The Way to Secularization

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Book Review of The Future of Human Nature by Jürgen Habermas.Polity Press, Cambridge. 2008. ISBN: 13 978-0-7456-2987-2. 127 pages. First published in 2003.

Traditionally in Western society, the conflict between the spokespersons of institutionalized science and those of institutionalized religion has been kept under a truce. However, this truce went out of the window after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which were motivated by religious belief. Bewildered by the barbarisms of the 9/11 attacks, Western society began to reappraise its tolerance with views of withdrawing it from those who are intolerant. What came after that was the war on terrorism, which has been a war unlike any other. The concerns regarding the war on terrorism just added to the ongoing concerns of free market globalization and genetic engineering. One of the ablest individuals to get the measure of these uncertainties is Jürgen Habermas (1929-), one of the world’s most highly regarded philosopher.

The purpose of this book by Habermas is to iron out the moral issues of the world post 9/11. It consists of three lectures, two written before and one after 9/11, with a postscript written after 9/11 added to the former. The first lecture is entitled ‘Are there post metaphysical answers to the question: What is the ‘good life’? It starts with the reminder that the doctrines of the ‘good life’ and the ‘just society’ were part of ethics and politics and made up a harmonious whole, which was changed by the individualization of lifestyles. Now, as in the political liberalism of the philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), the ‘good life’ became something that is up to each individual’s abilities and choices, while the ‘just society’ is simplified to ‘how individuals want to spend the time they have for living’. According with Habermas ‘Our existential self-understanding can still continue to draw its nourishment from the substance of these traditions just as it always did, but philosophy no longer has the right to intervene in this struggle of gods and demons’.

The second lecture, entitled ‘The debate of the ethical self-understanding of the species’, deals with the ethical issues not just of genetic engineering and other genome technologies such as stem cells, but also with birth control by intrauterine devices, and the destruction of egg cells. The issues in question include the distinction between what people are by nature and what people can be by means of biotechnological intervention. One of the conclusions of this essay comes in the form of a reminder that man has always held to the binary code of moral judgements, which he wishes to keep, even in a post secular society – a reference to the affluent societies of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc, where the majority of people have only loose links to organised religions and tend to seek purpose in things like the arts. Habermas adds that the latter did not change men into cool cynics or indifferent relativists.

The post secular society, a translation from the German ‘Säkularisierung’, is the subject of Habermas’ third and last lecture entitled ‘Faith and Knowledge’. As Habermas explains, although the term ‘post secular society’ is suggestive of the society of a period after the end of the secularization process, the word secularization means ‘the ongoing process whereas religious communities continue to exist inside a post-secular society’. Although the post secular society is also a liberal society that guarantees religious freedom as a basic individual right, it reserves the right to maintain the monopoly of secular knowledge. In Habermas’ view this was something that was taken for granted until 9/11, but which the war against terrorism destabilised with the situations of conflict it created between the spokespersons of institutionalized religion and the scientific authorities of the post secular society.

Habermas’ views oscillate from the liberal to the conservative, providing useful contributions to the three most significant debates of the 21st century: ‘the quest for happiness, the ethnical implications of biological decisions and the integration of religious communities within the larger post secular society’. All that is needed to end the above conflict is common sense: preaching to each other is pointless for society itself must reach its public consensus through debate. The secular society needs to remain sensitive to the force of articulation inherent in religious languages and the religious societies need to accept science as an agent of informed common sense. In other words, each side must embraces the perspective of the other. In my opinion this book is a difficult but edifying read, and undoubtedly a great source of good advice.

HABERMAS, J. The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2013. Resenha de: PIRES-O’BRIEN, J. (2012). The Way to Secularization. PortVitoria, UK, v. 6, Jan-Jun, 2013. ISSN 2044-8236,