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Religion and Society

Why we Cannot Say that we are not Religious


Author: Hans Joas


Title: Do We Need Religion? On the Experience of Self-Trascendence


Publisher: Paradigm Publisher, 2008, pp. 176



Hans Joas, the Director of the Max-Weber-Kolleg für Kultur-und Sozialwissenschaftliche Studien at the University of Erfurt and Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, is currently Vice-President of the International Sociological Association. The volume Do We Need Religion?, which was published first in Germany and is now published in an English edition in the Yale Cultural Sociology Series, is a collection of homogenous essays brought together around three thematic cores that also make up the three parts around which the book is organised: The religious experience, Between Theology and Social Sciences, Human Dignity.


Engaging in dialogue with some of the most important contemporary social theorists, such as Peter Berger, Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, Joas tries to respond to the question on which the title of the book is based. I should say immediately that the answer of the author is in the affirmative: Yes, we still need religion.



However this is not the most original and interesting aspect of this volume. By now there are many of us who are prepared to accept that we live in a society in which religion is once again having a central role. Joas also asks himself whether in fact we live in what has been defined by Habermas as a ‘post-secular’ society and what this may mean. At first reading this phrase means a society in which it is recognised, despite the theses about the progressive and ineluctable secularisation of modernity, that religious communities continue to exist even in a secularised context. A second reading would indicate a change in attitude on the part of the state which is said to be prepared to recognise religion as having relevance not only in the private sphere but also in the public sphere. Joas expresses puzzlement about the utility of the phrase ‘post-secular’. First of all because the very notion of secularisation has many meanings and secondly because contemporary trends in religion are very complex and from certain points of view are also contradictory – one need only think here of the lasting crisis of Christianity in Europe and of its vitality in the United States of America. Joas organises his reflection on religion beginning with two fundamental categories: that of ‘experience’ and that of ‘need’. Because of a consolidated stereotype, the word ‘experience’ has been commonly associated with the Protestant Reformation.



Instead it should be recognised, as Joas does when referring to Taylor, that side by side with the communitarian and institutional dimension a certain emphasis on the experiential dimension of faith has been a constant in the Christian tradition and had its point of emergence in the high Middle Ages. To speak instead about ‘need’ does not involve seeing religion from the point of view of its (purported) utility. The crucial question should not be ‘is religion useful?’ but ‘can we live without a detailed experience in faith, in religion?’ (p. 7). Joas argues that there are experiences where the person transcends himself, where he is led beyond the boundaries of his own being. These experiences that the author analyses in this work are ecstatic fusion with nature, attentive conversation with other human beings, providing help and being helped, falling in love, and sexual relations (in which the experiences of fusion are achieved with another person and with the beauty of nature). Naturally, in human life these experiences can involve, in addition to the so-to-speak edifying side, also the dark side, which is represented by disappointment and precariousness. The experience of personal self-transcendence has as its counterpart the perception of one’s own finitude which generates a feeling of anxiety (which should not be seen as a merely psychological condition). Paraphrasing Paul Tillich, Joas argues that ‘a phenomenology of anxiety is a component of every phenomenology of self-transcendence’ (pp. 10-11). In this book, therefore, Joas, in inviting us to distrust simplistic readings about the return to religion, leads us to think about religion beginning with two cardinal realities, that of experience and that of need, which could be very fruitful as well for a rational and vigorous dialogue with cultural and religious traditions that are different from our own.