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Kick your (a)theism up a notch: go "post-secular"!
May 14, 2007 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Habermas debated the Pope (pdf) when he was just Ratzinger. In German. In Spanish. In English. Summaries: 1, 2. Money quote: "Secular society must acquire a new understanding of religious convictions" (Habermas) while avoiding the "pathologies of reason and religion." (Ratzinger)
posted by anotherpanacea (23 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I would agree with Habermas to the extent secularization of the rhetoric of political discourse will result in religious fictionalization of the body politic, in which religious groups balkanize and organizae around efforts to religionize (Christianize) the rhetoric but I disgaree with both Hambermas and Ratzinger that the there is any effect of secularization on the the substance of the dialogue.

In the second summary, there is some discussion that seculiarzation led to a loss of Western culture, which "loss is evidenced in Western culture in violent 20th century wars, increasing moral decadence, and the rising threat of bioengineering".

First, the rhetoric on those wars, as in every war, was overtly religious. In addition, every war before the twentieth century was fought to the furthest extent technologically possible. The apparent brutality is simply a function of technology.

Secondly, when people use the phrase "moral decadence" they need to articulate their meaning. I believe this blogger is using the term to refer to sexual openness, not crime/murder/etc.

Religion (not Christian spirituality, but religion) needs to come to terms with the role of sex in life. Sex is the subtext of every political issue which today implicates religion. Until religion can move beyond its paternalist, dark age roots, it cannot intelligently inform the discussion of these issues.

Lastly, I emphasize rhetoric above because in my view the political order has always been secular, even when the political order was controlled by the papacy in Rome. The rhetoric was religious, but in the end, politics is a function of economics and power distribution, which depending on your viewpoint, has everything or nothing to do with religion.
posted by Pastabagel at 2:46 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Ratzingerfilter.
posted by Nahum Tate at 2:52 PM on May 14, 2007


Much of any pope core audience isn't sophisticated enough (while still being intelligent) to appreciate advanced discussions between advanced intellectes on not-daily topics. One shouldn't exclusively focus on the fact a pope can be a skilful, intelligent, erudite person ..but rather focus on how he treats his audience, with a paternalistic, simplistic attitude that is based on an assumption of superiority of few and statistical inferiority of the many others ..(dressed as difference, but still...)

It's not ONLY about educating people and giving them some sound moral code...that's just an effect of another objective, which imho is directing tought, forbidding certain developements in favour of an unnatural normalization of behaviors.
posted by elpapacito at 2:57 PM on May 14, 2007


The problem, perhaps, lies principally with modernization rather than secularization, although the two are entangled: it's the uprooting of communities of faith, and the loss of a coherent rationality for normative statements that trouble both of them, though of course they come at the problem from different angles and only achieve comity through a resolute commitment to careful and charitable discussion.

In the spirit of that sort of dialogue, I'd like to see you define 'secularity' as you are using it here in a way that could illuminate something like the Donatist controversy or the Gregorian reforms, let alone the current opposition to birth control and homosexuality. There are always material and practical explanations for Papal policy available, but it's clear that doctrinal logic has always driven much of the Vatican's governance, even as those decisions shake out in pragmatic terms as the secular world adapts to the Church's doctrinal moves.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:59 PM on May 14, 2007


Pastabagel, I don't see any of the world's religions demonstrating a desire to change policy when it comes to sex. Hell, I can't even name a single religion that allows women into the upper power structures.
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:00 PM on May 14, 2007


I don't know about the protestant church in the US, but there is a female bishop in Hamburg or Hannover (the latter recently got divorced but is apparently remaining in her position as state bishop). And i guess there are others in the Scandinavian countries...
posted by kolophon at 3:28 PM on May 14, 2007


chuckdarwin, I'm not sure what you mean by "upper power structures," but the Episcopal Church in the U.S. allows women to be Bishops. There are other notable examples, as well.
posted by The World Famous at 3:32 PM on May 14, 2007


(I wanted to say "Hamburg and Hannover". But they are still exceptions rather than rule I guess)
posted by kolophon at 3:33 PM on May 14, 2007


Christopher Hitchens won't like this.

As near as I can tell, Habermas thinks that secular society has gone overboard, and Ratzinger was happy to agree. Supposedly, when religion is banned from public discourse, people are less willing/able to understand each other, which leads to more conflict. In addition, he wonders if modern states are capable of acting ethically in the complete absence of religion. Ratzinger seems to think that a greater respect for the western religious tradition will help the west deal with non-western (read: Islamic) cultures more easily. However, it seems that Benedict is willing to offer little in return, given his complete unwillingness to compromise on any of the practical issues (like birth control in Africa, the biological origin of homosexuality, etc) that science criticizes the Church on.
posted by gsteff at 3:49 PM on May 14, 2007


Hell, I can't even name a single religion that allows women into the upper power structures.

