Believe that we completely own ourselves

What you believe

A conversation about the relationship between faith and science

What is belief - religion? Or a conviction that can also be based on other values? The religious scholar Prof. Dr. Johann Hafner and the philosopher Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Krüger tried to define the essence of faith for the “Portal Wissen”.

Mr. Hafner, faith and religion are often used synonymously. Is it you?

HAFNER: Religion is commonly defined as the objective cultural expressions of believers. In this regard, belief could perhaps be described as the religiosity of the individual. It is only in the Christian religion that belief and religion have become identical, because Christianity appears primarily as a denominational religion. So: You represent a certain belief, which at the same time represents the religion. On the other hand, there are shamanistic religions that consist entirely of practical rituals and not of religious beliefs.

Mr. Krüger, as a philosopher would you define faith differently?

KRÜGER: In philosophy we have an extension of the religious discussion to the discussion of the religious. It is then no longer tied to an objectively institutionalized religion. This, of course, has to do with the individualization of religious beliefs in modern society, the process of secularization. In this respect, the religious and the forms of belief become blurred. Belief, for example in nature and reason, does not have to be religious. I believe this is due to the fact that all people in life relate to an indeterminacy. You are not above your own way of life, you can never completely rationalize it. In this respect, one needs an attitude towards what one encounters in life as a whole - and that, if one cannot rationalize it completely, always has a component of belief.

HAFNER: In fact, there are extreme positions even within the Christian tradition, such as that of the theologian Karl Barth. He defined: "Religion is unbelief," which is the exact opposite. He said that people who want to be religious are actually just repeating what all people do, namely mixing together some wisdom or practices in order to better cope with their problematic everyday life. In his eyes religion is only an increased form of coping with life, this time only with spiritual means - and thus the project of godless, unbelieving people. According to Barth, on the other hand, belief is that one accepts a revelation that has long been given and places one's life under the judgment of a higher observer.

Is there a belief without religion?

HAFNER: I don't think so. Just as there cannot be a private language because I need a social community from which I can learn grammar. A language that only I understand would be the sound “bli, bla, blu” and would no longer fall under our concept of language. A belief that is independent of the religious traditions of the world would be indistinguishable from poetry, arbitrariness or even madness.

KRÜGER: For me there are beliefs that are not religious. But of course I also understand these as collective forms of belief. For example different forms of acceptance that nature as a whole points beyond the human world. Then there is also the recognition of transcendence in a non-worldly religious sense, in this case nature as transcendence. And that can be lived subjectively without having to understand it as a religion. Conversely, I also think it is possible that religion works without belief. But that would certainly be after-religion, which is completely frozen in fetishes. This can be followed by a great philosophical debate: about the premodern axis cultures. What they had in common was that they introduced a judicial body that transcends human life here and now. And that can be reason, in the sign of a higher reason, which in Plato is then justified purely philosophically. But it can also be religious, as we know it in the sense of the world religions with which we are familiar.

HAFNER: That is perhaps the origin of the religious in general, that the believers are required to adopt an observer standpoint that lies beyond their empirical biography. So not just to ask: “What is the here and now good for?”, But to ask: “What do I have to do so that my life as a whole succeeds?” This is not an empirical, but a transcendental act. In addition: observation and judgment of ourselves must not be based on criteria that we give ourselves. Otherwise we suspect self-reassurance. For this, religions use the term God or Dharma, law. There, criteria are formulated by an authority that straighten, calm down or relieve my life.

Could it be said that a difference between religious and philosophical beliefs is that in philosophical belief the standards are not as fixed as in religious belief?

KRÜGER: That is quite different in the case of reason. There are closed system buildings, such as the Platonic tradition. But there are just as open conceptions of reason as we find in Aristotle or in the Epicurean tradition. And that is repeated in the modern age. In Kant one finds an open conception of reason. Agnosticism - that is, the recognition of the unknowability of the thing itself - is also a gesture to step out of the hermeneutic self-circle. With Hegel there is again an absolute self-empowerment of reason in the system.

