The darling of the 68ers and Benedict XVI find a surprising amount to agree onby Edward Skidelsky / November 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
Left-wing German philosopher Jürgen Habermas treats religion with respect (photo: Wolfram Huke)
On 19th January last year, two old men came to the Catholic Academy of Bavaria to debate the imposing-looking topic: “Pre-political moral foundations of the liberal state.” Both are German; both grew up under the third reich; both went on to achieve distinction in their respective fields. But here the resemblance ends. Jürgen Habermas is a leftist philosopher and advocate of “democratically enlightened common sense.” His championship of untrammelled debate as the foundation of political legitimacy has inspired radicals across the world. His antagonist, Cardinal Ratzinger, came to prominence as an enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy throughout the Catholic church. He is now Pope Benedict XVI.
Here, then, were the makings of an epic duel, worthy to stand alongside Luther’s famous confrontation with Zwingli or Heidegger’s 1929 dispute with Cassirer at Davos. But the duel never took place. The transcript of the debate instead reveals the strange spectacle of philosopher and cardinal bending over backwards to accommodate each other. Habermas treats religious communities with great respect, claiming that they have “preserved intact something which has elsewhere been lost.” And Ratzinger grants a central role to the “divine light of reason” in controlling the “pathologies of religion.”
This conciliatory tone will come as a particular surprise to English readers. Here, the periodic spectacle of “science versus religion” has acquired something of the character of a Punch and Judy show. (See Richard Dawkins’s Prospect piece on “Gerin oil.”) Things are different in Germany. There, the long tradition of Kulturprotestantismus—a diffuse, non-denominational religiosity—guarantees the churches widespread respect, if not attendance. The German philosophers, although rarely conventionally pious, always took religion seriously. Not for them the sneering scepticism of Hume or Russell. Habermas is in this tradition. Like Kant and Adorno, his aim is to disentangle religion’s ethical vision from its dogmatic claims.
Habermas has not abandoned his belief in the moral autonomy of the liberal state, however. The democratic process generates its own grounds of allegiance; it does not feed off a pre-political ethnic or religious solidarity. This is what Habermas has famously termed “constitutional patriotism.” For the German people, cut off from their own pre-war cultural traditions, the concept of constitutional patriotism is a godsend. It suggests the possibility of a civic pride purged of history. The new parliamentary buildings in…