The United Church of Canada, the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Women have been part of the upper power structure for decades.
posted by watsondog at 4:04 PM on May 14, 2007


I think 'secularization' is a hypothesis, not a fact; moreover, it is a hypothesis that most contemporary sociology of religion has rejected. Beyond a certain point, Western societies show a remarkable reluctance to secularize.

given his complete unwillingness to compromise on any of the practical issues (like birth control in Africa, the biological origin of homosexuality, etc) that science criticizes the Church on.


I'm an atheist, but I object to this formulation of the question. Birth control and homosexuality are not scientific issues, they are political issues. Scientists haven't yet definitively located a "gay gene"-- this is not proof that it doesn't exist, but we know for certain that tendencies toward being attracted to the same gender do not manifest themselves in the same way in every society. Religious opponents of homosexuality object to the act, not the tendency.

A major part of the reason why the Church objects to the concept of "biological origin" is that the Ratzinger papacy is very much committed to resisting the scientization of discourse, which is a "pathology of reason." It is also why it opposes stem cell research, genetic engineering, and so on. Attacking these positions without an understanding of their underlying philosophy is uncharitable, counterproductive (it shows that the Church has a point), and shows a reluctance to constructively engage the full impact of science on our views of the world and of human beings.
posted by nasreddin at 4:07 PM on May 14, 2007


Hell, I can't even name a single religion that allows women into the upper power structures.

Australian aboriginal women have their own body of knowledge & ritual - womens' business - that is theirs exclusively, as do the men. I expect that many traditional religions are probably similar.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:40 PM on May 14, 2007


I think 'secularization' is a hypothesis, not a fact; moreover, it is a hypothesis that most contemporary sociology of religion has rejected.

On the first day of my first class in my freshman year (now rather distant), my political theory professor gave this assignment: "Go find a sociology major and tell him he's wasting his life." Weber's secularization thesis (technology leads to disenchantment, etc.) has been shown to be terminally ambiguous, rather than properly falsifiable. It's since been replaced with a number of competing claims about the role that religion plays in a plural society. Christopher Eberle's book Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics addresses this point quite well, though it gets other things wrong.

Instead of secularization, we have privatization: public life avoids controversial religious metaphysics in favor of concrete and boring policy matters, peppered with divisive political issues to mobilize constituencies and produce legitimacy contestation and polemical attachment. I'd say that Americans are now clearly living in a republic where religion can no longer serve as a touchstone of political life, because we don't share a religious tradition of any sort: it's not just that we're Muslims and Hindus and Jews, etc., but that even Christians don't share enough of a common language to reach consensus on divisive political issues. Okay, maybe it gives us something to argue about regarding abortion, but what does the Bible tell us about Federal Reserve interest rates? According to the Tao Te Ching, should the EPA enforce arsenic restrictions on municipal water supplies? Where does Episcopate stand on highway funding?

We're basically going through a modified version of what Europe went through in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The problem is not that Americans lack a moral compass or some such, but that Westerners in general have begun to make policy with no compass other than science, which itself makes only descriptive claims, not normative ones. In that sense, we're stuck without a shared sense of the Good, and only an anemic sense of the Right. Habermas is only asking that we go back to our roots and attempt to translate our private senses of the Good back into public discourse, as he does here with limited success for Ratzinger.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:04 PM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


Christopher Hitchens won't like this.

He's busy over at Fox, so maybe he won't notice.
posted by homunculus at 5:22 PM on May 14, 2007


Not much to add - a good deal’s been expressed well.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Habermas, but it’s only in contrast to Ratzinger do I notice that, in name, he sounds like one of the anti-heros in a teen summer movie whereas Ratzinger sounds like the bumbling authority figure.

Lyotard and Gadamer helping Habermas to steal the Heidigger float.
“Suck it, Rat-zinger!” *taunts*

“Ha-Ber-Maaaas!” *shakes fist in air*
posted by Smedleyman at 6:02 PM on May 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


public life avoids controversial religious metaphysics in favor of concrete and boring policy matters, peppered with divisive political issues to mobilize constituencies and produce legitimacy contestation and polemical attachment.

In the United States this is true, but it wasn't the case in Europe 30-40 years ago (although it has become more like the US in this regard). Here were are confusing the consumer society with privatization or secularization.

I'll take a stab at your challenge, anotherpanacea. Secularization the way I mean it refers to those aspects of life which substantially lack a spiritual dimension in fact. With respect to the Gregorian reforms, while there is/was doctrinal logic to support consolidation of authority in the apparatuses of the Church, there was no doctrinal logic to do so to the exclusion of secular matters. There was however enormous secular logic to motivate such activity, namely consolidation of holdings and power as they were distributed across the vastness of continental Europe.

