How the dialogue between believers and nonbelievers is changing—for the better.
“In this day and age, to be religious is to be intellectually dishonest.” It was with this declaration that one of the best-known, most internationally renowned German philosophers began his opening statement at a panel discussion on religion a few years ago, for which I had been selected as his co-debater. A poor basis for mutual understanding, I thought to myself, since it is surely one of the elementary preconditions for civilized dialogue that we refrain from immediately impugning our opposite number’s honesty. But it was nothing personal. It is just that many people nowadays regard religious faith as so clearly outdated—its cognitive claims refuted by the sciences, the reality of its experiential dimension explained by psychology and neuroscience, and its social functions clearly understood—that they are unable to grasp how rational individuals can possibly be prepared to sacrifice their intellects in this way. There must, they presume, be interests at play, a lack of intellectual honesty, psychological problems, or simply a lack of intellectual consistency.
Religious faith in today’s world is
a hotter topic
than it has been
No wonder then that our discussion became heated—so heated that the moderator virtually had to duck as the verbal volleys flew back and forth. The event continued way past its allotted time. Surprisingly, however, my sense that the audience thought our debate a disgrace and the panel discussion a failure proved to be quite wrong. I have rarely heard such prolonged applause. The very fact that we pulled no punches captivated the audience. Among both believers and nonbelievers, the intellectual justifiability of religious faith in today’s world is a hotter topic than it has been for decades.
Why is this? We might mention many reasons for the rapid increase in public interest in the topic of religion—from the motives of Islamist terrorists through the issue of Turkish membership of the EU to the debate over whether religion is a significant obstacle to the integration of certain immigrant groups. All of this has been discussed so often that I shall refrain from repeating it here. Of course, the parameters of these discussions are prone to constant and sudden shifts. The unanticipated mass rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt, and other Arab countries have been food for thought for all those who, until recently, declared Islam to be an obstacle to democracy. On a deeper level, regardless of these basically political issues, two apparent certainties that have undergirded arguments about religion since the eighteenth century have emerged as untenable. To paraphrase the opening statement about faith and intellectual honesty, those who ignore these shifts exclude themselves from serious contemporary debate and are merely fighting old battles.
The apparent certainty that long underpinned believers’ views, the one they must now abandon, is that human beings are anthropologically primed for religion, and that if this need goes unfulfilled, whether as a result of coercion, human hubris, or shallow consumerism, moral decay is bound to ensue. As yet, the moral decline repeatedly predicted both by serious theologians and straightforward apologists for religion—since without God everything is presumed permissible—has certainly not occurred even in the most secularized of societies.
If believers must now give up a supposed certainty, this also applies to those nonbelievers and critics of religion who see religion as past its historical sell-by date. In the eighteenth century, there emerged the idea, which would previously have been considered outrageous, that Christianity was merely a temporary phenomenon and might yet vanish from the earth. The French Revolution included the greatest state-promoted attack on Christianity in Europe since antiquity. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the notion that Christianity and religion in general would disappear without much resistance, even without the efforts of militant atheists, became so widespread among intellectuals that many felt no need to go to great pains to justify it. Modernization seemed to lead automatically to secularization—not just in the sense of the relative independence of the public sphere from specific religious precepts, but in that of a complete loss of religion. At times, even believers thought this idea plausible. This inevitably made them feel like members of an endangered species and led to the idea that the best way they could serve their faith was by resisting modernization in all its forms.
But this assumption, which may be described in shorthand as “secularization theory,” or, better, “the secularization thesis,” is wrong. To put it more cautiously, most experts now consider it wrong, whereas most of them long considered it correct. The hegemony within the debate has now shifted towards those who believe that there is no automatic connection between modernization and secularization, and who are looking for alternative models to depict religious change.
For demographic reasons alone, our world is becoming increasingly religious. Even the remaining advocates of the secularization thesis admit as much. The critics of colonialism were wrong in their expectation that Christianity would be viewed as a foreign implant with no future in former colonies following the end of colonial rule. In Africa, in particular, Christianity and Islam are currently undergoing enormous expansion. In South Korea, rapid modernization and advancing Christianization have coincided.
This can, of course, be evaluated in very different ways. But that is exactly the point. A historical tendency derived from the facts can no longer be used as an argument against religious faith. Both the sense of nonbelievers being at the cutting edge of progress and, conversely, the holier-than-thou self-certainty of being a morally better human being simply by virtue of being a believer have been lost.
The departure of these two mirror-image certainties is no bad thing. Believers and nonbelievers will find it easier to have a dialogue without these assumptions in the background. This may arouse interest in what the representatives of the other party are actually trying to express—through their faith or in their criticisms of a particular religion or of all religions. Curiosity about the other and a willingness to learn can thus become part of the dialogue on religion. The detritus left over from the struggles of the nineteenth century can finally be cleared away. In political terms, this means that believers and nonbelievers will have to live with and accept one another into the future. If we want intellectual honesty in debates on religion and secularization, then it seems to me that mutual recognition of this diversity is the key imperative.
This article was adapted from Hans Joas’ new book, Faith As An Option (read more »).