine, it looks within and tells us what’s wrong with us—and that’s all. It cannot help us get better any more than repeated x-rays will mend the broken bone. For that, they that are sick needeth the Physician Paul had encountered on the Damascus Road and in the life of the Church, especially the sacraments.
That we exist at all is pure gift, the creative essence that is ours by order of nature is not exercised by the climax of our longing, but by grace. Habermas has no vocabulary to express this concept – original solitude – that we are built with a capacity and yearning for community in social relations, but its expression cannot be coerced.One cannot teach virtue, only live it in embodied form by example. The mystery of why some emulate good example and some do not is part of the pure gift — the “religious sense.” Its not “owed” us, we owe it to each other as capax dei, in so far as we humble ourselves to recognize the Creator in his creatures. Habermas’ secular worldview would have us worship the common good (cost what it may — ‘common’wealth annihilated and/or ‘good’health obliterated by the tyranny of relativism) while the economy of grace initiates us into the desire for the Sovereign Good.
** from Latin crep?re to burst, crack, die ie the Thanatos Syndrome
“Appearance arouses yearning in fools” Wisdom 15:5
* described in the Catechism thusly: Envy can lead to the worst crimes. “Through the devil’s envy death entered the world” Wisdom 2:24
Article 9: The Ninth Commandment
1. Purification of the Heart 2.
The Battle for Purity
Article 10: The Tenth Commandment
1. The Disorder of Covetous Desires
2. The Desires of the Spirit
3. Poverty of Heart
4. “I Want to See God”

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Clare Krishan

posted April 14, 2010 at 9:20 am


posted April 14, 2010 at 10:31 am

So religion is only useful to those us of capable of performing the mental gymnastic needed to believe in all the little stories (ie virgin births, ressurections, etc.)? That doesn’t say much for religion.

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posted April 14, 2010 at 11:50 am

Rod, you proceed from a premise that I’m not sure is true:
“Put another way, as soon as one is conscious that one adheres to religion not because it is true, but because it is useful, it loses its power to bind and to loose. It only has the power to affect behavior insofar as it is believed as religion”
I think the practice of religion and religious rituals can be beneficial regardless of whether or not one accepts as literally true the foundational beliefs of the religion. Behavior changes through practice as much, or more, as belief. Several cognitive science studies, for example, show that a good remedy for marriage problems is to simply tell your spouse you love her everyday — you will begin to act more lovingly towards her in order to overcome the cognitive dissonance of saying one thing and acting another way. This is true whether you initially “believe” that you love your wife or not.
Granted, it’s a leap to go from those sorts of studies to religion. But discouraging practice in order to proclaim the primacy of belief seems to me to be counterproductive to many of the behaviors you typically advocate for so eloquently.

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Dan Berger

posted April 14, 2010 at 12:34 pm

@Rod: “as soon as one is conscious that one adheres to religion not because it is true, but because it is useful, it loses its power to bind and to loose”
I submit that it’s not even an ethical system. Those who adhere to an ethical system best are those who believe that the ethical system is true. I give you, on the one hand, the Stoics and on the other, the Epicureans.
@WillyBobo: “Behavior changes through practice as much, or more, as belief.”
I read your example as saying rather that, by continually acting out what we wish to be true, we often come to believe it. That says nothing in particular about its truth or falsehood, but the fact is that those who act as though something were true can have all the doubts they like, but they will not really lose their belief unless they stop acting. (I grant that to stop acting can be a result of doubt, but as a counterexample I give you the Dark Night of the Soul, as experienced for example by Mother Teresa.)
On the other hand, I (who am intellectually convinced of the truth of Christianity) don’t act it out, and so do not really believe it. This is a fault, not a virtue.

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Dan Berger

posted April 14, 2010 at 12:38 pm

To be clear, my reading of the Stoics and Epicureans is that they believed in similar ethics (moderation and so on), but, while the Stoics believed their ethics to be Truth, the Epicureans took an instrumental view: their ethics were best for human flourishing.

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