Jurgen Habermas: A Secular Atheist Changes His Mind on Religion in the Public Sphere

Interesting article in light of the New Atheism…I think atheism is in its last gasps, philosophically and even culturally, despite the recent successes of the pedestrian arguments of Hitchens and Dawkins. Here are some excerpts….


Contemporary culture in Europe, though it has tried, has never quite shaken off its Christian past, and some secular thinkers are beginning to realize that the Christian past cannot be shaken off without shaking off, and possibly destroying, culture itself – and so are re-examining the role of religion in public. The core ideals of the culture, today framed in liberal secular terms, are rooted in Christianity. Without such rootedness, some secular thinkers are beginning to realize that they are being lost, to the detriment of the culture itself. 

In consequence, a new thinking on the role of religion in the public sphere is beginning to emerge, led by the prominent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, a secular atheist, who is proposing a new model for citizenship and the church-state relationship in culture. 

A Secular Atheist Changes His Mind

Jürgen Habermas, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, is considered one of the most prominent and influential philosophers of Europe, and is an avowed liberal secular atheist. Described as “a sovereign judge of what is true and what is not, of what is right and what is wrong . . . [the] supreme judge in matters of democratic, progressive, cosmopolitan, and secular constitutionalism,”[1]he is a towering academic figure who designed the system which became the foundation of social democracy in Germany and Europe. Born in 1929, he is a close contemporary of Pope Benedict XVI, grew up in Nazi Germany and was a Hitler Youth, but had an awakening during the Nuremburg trials in which he began to ask questions about “civil rights, democracy, and open discourse.”[2]

Habermas has spent most of his career arguing against the use of “religiously informed moral argument” in the public sphere,[3] but recently has radically revised his thinking. He has become convinced that the ideals of the secular state – of the basic goodness, dignity, and equality of human beings – are derived from Christianity, without which the ideals are being lost. This loss is evidenced in Western culture in violent 20thcentury wars, increasing moral decadence, and the rising threat of bioengineering. It is also evidenced in the growing clash between the secular West and more traditional, religious cultures, especially Islam, but also Buddhism, Hinduism, and the growing Christianity of the Global South.[4]

Fourth, Habermas has come to believe that modern Liberalism is “intrinsically self-contradictory” because it represses and devalues the free speech of religious citizens, and demands of them “an effort to learn and adapt that secular citizens are spared having to make.”[16] He is highly critical of this prevailing secular prejudice against religion:

As long as secular citizens are convinced that religious traditions and religious communities are . . . archaic relics of pre-modern societies that continue to exist in the present, they will understand freedom of religion as the cultural version of the conservation of a species in danger of becoming extinct. From their viewpoint, religion no longer has any intrinsic justification to exist. . . . [Secular citizens] can obviously [not] be expected to take religious contributions to contentious political issues seriously and even to help to assess them for a substance that can possibly be expressed in a secular language and justified by secular arguments.

           . . . The admission of religious statements to the political public sphere only makes sense if all citizens can be expected not to deny from the outset any possible cognitive substance to these contributions. . . . [Yet] such an attitude presupposes a mentality that is anything but a matter of course in the secularized societies of the West.[17]


The release of Time of Transitionswas not the only event of note in 2004. Prior to the release, on the evening of January 19, a meeting and debate took place between Habermas and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict. It took place in Munich under the title “Pre-political moral foundations in the construction of a free civil society,” with a restricted audience of just 30 persons. One commentator on the meeting described it thus:

Here, then, were the makings of an epic duel, worthy to stand alongside Luther’s famous confrontation with Zwingli or Heidegger’s 1929 dispute with Cassirer at Davos. But the duel never took place. The transcript of the debate instead reveals the strange spectacle of philosopher and cardinal bending over backwards to accommodate each other. Habermas treats religious communities with great respect, claiming that they have “preserved intact something which has elsewhere been lost.” And Ratzinger grants a central role to the “divine light of reason” in controlling the “pathologies of religion.”[24]

In sum, both Habermas and Ratzinger recognize that secular reason alone is insufficient to maintain liberal ideals and that reason itself is being used insufficiently in culture, and thus has become a danger to culture. They both recognize that religious reasoning is a source of truth that secular reasoning alone cannot provide, and without which it is unbalanced, so religious reasoning must be restored to the public square.

The atheist recognizes that the Christian underpinnings of secular reasoning and culture are irreplaceable, acknowledges we are moving to a post-secular phase, and calls for a reciprocal, rather than controlling, relationship between church and state. The theologian recognizes the need for rational dialogue, what the atheist calls “translation,” on the part of religion with both secular and global culture; both recognize that such rational dialogue must remain open to the transcendent.

In short, both are calling for a reapproachment between faith and reason that both looks back to the historical roots of Western culture and looks forward and outward to the global community.


8 thoughts on “Jurgen Habermas: A Secular Atheist Changes His Mind on Religion in the Public Sphere

  1. This article has no validity, it contains a complete and utter lie in the piece. There isn’t even a source for it in the article

    “Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of Western civilization”


    This statement is a complete fabrication by christians to support their own ideals and has been rebutted by Habermas.

    I could probably find more but this was already a waste of my time. You should always check the sources of an article.

  2. Sorry, but I doubt she is lying. It does give a source. It’s easy for you to check it out. It’s from hi 2004 Essay, “A Time of Transitions”. Why don’t you go and check it out and report back here. The onus is on you to contradict her source.


    A professed secularist who has spent nearly half a century arguing against religiously informed moral argument, he made some arresting statements in his 2004 essay, “A Time of Transitions.”

    “Christianity, and nothing else,” he wrote, “is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter.”[8]

  3. I did! I gave a link to the official website of Habermas. It even talks about how it didn’t come from the 2004 essay you are talking about but from a 1999 interview which was misquoted.

  4. OK. So it’s a mistake. It hardly takes away from the rest of the article or the substance of what Habermas is saying which, even according to your link, recognizes the important contribution Christianity makes:

    “Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an auonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct heir of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk (p. 150f).”

  5. It is a lie, religion usurps all the qualities that distinguish humans, claiming it for itself and then waves it in our faces, in the most undeserving way. Religion is dying, and just as the heavens above has become of no use, it will fade from the imagination, as will the great responsible.

  6. It was once a safe bet to look up at the night sky and ponder one’s existence after death, up there among the angels, cherub and friends. They are all in a better place, it would be said of the departed. But should it matter, if the promise of eternal life, has no place for it to be…lived? I do not believe in the supernatural, God or Gods, so the loss of heaven is for you and the other believers to contemplate S.G., not me. As for its foundation, the cross is tilting more and more, and for the simple reason that it bores and exhausts the patience of everyone, by having been too successful, for too long.

  7. str,

    The only thing that is waning at the moment is the belief of the atheist and the materialist. All to long it has ridden the coat-tails of the abandoned self-referential logical positivism. With it’s death a few decades ago, your ideology will too come to an end. Must like every other human lie.

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