HAFNER: ... in religion there is that too. There are religions that ignore the traditions that have arisen since they were founded. They say: We go back to the original text, take “The Holy Bible” and preach “the True Gospel of God”. If someone skips 2,000 years of church history and regards the divisions, the weddings with philosophy or divorces with culture as irrelevant and jumps back to a supposedly uncontaminated origin - i.e. the 150 pages of the New Testament or the Torah as Moses supposedly wrote them down, interprets - then this is a very modern phenomenon, but we perceive it as premodern or fundamentalist. And just as there are open conceptions of reason, there are also open religions that accept that there is a history of interpretation of their own canonized texts. Be it through councils in the Orthodox, through the teaching office in the Catholic or the confessions in the Protestant Church. The first revelation is always made "liquid" by additional revelations for use in the respective time.

Mr. Krüger, what is the difference between the belief in reason you described and the religious belief outlined by Mr. Hafner?

KRÜGER: Difficult question. I believe that when determining whether something is religious or not, one has to take into account the self-image of those involved. There are functional equivalents to God in religion in the philosophies of reason. But if they themselves say: We can explain philosophically, through dialectical forms of negation, how the ultimate substance is produced out of itself and we do not need a belief in God for this, then that is a form of rationalization. And then I take the information seriously: "We see ourselves as not religious."

HAFNER: I think what really unites us is that we discover cultures in philosophy and religion that reckon with transcendence, i.e. something that transcends human nature or the person ...

KRÜGER: ... that would be the axis cultures ...

HAFNER: … Yes. And that can also be non-religious. In my opinion, however, it is particularly religious to say: Transcendence is not only a higher logic, like a world law that is true and is carried out in an iron logic, but that it also has a tendency towards the good. Religious people trust that this universal law, this transcendence, also pursues the good. Only then can I adore it. Religions believe that this higher reason has something to do with them and that what is uncompleted here leads to good. In my opinion, this is the religious added value beyond metaphysics.

KRÜGER: Yes, that's true when we talk about the world religions that emerged from the Axis cultures. They all have the model of the personal union. That is, the Logos is personalized to a God and there is a covenant between the believer and God. And that's what makes the difference. There is no such security in philosophy.

What about the gods of Greek myths? They didn't just want good things for people ...

HAFNER: That's right. The gods in the Hesiodic, Homeric, and then later in the Roman pantheon are largely immoral. And precisely for this reason, which has always been a concern of the Greek and Roman religions, a law was always suspected that holds the battles and generations of gods together or punishes them: Tyche, Fortuna, Fatum. But that was anonymous. In any case, these immoral stories were a thorn in the side of the Greek philosophers, they were either commented on ironically or interpreted allegorically.

Now the difference between philosophical and religious belief has melted down again ...

HAFNER: Well, I would even go as far as to say: a large part of philosophy is religion. Plato, Hegel, they are all religious undertakings. Aristotle ...

KRÜGER: ... well, that's going too far for me, of course. You could perhaps say that there is a religious dimension to them ...

HAFNER: I'll just venture a basic definition: religion is everything that people expect there to be a second world. Simply put. A second world in which ours is reflected, which then absorbs ours, which corrects ours, unsettles. Whether or not there are gods in it does not matter at first. But this world leads to our insecurity in that we perceive ourselves in our contingency.

KRÜGER: But that is now the core of all axis cultures again - and not the specifics of religion. The same goes for the cosmos and the logos, the uncertainty of earthly and human life. I think the main difference is something else: the religions really need a liturgy, a sensual-aesthetic practice. You need a church service. And philosophers don't need that. They also need an academy where they can discuss, where they can hold their symposium. But there would be no need for an aesthetic worship service with a strict liturgy, which then creates the certainty of faith that one is safe in this world. That is, I think, an emotional behavioral exercise, the whole liturgy that we don't have in philosophy. Because you have to remain open to conversation. It's a different culture. As a result, more can be questioned than in religion. So there has always been a conflict between philosophy and religion. And the theologians didn't like Hegel because he rationalized theology away from them ...

HAFNER: Stop! Hegel said: All philosophy is religion because it expresses the speculative ...

