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In light of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent announcement of his impending abdication of the papacy, I thought it might be worthwhile to return to one of the most important debates of the past decade.

In The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and ReligionJürgen Habermas and Pope Benedict discuss the nature of ethics in secular society. Their arguments were put forth in two papers presented in January 2004 concerning “the pre-political moral foundations of a free state.”

Below is a brief summary of the main themes of the Habermas / Benedict dialogue, followed by some of my own reflections.

What Habermas Thinks

Habermas begins by asking if a democratic constitutional state can “renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence” (21). He wonders whether or not there is a way to provide justification for political rule that does not find its grounding in religious categories.

Against those who see religion as necessary to sustain the constitutional system, Habermas argues that “systems of law can be legitimated only in a self-referential manner, that is, on the basis of legal procedures born of democratic procedures” (27). In other words, legitimacy comes from legality.

Habermas recognizes that solidarity among the citizenry is needed for secular society to sustain itself. But religious or metaphysical traditions need not be the providers of this solidarity (29). Instead, the democratic process itself can serve as the “uniting bond” that mobilizes the participation of its citizens (32). Likewise, patriotism can sustain solidarity once the principles of justice enshrined in the law have time to penetrate the culture’s ethics (33-34).

Habermas warns about external threats to secular society. Once citizens act in isolation based solely upon self-interest, they use their subjective rights against one another. As the markets and the power of bureaucracy continue to weaken social solidarity, Habermas recognizes the need for a bridge to certain religious traditions (42).

Habermas sees philosophy and theology as intertwined. He believes philosophy can translate religious terms into secular principles without completely emptying them of their substance. Now that societal solidarity appears to be under threat, Habermas recommends that the constitutional state “deal carefully with all the cultural sources that nourish its citizens’ consciousness of norms and their solidarity” (46).

Believers and unbelievers must work together, expecting dissent and disagreement, while affirming the right of both to make contributions (whether in secularized or religious language) to public debates (50-51).

What Pope Benedict Thinks

Pope Benedict XVI (hereafter “Benedict”) begins his lecture by showing how we now find ourselves on the threshold of seeing the formation of a global community and a new era of human capabilities. Despite recent advances in technology and scientific discovery, Benedict is troubled by the dissolution of ethical certainties regarding “the good,” and he believes that science cannot offer adequate answers about the existence and purpose of man (55-57).

Benedict spends a good deal of time reflecting on the relationship between power and law. “It is the specific task of politics to apply the criterion of the law to power, thereby structuring the use of power in a meaningful manner,” he writes (58).

But how does the law come to be? How can the law keep from becoming a mere benefit of those who are already in power? Benedict believes there are “self-subsistent values that flow from the essence of what it is to be a man, and therefore inviolable” (61).

Today, new developments are forcing us to grapple with issues concerning the use and abuse of power. The onset of terrorist activity (with religious fanaticism as one of its sources) has proven that it no longer takes a large-scale war to greatly impact the culture.

Likewise, our current capability to create humans raises questions about the ethical dimension of turning human beings into mere products. The invention of the atomic bomb and the arrival of test-tube babies should cause us to “doubt the reliability of reason” (65). But who or what can regulate human reason?

Benedict focuses on human rights and includes within that phrase “a doctrine of human obligations and of human limitations” (71). He counters Habermas’ belief that strict rationality is sufficient to bind people together. Instead, he appeals to the Christian understanding of reality as providing a powerful impetus for human rights in the world. He points out the weakness of the rationalist view, evidenced by its inability to demonstrate its foundational principles in contexts outside the West (76).

Despite the differences between Benedict and Habermas, both men advocate the adoption of similar practices. Benedict readily admits that there are “pathologies in religion” among the fanatical extremes of religious groups. These pathologies need reason to purify and structure them. But on the flip side, he believes there are pathologies of reason too, and religion can serve as a guardian that keeps reason within its proper limits. Benedict hopes that Western culture will listen and accept a “genuine relatedness” to other cultures (78-79).

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.

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3 thoughts on “Does Society Need Religion? Pope Benedict’s Debate with Jurgen Habermas”

  1. the Old Adam says:

    Society might well benefit from religion…

    but dying people (everyone) need Christ, and the forgiveness of sins.

    There is a big difference.

  2. Christiane says:

    Hi ‘Adam’,
    perhaps now more than ever, the people of Western Christianity could find Our Lord’s embrace of our dying race more fully present in an Eastern Christian understanding of the Incarnation.

    ‘Benedict’ has served all the rites of the Catholic Church, the Eastern rites, as well as the Latin (Roman) rite. To be closer to those of the East is to enter into a Christianity which is not so influenced by Greek thought as is the West. In this Eastern Christianity, the Lord Christ is seen, not so much differently, as more ‘from the heart’.

    I know that Trevin is familiar with many of the Eastern Fathers of the Church, and has sometimes shared their prayers here on this blog. I encourage you, ‘Adam’, to take a deeper look into the way that Eastern Christian view Our Lord coming to our fallen race.
    You may find something there that helps expand your own understanding of the mysteries of the ‘Christ Event’. It’s worth a look, as these Eastern Christian rites developed out of Antioch and some of the earliest centers of the faith, as Christianity spread out of Jerusalem.

  3. brian says:

    I have a friend who says, “You can fall into sin, but you won’t fall into holiness.” What he means is that one must persevere in faith and deed to be holy. Doing so involves service to others. In this, we find selfless service for the common good. This uplifts society and culture. The “reason only” crowd appears to serve the common good largely through coercion and legislation in a way that devolves over time, ultimately serving those in power. The reason only crowd seems willing to ignore some of the base tendencies of human nature. Society devolves, gets lazy, and has no moral anchor.

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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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