The famed atheist who values religious ethics

By Hanne Nabintu Herland

For decades, the leading philosopher and one of Europe’s most famous atheists, Jürgen Habermas, has emphasized the need for moral development in the West. He sought for the answers to how to live the best possible life and be a fruitful citizen who cares for others in the community. His thinking was initially considered neo-Marxist, following along the lines of the radical Frankfurt School, which heavily criticized the bourgeoisie and traditional values in Europe.

Yet, Habermas, 88, came to a point where he radically departed from much of his previous Marxist view. He began writing in a positive manner about Christianity, stating that religion seems to have the ability to motivate individuals to do good in a manner that secularism cannot. This change of heart regarding the need to reinvigorate Christian ethics in secular societies has dumbfounded the European intellectual elite since Habermas for decades was one of the architects of tough European secularism.

It is a complete taboo to even speak of in the politically correct New Left circles that dominate universities all over Europe. They don’t even want to talk about the fact that Habermas has become an advocate for the need to respect Christian ethics. He has even written books together with then-Pope Benedict XVI, addressing the need to re-emphasize Christian ethics in the West as the basis for rational thought.

When the neo-Marxists first appeared after World War II and counting into the 1960s with the student rebellions, many felt that the New Left’ strategy of repressing the views of the traditionalist majority was a good idea. Many intellectuals followed along the line of Nietzsche, Freud and other religion-haters who prophesied that the more modern man would become, the less he would need religion as “the opium of the masses” since “God is dead.”

It turned out, after Nietzsche went mad and died in a mental hospital, that the society he prescribed as the utopian world without religion turned into an extreme secularist tyranny in which the Jewish Ten Commandments were removed from society and selfishness, materialism and hedonism took their place as normative philosophies. “Do as you wish, forget about honesty, who cares about tomorrow.” It became unfashionable to speak the words “Don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t envy others, don’t kill.”

We live in the results of Nietzsche’s impact on the culture, first on the Third Reich and then in the cultural revolutions in the West: the fragmentation of family bonds, lack of solidarity, lack of respect for parents and the elderly, lack of empathy, lawlessness, ethnic strife and the legitimization of an egocentric way of life.

It has been peculiar to watch the changes in Habermas’ writing, keeping in mind that he is one of Europe’s most famous atheists. It seems that Habermas’ remedy to the lack of solidarity that permeates Western extreme-liberal thinking is to call for a new type of reflection that does not exclude the relevant moral contribution of religious ethics.

When he received the Holberg Price Award in Norway in 2005, Habermas addressed the need for a renewed respect for traditional Christian morality. He stated there are weaknesses and shortcomings in modern science’s ability to comprehend the equally important metaphysical dimension of human relations.

Traditional science distinguishes sharply between faith and knowledge and takes a naturalistic position that devalues all categories of knowledge that are not based on empiricism, natural laws and causal explanation. This singular emphasis on physical science makes it difficult for us to understand the complexity of the human spirit, he says. A more practical understanding of what it means to be an individual with responsibility for one’s actions is particularly essential.

We need a deeper understanding of the metaphysical dimension of human relations. Habermas doubts that a state that denies religion’s social influence can sufficiently motivate its citizens to empathy and solidarity.

In “The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion,” Pope Benedict XVI and Habermas assert the importance of religion not being isolated in the private sphere. Instead, respect for historical Western norms should be reinstated to curtail the trend of weakening solidarity and empathy. The West needs to gather moral strength from its historic origins. It is an urgently needed ideological shift.

Religious ethics have a role, a moral role, to play as the ethical foundation of society. Religious perspectives represent valuable contributions to strengthening the social community with a new sense of solidarity, kindness, unselfish acts and care for those who need it most. And it is rational to care; it is rational to seek moral foundations that can strengthen a culture in moral decay.

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