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habermas1Yesterday, I summarized the brief debate between Jurgen Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI regarding the role of reason and religion in secular society. (The two papers are included in the book The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion.) Today, I’d like to follow up with a few comments about this dialogue.

My Take on the Habermas/Ratzinger Debate

It is surprising to see Benedict and Habermas finding common ground on the role of religion in secular society. Both of them see the need for religion and reason to listen and learn from one another.

But despite the similarities in their practical solutions, there are several substantive differences in their outlooks which should not be overlooked.

Reason’s False Sense of Superiority

First, Benedict is right to point out that it is unfair to speak only of pathologies of religion without considering the danger of “pathologies of reason.” This tendency for reason to be unaware of its limitations is demonstrated in Habermas’ essay.

Consider Habermas’ proposal that we translate religious concepts into the language of secular principles. Surely some good can come from such a proposal.

But it is clearly one-sided for Habermas to see the need for religion to be translated into secular terms without ever advocating that secular principles be translated into religious terminology. His view presupposes the superiority of rationalism over religion, and this sense of secular superiority is demonstrated by his view that religious principles should shed their religious connotations in order to better suit secular society.

The example that Habermas uses is the religious concept of “the image of God in man” being spoken of as “the identical dignity of all men that deserves unconditional respect” (45). It is true that this kind of conversion from sacred to secular terms can be helpful to some extent.

But this kind of conceptual conversion cannot avoid “emptying” religious concepts of their significance. Indeed, the equation of “the image of God in man” with “human dignity” translates the horizontal aspect of the “divine image” teaching quite well. But the secular form does not grapple with the God in whose image we are made.

When Christians affirm that human beings are created in the image of God, they are indeed speaking of the dignity and worth of all human life, but they are also affirming something about God. When religious language is translated into rationalist, secular terms, it is inevitable that the religious teachings will be emptied of their vertical dimension. Thus, the translation process advocated by Habermas subjugates religiosity to rationalism.

Can Secularism Sustain Itself?

Secondly, it is encouraging to read that Habermas believes religion can serve as a support for secular democracy. This affirmation is a move in the right direction in that it notices a certain pragmatic value in religion – religion’s power to sustain the solidarity of the citizenry.

But Habermas never addresses the current crisis taking place in non-religious Europe. European birth rates are falling in secular societies, as citizens apparently cannot find sufficient reasons to put family and children ahead of their own self-interests. This rampant individualism is causing secular society to crumble before our eyes.

Habermas is right to recognize the role that religion can play in supporting and sustaining democracy, but he fails to see that the presence of religion is a necessity for society. Religion provides the impetus for self-sacrifice and personal communication that marriage and family need in order for society to survive.

The Need for non-Western Resources

Benedict hints at a solution to this weakness in Habermas’ view by encouraging secular society to look to non-Western sources for renewal and strengthening. The narrow vision of many secularists inclines them to see secular society as the pinnacle of human flourishing.

Benedict points out the complementary relationship between reason and faith found outside the West and advocates a more inclusive view that is open to learning from non-Western societies.


The Dialectics of Secularization features an engaging debate by two world-renowned scholars on the role of reason and religion in secular democracy. Though Habermas and Benedict address the subject from different angles, both men demonstrate a willingness to see reason and religion in complementary, rather than competing roles.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2009 Kingdom People blog

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4 thoughts on “Is Religion Necessary to Society? My Take on the Pope's Debate with Habermas”

  1. RJ says:

    It is good that they found some common ground. Focusing only on the differences is the reason we have so many different Christian denominations today. It is also the reason we have such a rigid division in our secular government (just look at the strictly partisan vote on HR1 yesterday). It seems everyone wants to focus on “why you are wrong” instead of where our common interests are. Let’s always look to where we can agree on some issues. No, in my mind that doesn’t mean we have to go to the least common denominator approach. We can have our differences and still celebrate our agreements.

  2. Weston says:

    Great Insight Trevin

  3. Zach Hanlon says:

    I plan on reading the book for myself but I wonder in the mean time if you could tell us if Benedict makes more specific suggestions or gives examples of how a “non-western” society’s perspective could or has contributed to the advancement of a specific issue?

    Also, do they attempt they make any attempts to discuss the roots of reason in religion?

  4. I have to agree with Benedict. Need to look outside of the West for answers. More answers. Not saying the solution is there. But maybe an idea to springboard us to an even better idea.

    And score on the statement that religious terms lose enormous significance when translated to secular terms. That is the unending trouble with practical atheism.

    I do struggle with these conversations. Antiseptic, stuffy, ivory tower. But writers like Dalrymple and Sproul have helped me to see that intellectual ideas always cascade down. That’s why the fight is worth it in the academy. Like C. S. Lewis said: “We need good philosophy because there’s so much bad philosophy.”

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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