KRÜGER: Yes ... religion is of course the lowest form. It is the sensual form of reason available to the masses. This is the bridge. Philosophy achieves the complete rationalization of the absolute. She no longer needs a liturgy for this. It needs the university, namely the Humboldt Reform University, which we have abolished nationwide in Germany - but which has been copied worldwide from the USA to Japan. That was the message from Hegel.

Mr. Krüger, religion and philosophy have long been intertwined in history. How and why did they break up?

KRÜGER: The main difference is that in religion there is a sensual and emotional practice that guarantees the security of belief, while philosophy is always bound to discursive procedures that have a high potential for negation and are therefore unstable. This difference has only developed historically.

Why did this philosophical way of thinking and living come about at all?

KRÜGER: The Axis cultures arose in the conflict zones, where different societies and cultures met through centuries of warfare and migrations. That is, the Greek city-states had trade and war ties with the whole world and cultural comparisons could be made. That has led to a lot of science and technology, but also to philosophy. And religion arose out of similar conflict situations - for example in Judaism with the migration from Egypt. The conflicts were life and death. And then there was the question of how one can even gain a long-term perspective on life for one's own group.

What is the task of philosophy today? Does it orient people's lives in a fundamentally different way than religion?

KRÜGER: I think there is still something in common between philosophy and religion: Philosophy, too, wants to gain a long-term perspective on how we fit into the cosmos and what conditions have to be created for this. This is what they have in common: to go beyond the here and now. But in philosophy this is constructed with discursive means. A central question is how to deal with empirical, cultural and social sciences.

Mr. Hafner, how do you feel about religion?

HAFNER: [Laughs] Now you have to address me precisely. Do you ask the professor of religious studies, the deacon or the private citizen? I am a practicing Catholic, both as a lay person and worshiper and as someone who holds services - as a deacon, for ten years now, who preaches, married, buried.

Has your religious affiliation ever been relevant in your career as a scientist? 

HAFNER: No, at the time of my call I was not a deacon at all. But it is anyway the specialty of the professorship that it conducts religious studies with a focus on Christianity and thus abolishes the usual division of labor in Germany, that religious scholars mainly deal with non-European and esoteric issues and the theologians with Christianity. And here it was said: We need someone who brings an external perspective on Christianity without being limited to theology, but who at the same time has the “stable odor” of Christianity and who can portray religious Christian traditions from within.

What role does your faith play in your work as a scientist?

HAFNER: Well, I studied theology, did my doctorate in philosophy, and then did my habilitation in the sociology of religion. In this respect, it has been such a change through the various disciplines. And I never left the church, which is obvious when you know the history of the church better. Originally I even wanted to be a priest ...

… but?

Then I met my wife, and the subject was quickly dealt with.

Mr. Hafner, you are a scientist and a Catholic. Do you sometimes stand in your own way, for example when reading Catholic texts critically?

HAFNER: It is ultimately up to others to judge whether my roles are contaminated by each other. As a scientist, I look at an object, for example “Messiah”, “Pilgrimage” or the like and then always add something extra-European next to it in the lecture so that one can see: There are religions that have the same problem differently or other problems similar to solve. That means: I always have a set starting point, Christianity, and from there I look at other religions. But the tendency is towards a general theory of religion in which other religions are only part of it. This does not mean that I build other religions into Christianity, but that I state that Christianity is part of a larger religious history. And the longer I read and teach, the more I realize that there are a few basic problems that all religions deal with time and again: the problem of irreversibility, be it of life, death or action, or that of Fault.

And that doesn't shake or relativize your belief?

HAFNER: If I found a religion tomorrow that was more logical than the Christian one, I would switch to it immediately. It is very clear to me.

KRÜGER: There is nothing more logical than Catholicism. In this respect, he can say that quite calmly.

And you, Mr. Krüger, what do you believe in?

