The varieties of Enlightenment

The varieties of Enlightenment

Posted by Manchester University Press - Monday, 3 Sep 2012


Pope Benedict XVI, Jürgen Habermas, and
the ‘cognitive substance’ of religion



The period known as ‘The Enlightenment’ is usually taken to have ushered in an intensely secular phase of modernity, in which faith in religion was displaced by a naturalistic, scientific approach to life and living.

However, whereas latter day proponents of Enlightenment, such as Richard Dawkins, tend to place science and reason on one side against religious faith and authority on the other, such an opposition was not one shared by many of the key Enlightenment thinkers. One need only mention the deism of the likes of Voltaire and Jefferson. Rather than an attack on religious faith, Enlightenment thinkers tended more towards a questioning of religious authority. A key element of deist thinking was that God could be known by rational, and perhaps even scientific, means. Voltaire was adamant in his denunciation of religious authority, but advocated a rationally justified belief in God.


What the Enlightenment insisted on was not so much scientific materialism — although this tendency was very much present in thinkers such as La Mettrie — but rather on the public presentation of good reasons for any belief whatsoeverwhether that of church, science, state, or tradition.

It is the materialist, mechanistic strand of Enlightenment thinking that has drawn the greatest fire but also the most passionate support. However, simply to divide the legacy of the Enlightenment into a materialist, scientific rationalism on the one hand, as opposed to a religious obscurantism on the other is to ignore the varieties of Enlightenment thinking that not only existed historically but which still promise a creative engagement between science, reason, and religion.

The Enlightenment project of scientific, universal rationality has also had its fair share of non-religious critics. Theodore Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, of Frankfurt school fame, argued, variously, that science was a form of instrumental (or means-ends) rationality that had its roots in the philosophy of Francis Bacon. For Bacon, the acquisition of knowledge about the natural order was intimately connected to increasing our power to control nature — nature’s secrets were to be wrested from it in order that we might make it our servant. Their charge against the Enlightenment was that it brought about a new historical form of scientific social domination. Once human beings were seen as the creations of nature alone then a Baconian imperative of domination through scientific knowledge would follow. Furthermore, economic life became the domain in which the domination of scientific rationality was realised and justified: human-beings became enmeshed in a system of thingsin which they also became a thing.

The Frankfurt school philosopher Jürgen Habermas has attempted to develop the anti-authoritarian social and political role of reason, inherited from Enlightenment thought, whilst overcoming the instrumental use of science as a means of dominating human-beings. As an advocate of rational secular interests, it is significant then that Habermas has recently engaged with Pope Benedict XVI in dialogue — they are the co-authors of short book titled ‘The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion’. For Habermas, not only is a rapproachment between rationality and religion feasible, but furthermore he uses the evocative phrase ‘the cognitive substance of religion is not yet exhausted’.


Whilst Habermas argues that the constitutional basis of the state must be grounded in public, secular processes of rational deliberation, he also argues that,


When secularized citizens act in their role as citizens of the state, they must not deny in principle that religious images of the world have the potential to express truth. Nor must they refuse their believing fellow citizens the right to make contributions in a religious language to public debates.


It seems that Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI are seeking, through such public dialogue, to find a way beyond the increasingly stagnant debates between scientific, materialist conceptions of reason and those of faith that are offered without rational warrant.


 But what of the ‘cognitive substance’ of which Habermas speaks?


One might suggest that the cognitive substance of religion is expressed through, at least, three aspects: the ethical, the intangible value of religious signs, and the concept of God — this latter without reference, necessarily, to arguments about whether God exists or not. Given that the ethical is a well-trodden path in both secular and religious contexts, let’s concentrate on these other two aspects.


The intangible value of religious signs. Whereas it is easy to see the value of tangible things such as everyday objects, it is much harder to understand the value of intangible signs such as images, words, and rituals. One might say that whereas the value of tangible things may be exhausted — the value of food is exhausted once it is eaten and digested — the value of certain intangible signs appears to increase the more they are used, and seems to be inexhaustible.


Religious imagery is an example of inexhaustible, intangible value. Think of the image of the risen Christ from Grünewald’s Isenheim alterpiece. The exact meaning of this image is hard to pin down. However, in attempting to grasp its meaning it continues to evoke not only further thought but also a sense of the numinous. It stimulates cognitive effort whilst also shaping that effort — but we are never done with it.

The cloaking of religious thought and experience in artistic form tells us a great deal about the particularity of religions and their cultural background. In practice, religious images, words, and rituals are interwoven with other aspects of cultural life – think, for example, of the great many people who carry and use rosary beads. It is the particularity of religious images, such as Grünewald’s, that provoke the mental effort that in turn generates cognitive value or substance. In attempting to make this value explicit we are in the realm both of reason (cognition) and religion (the numinous).

The concept of God. A great deal of effort has been expended by both religious and non-religious thinkers to determine whether we ought to believe that God exists or not. The question of whether there is evidence or not for the existence of God, what might constitute such evidence, whether this is a matter of faith, or rational inquiry, or is open to scientific investigation, are all questions that have been deeply debated. However, one might consider the conceptof God in distinction to the question of whether God does or does not exist. That is, not as a matter of faith or belief, but rather as a wider question concerning concept acquisition and use.


In thinking about God, one also thinks about a great many other things. One might ask, for example, what God would have to be like in order to possess powers such as omniscience or omnipotence. But then one must conceptualise the nature of omniscience. What does omniscience actually entail? And if such a power is available to God, how does God know all things at once? Further questions such as the relation between time, knowing and causation immediately arise. The theologians of old asked such questions within a faith-based context. However, if we bring both philosophical and scientific reasoning to our questions, we may then think about our concepts of knowledge and time, and so on, relative to our concept of God. We do not have to believe in God as such, to find the deployment of the concept of God of great cognitive value.


Following such a conceptualist approach, reason, science, and religion are taken then to be complementary aspects of a broader search for Enlightenment. Pope Benedict XVI and Jürgen Habermas seem to propose that such a variety of Enlightenment thinking has an intellectual force and a cultural value that is consonant with both religious and secular interests. The cognitive substance of religion is not yet exhausted because reason is still not done with it.

Shivdeep Singh Grewal is the author of Habermas and European integration, which was recently published by Manchester University Press. Until the end of October 2012, MUP blog readers can purchase a copy of Grewal’s title with at a special 15% discount.  Simply contact our distributors on +44 (0)1752 202301, or [email protected], quoting the discount code OTH304.

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