book review

Between Naturalism and Religion
Jürgen Habermas

Polity Press, 2008, 361 pages Rating:+1 star

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jun 29, 2008


Between Naturalism and Religion

Jürgen Habermas
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H abermas is not a household name in this country, perhaps because his works have suffered from translations that make his writings seem dry and unapproachable. Though a student of Horkheimer and Adorno, Habermas is generally tolerant of religion and critical of postmodernism; his core belief is that communication based on reason can engender a universalist morality.

Between Naturalism and Religion is a collection of some of Habermas's essays on four general topics: norm-governed thought, religious pluralism, naturalism, and religious tolerance. The essays are decorated with arcane-sounding titles like "The Architectonics of Discursive Differentiation," where Habermas tries to refute criticism of what might be called his "lowest common denominator" theory of legal norms and deontological moral rules. In this article and elsewhere, Habermas exhibits a distinctly European political perspective when he concludes that morality can and should be associated with a "global civilizing regulatory power" -- a rather chilling concept considering the history of such enterprises.

The main value of this book is anthropological: it provides a view of the contemporary mainstream European state of mind regarding the challenge that religious fundamentalism poses to the European statist agenda. As for the writing style: if you liked reading the European constitution, you'll love this book.

Although Habermas's ideas on society may seem like ordinary politics, they are burning issues in a Europe already resigned to a "post-secular" world order and struggling to decide how to accommodate a burgeoning population from a religious tradition that does not accept liberal social philosophy or Western ideas of human rights. For Habermas, religious fundamentalism arises as a reaction to social uncertainty and cultural upheavals caused by modernization. However, Habermas's inability to fit American religious fundamentalism into this mold raises some doubts about the generality of this posture.