Discussion over reason and religion has been so overshadowed by the work of Richard Dawkins and his ilk, that it might surprise some to suggest a debate could ever take place between the two. It might be the case that such debates have a tendency towards polarity, but the dead hand of fundamentalism on both sides has cast a shadow over what amounts to a tension of real significance in modern life. Conceptions of faith and divinity may be cast as delusional by some, but religious understandings of the world, and their shaping of morality, conscience and meaning have implications for society that go beyond simplistic and rigid takes on secular or even post-secular society. It is also evident that religious orientations of various stripes continue to exert a powerful influence on many aspects of everyday life.

One author who has acknowledged the need for debate between reason and religion is Jürgen Habermas, specifically in his more recent works such as Between naturalism and religion and the Dialectics of secularisation: on reason and religion (2007) (the latter a dialogue between Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI). A concise account of Habermas’ take on the relation between reason and religion can be found in his article “An awareness of what is missing: on faith and knowledge and defeatism concerning modern reason”, a paper originally published in 2007 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung and later reprinted in 2010 as part of the collection An awareness of what is missing: faith and reason in a post-secular age (a short collection comprising the original article plus a number of replies, including Habermas’ own).

In the paper, Habermas states that for meaningful dialogue to occur between reason and religion, two presuppositions must be fulfilled:

The religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalised sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality. Conversely, secular reason may not set itself up as the judge concerning truths of faith, even though in the end it can accept as reasonable only what it can translate as its own, in principle universally accessible, discourses.    

This construction of a starting point/stand-off/compromise between the two sides can be debated forever, but it should be noted that Habermas at the very least is positing the existence of a false dichotomy between the two (like any good critical theorist should). At the same time, Habermas also argues that ‘the cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge [i.e., revelatory knowledge] cannot be bridged’.

This bridgeless divide is a key theme in the introduction to the volume, which sees Michael Reder and Josef Schmidt connect Habermas and his ‘awareness of what is missing’ to other thinkers such as Ernst BlochTheodor Adorno and most notably Bertolt Brecht. The Brecht link makes sense (there’s a link there also to Bloch): although Habermas never makes this connection himself, the title of his paper can’t help but recall Brecht’s opera (in collaboration with Kurt WeillRise and fall of the city of Mahagonny. In the opera, one of the main characters, Jim Mahoney, repeats the line ‘something’s missing’ time and again in response to other characters’ notions of what a good life represents (smoking, for example – this was the Wild West after all). The phrase ‘something’s missing’ is designed to highlight the alienation at the heart of Mahagonny, a city of casual debauchery and not much else.

The allusion to this phrase in Habermas’ work can be read in a number of ways – it could for example be a nod to Habermas’s neo-Marxist beginnings, given how Rise… was a satire of capitalism. A more prosaic understanding would centre on the spiritual void left in the wake of modernisation. But whatever the meaning to Habermas, if something’s missing, it therefore means that a void of some sort has been left behind – a void that needs filling, somehow and with something. What that something is represents a significant question in the world of Dirty Looks, and also reflects Habermas’ interests in the tension between reason and religious faith and the potential in this tension for the development of dialogue:

Faith remains opaque for knowledge in a way which may neither be denied nor simply accepted. This reflects the inconclusive nature of the confrontation between a self-critical reason which is willing to learn and contemporary religious convictions. This confrontation can sharpen post-secular society’s awareness of the unexhausted force of religious traditions. Secularisation functions less as a filter separating out the contents of traditions than as a transformer which redirects the flow of tradition.

If the phrase is understood in this context, the ‘something that is missing’ is the space between reason and faith, or at least the recognition that such a space exists in the first place. Habermas being Habermas of course, such an act of recognition would necessarily entail bringing together various ‘semantic elements’ of the different traditions. This may help the cause, but any acknowledgement of this space could do worse than to posit the relational, intersubjective world as a mediating force to be reckoned with.

Because if anything can sway the undecided toward religious sets of beliefs, it’s surely what these beliefs can offer as a way to manage the earthly demands of blame, shame and guilt alongside the desire to be witnessed and forgiven. And what other ‘world’ could offer such an escape route from the never-ending gaze of others, internalised or otherwise? What other belief system could ever even compete as a bulwark against the all-too-profane court of arbitrary judgements that constitutes real life?

While Sartre’s play No Exit suggests that there is, in reality, no exit from the judgement of others, it may just be the case that religious faith has been providing an exit of sorts all this time. If true, this assessment would suggest that, in the great scheme of things, proponents of religious faith have very little to worry about in our supposed ‘post-secular’ society.

(originally posted in two parts on Dirty Looks)