KRÜGER: My family brought me up as a Protestant and I received an atheist education at school. Since my high school days, the solution to this conflict has been - Herder, Lessing, Jacobi: pantheism. Deus sive natura. After reading the three, one always wonders about the conflicts between atheists and Christians.Instead, as in Lessing's Nathan, you keep your distance and say to yourself that the ring that distinguished any religion probably didn't exist anyway. The most important thing is the competition between the different religions for better human existence. And I'm still a pantheist today. Only when I was traveling to China and Japan was I a little unsettled by Zen Buddhism. But I had to find out that I am already too old to take on a new form of religion. I am not as well structured psychologically as Mr. Hafner. I could not play a second role practically, then I would get confused with that as a philosopher.

It is said that the engine of philosophy is doubt. Don't you sometimes suffer from the fact that, as a philosopher, everything can become uncertain for you, Mr Krüger?

KRÜGER: No, because I think that the uncertainty can also contain an opportunity. I try to open all forms of negativity and keep them free from a one-sided evaluation. Uncertainty, the infinite, the unconditional - these are initially negative determinations that can be neutralized, which religion cannot because it wants to provide security. But in philosophy one has to neutralize and uncover the phenomena and structures ruthlessly against a one-sided binding of values. In this respect, there is first of all a curiosity for knowledge and a lack of consideration for one's own life. In philosophy you have to question everything, ultimately also social implications, such as the constitution of your own country.

What does it mean for you that we live in a secular state in which religion and politics are separated from each other? Should and can the state be neutral as a mediator between religions and between religious and atheists?

HAFNER: I would say the secular state is a great blessing, if I may use the word, for the religions. Because it was because of this that religions first became religious. Otherwise religions were always intertwined with other subsystems. They had to legitimize power or ran the education and hospital system. Modern societies have all taken over these functions themselves, and religion can concentrate on what it or the church should actually do: namely dealing with the great irreversibilities, guilt and death and their downsides, the victims of atrocities and the question after living on. You won't be able to delegate that. These are the remaining questions that the religious are always asked.

KRÜGER: I also consider the separation of church and state to be an evolutionary achievement. But of course there are follow-up problems. In Europe, the separation has been understood as if the state had to act atheistically. While in the USA there has always been an amalgamation between religion and politics. Secularization should not mean the privilege of the atheistic worldview. We need an exchange in public between all religious and non-religious forms of worldview and not a hidden and in our case atheistic worldview. Political life should be accordingly diverse.

Mr. Krüger, if the different religious and non-religious forms of belief increase, do we have to adjust to an increase in social conflicts?

KRÜGER: I think it is difficult for any group to bring two aspects together: on the one hand, to live out one's own convictions in some collective form and at the same time to recognize that the pluralistic society allows many other and foreign forms of belief and also generates them again and again. In the ideological conflicts of the 20th century, it was still thought that one could change society through any social or economic revolution in such a way that everyone then agrees on an ideological level. The basic experience worldwide now is that we have a very intensive continuation of the processes of individualization and pluralization. That means, one should be curious about other and foreign forms of belief.

HAFNER: I have great hope that pluralization will also lead to the civilization of religions. It is becoming more and more difficult for religions to move only in their own living environment. These milieus are all breaking up and through this they see that they are only one faith among others. Then there is initially a conflict and resentment. In the long run, on the one hand there is a fixed conviction in modernity - people hold on to what they believe counterfactually and withdraw from it - but on the other hand you can also see that religions ally with one another on certain issues. Not necessarily in the high theological questions, but in practical issues, such as how we should deal with the environment, how peace can be preserved, how one can ward off excessive demands in a competitive society, how one can develop generational responsibility. Here religions will enter into dialogue with one another more strongly.

The scientists

Prof. Dr. Johann Hafner studied philosophy and theology in Augsburg, Munich and Vigan / Philippines. Since 2004 he has been professor for religious studies with a focus on Christianity at the University of Potsdam.


University of Potsdam
Institute for Jewish Studies and Religious Studies
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: hafneruni-potsdamde

Prof. Dr. Hans-Peter Kruger studied philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Since 1996 he has been Professor of Practical Philosophy / Political Philosophy at the University of Potsdam.


University of Potsdam
Institute for Philosophy
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: krueghpuni-potsdamde

The questions asked by Dr. Sophia Rost and Matthias Zimmermann, put online: Agnes Bressa