Westerners in general have begun to make policy with no compass other than science,

I think you're onto something here, but not in the way you suggest. We need some philosophy better than "good" and "bad" here that is internally consistent in a way the Church hasn't been, ever. Science is rapidly enabling everything imaginable, including the horrible. But what is guiding the progress? What sets the direction of advancement? Now, it's profits and calculation. That's clearly not going to work. But the Bible isn't either, nor are proclamations from religious elders. It's wonderful that "Habermas is only asking that we go back to our roots and attempt to translate our private senses of the Good back into public discourse" but doesn't that only work for Europeans and Americans who are at least conversant with Western Civ's dominant religious tradition? Does it work for the sociopath, whose lack of a moral compass finds him better suited to navigate a corporate/consumer society without the guilt or hesitation the rest of us feel?
posted by Pastabagel at 6:50 PM on May 14, 2007


to make policy with no compass other than science

Science doesn't give direction , but can provide some facts. For instance a fact is that an human being needs , on average, a certain (in a range) amount of calories and combination of proteins+carbohydrates+vitamins on a daily basis or they will suffer some kind of disease or die.

The amount may be disputable, even the optimal composition and distribution for each human being may vary.Yet no matter how you look at it , it's an undeniable fact with undeniable consequences.

Is it good to feed humans ? Is it bad ? I leave the question to philosophers, while I wil focus on this : humans will do almost anything to satisfy hunger, so no matter what any God says, if he doesn't provide food, they will look for some other or get their own.

Similarly consumistic society address most of the basic needs and also stimulate demand for goods that are to some level enjoyable, but not strictly necessary to an "healthy" psycophysical survival.

Yet as many are now very much dependant, not only psycologically, from certain providers of good ...these provider have acquired immense powers of decision, sometime becoming more powerful then states , but without bothering with all the legislative, administrative and social tasks that would only increase costs by create troubles.

My guess is that it's actually a lot cheaper to _pay_ taxes (the least possible of course) then getting the risk of responding _contractually_ to some social obligations such as social security. Politicians just respond poltically by being fired...big fucking deal.
posted by elpapacito at 7:30 PM on May 14, 2007


Yeah, Pastabagel, I think you've overdetermined your results: secular logic becomes the justification for whatever regimes do at whatever point they do them. Why centralize then? Why oppose birth control when it's hugely popular and makes the Catholics look obsolete and fuddy-duddy? You'll say that pregnancy rates are a surer route to parishoners than popularity, but that only holds if the parents don't convert to evangelical protestantism beforehand, which they've been doing in record numbers in South American and Africa. It seems to me that the Catholics can't justify a doctrinal shift for metaphysical reasons, not pragmatic ones.

In any case, when I say the Good, I mean something like a shared sense of the good life and its various approximations. Right now, we Americans have the vague sense that it's better to be rich than poor, and better to be working than a drug addict. But is it better to be an artist or a business man? Better to be a college professor or a politician? We don't know, or else we leave these questions up to individuals: as such, we can't guide each other or agree on norms to guide policy.

I have a long argument about non-domination being the ultimate political Good that I won't go into here, but suffice it to say that Christianity, like all religions, preserves a sense of the good life in the midst of all that nonsense and ritual. The nonsense is the vehicle, the medium, in which the Good is conveyed through the generations of people who can't afford to be free or practice even minimal forms of the good life: the people who have to live through plagues, famines, generations of warfare, etc. These ignorant peasant-types still preserve a conviction in human equality, a conviction that man was created for something better than spreading shit over the fields. That's what Habermas wants us to tap into, using 'saving translation' to cull the values from the nonsense.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:31 PM on May 14, 2007


Yeah, Pastabagel, I think you've overdetermined your results: secular logic becomes the justification for whatever regimes do at whatever point they do them

Not so fast, I'm not as fixed in my opinions as you may think. I think when you talk about the Church, you have to be careful because the Church has interests that often conflict with the good.

Why oppose birth control when it's hugely popular and makes the Catholics look obsolete and fuddy-duddy? You'll say that pregnancy rates are a surer route to parishoners than popularity...

I won't say that. It opposes birth control because sex without consequences eliminates the church's power over people. To paraphrase Orwell, if you're having sex, you don't care about religion. The Church (not the religion, but the institution) has to control sex because through that you control people. And it's not just birth control, it's also masturbation and pre/extra-marital sex which are condemned. But the Church does not expect its parishoners to refrain from this (because it would be impossible for a large number of people to do so consistently, given human nature), what it expects, and instills, is guilt. Guilt drives people back to the church for confession and absolution. Guilt makes for good parishoners, because people are programmed to turn to the church to be free of that guilt. You use the term 'doctrinal', but I'm not sure what you mean. By my reading, much of doctrine is rather arbitrary, post-hoc thinking, though the previous Pope appeared to have some consistency that it was better to promote life and joy of life than to promote death, and that we were doing the latter, but I get the sense that Ratzinger is more of an authoritarian than a philosopher.

But your point is actually a very valid one - "that Christianity, like all religions, preserves a sense of the good life in the midst of all that nonsense and ritual. " I agree completely, and I would go further to say that the symbology and mythology are vital to preserve and to teach, the way classical greek and roman myths are worth teaching and preserving. The Christian story is our culture whether we are atheists or priests. It is the archetype of self-sacrifice for the greater good, that sacrifice being the ultimate good.

The peasants types preserve this better than others perhaps because they are closer to being free of the trappings of secular life, e.g. the homeless man is not burdened wit hteh home mortgage, or furnishing it, etc. He has other concerns of course, but they are more vital, in a sense, because they are directed at the root of all human existence - food, shelter, companionship.

Americans have, as you put it, a vague sense that it's better to be rich than to be poor, but they lack the spiritual dimension to their lives (I was careful to use this word throughout my comments) that would determine what rich is. Rich is not high score on the bank account game. Rich is a life of relationships and connections to others and some pursuit of the meaning of it all.

So for you, is it better to be an artist, or a business man? Let's generalize the question - is it better to pursue the pure ideal and fail, or the practical solution to the reality and more likely succeed?
posted by Pastabagel at 8:05 PM on May 14, 2007


Why oppose birth control when it's hugely popular and makes the Catholics look obsolete and fuddy-duddy?

Let me clarify this point - I don't think the Church cares whether it appears obsolete to non-Catholics, and guilt is the mechanism by which is becomes very real and very relevant to the lives of its parishoners.

In a way actually, the Churhc is a prisoner of it's past success - it can't afford to lost all those churches and infrastructure around the world, so it deploys a strategy of keeping Catholics in the Church in Europe and the US where it raises most of its money.

But contrast, Orthodox churches, never having had the secular dominance enjoyed by the Catholic church for centuries, have retained the original dogma of 'pursuit of the mystery', and by remaining focused on spiritiual matters in the individual and family lives of its parishoners have been able to attract substantial numbers of converts from every other major religion.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:11 PM on May 14, 2007


wtf habermas lol. luhmann rulez!
posted by tcp at 12:14 AM on May 15, 2007


I wish people could talk about this sort of thing without the pointless pseud language and the italics on normal words to show how much extra meaning we're giving them cos omg we're so clever.
posted by reklaw at 2:41 AM on May 15, 2007


It opposes birth control because sex without consequences eliminates the church's power over people. To paraphrase Orwell, if you're having sex, you don't care about religion.

I don't see this. Have you ever read Augustine's Confessions? When he asks God for celibacy, he means it: all that sex and sensuality is making him terribly unhappy, and that's because the pursuit of pleasure above all else isn't the good life. Frankly, over much of the pastoral period, it appears clear that the Church was less concerned with sexuality than with other forms of sensualism: gluttony, especially. All the guilt was focused on diet. (Check out Foucault's History of Sexuality.)

the Church has interests that often conflict with the good.

I'd like to convert this into: "the Church has commitments that often conflict with practicality."

You use the term 'doctrinal', but I'm not sure what you mean. By my reading, much of doctrine is rather arbitrary, post-hoc thinking

That's certainly true, but the post-hoc, the fact it follows, is generally the original founding of the Church, not the most recent decision. The church is tremendously consistent, and Ratizinger is a very smart, very thoughtful guy, despite the fact that he's committed to the continuance of a very particular mixture of values and nonsense in Catholicism. He's even committed to ecumenicism: he's not trying to convert Hindus or Buddhists, just atheists and lapsed Western Christians. In a lot of cases, he has good reasons for his beliefs, while most of those who disagree with him haven't put much work into figuring out the norms and values that guide them. (He's still wrong in some cases, but his opponents aren't generally right.)

So for you, is it better to be an artist, or a business man? Let's generalize the question - is it better to pursue the pure ideal and fail, or the practical solution to the reality and more likely succeed?

I think the formulation of the question is wrong: it doesn't matter what I think, but rather what's actually better. Yet because the world needs both artists and business people, we think they must be equally good. In a non-plural society, we would be able to achieve agreement among business-people and artists as to which was the better life. Let's say we lived in a society that agreed that beauty was 'better' than utility, that the purpose of utility was ultimately beauty, while beauty has no end other than itself: the business-person would acknowledge that, point to her lack of skill, and wistfully express the desire to paint when she retires. Instead, they both adamantly insist that their values are superior: practicality v. idealism, making money v. making something, etc. (For my part, I prefer designers and engineers to fine artists, but who cares what I think?)
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:35 AM on May 15, 2007


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