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What You Believe

An Interview about the Relationship between Belief and Science

Image: Thomas Roese
Photo :
Image: Thomas Roese

What is belief? – Is it religion? Or is it a conviction that can get its orientation from other values? Prof. Johann Hafner, a professor of religious studies, and philosopher Prof. Hans-Peter Krüger have tried to define the essence of belief for “Portal Wissen”.

Mr. Hafner, belief and religion are often used as synonyms? Are they?

HAFNER: Religion is commonly referred to as the objective cultural expression of believers. We might also describe belief as the religiousness of the individual. Only in Christianity did belief and religion become identical because it often functions as a confessional religion. This means that you represent a certain belief that is at the same time the content and form of religion. On the other hand, there are shamanistic religions that completely consist of rituals and not of religious creeds.

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

KRÜGER: In philosophy we extend the discussion about religion to a discussion about the religious. It is not bound to an objective institutionalized religion anymore. Of course, this is connected with the increasing individualizing of religious convictions in modern society, the process of secularization. In this respect, the religious and forms of belief meld. Belief, for example in nature and reason, does not have to be religious. I think this because all people enter into a relationship with an indefiniteness during their lives. You do not stand above your own way of living and can never completely rationalize it.  You therefore need an approach towards that which you might encounter in life as a whole, which always involves an element of belief, if you cannot fully rationalize it.

HAFNER: Indeed, there are also extreme positions within the Christian traditions, like the one of the theologian Karl Barth. He defined, “Religion is unbelief”. His contention was that people who want to be religious actually only do what everyone else would do, that is to mix some wise sayings or practices to better master their everyday problems. To him, religion is only an enhanced form of mastering life, in this case by spiritual means and thus the project of the profane and unbelieving. According to Barth, real faith means adopting a revelation made long ago and placing your life under the judgment of a higher authority. 

Is there a belief without religion?

HAFNER: I don’t think so. Just as a private language cannot exist because I need a social community from whom I can learn the grammar. A language intelligible to me alone would just be noises like “bli, bla, blu” and would not be a “language”. A belief independent of religious traditions could not be distinguished from poetry, arbitrariness or even madness.

KRÜGER: For me there are forms of belief that are not religious. However, I also understand them as collective forms of belief, for instance various forms of acceptance that nature as- a-whole transcends the human world. And there is also the recognition of transcendence in a nonreligious sense, in this case nature-as-transcendence. You can live that subjectively without necessarily understanding it as a religion. On the other hand, I think it is possible for religion to work without belief, but this would be rather superstition caught up in fetishes. We could continue with a big philosophical discussion about the premodern cultures of the Axial Age. Their common element was the introduction of an authority of judgment exceeding human life in the here and now. This can be reason, in the sense of a higher reason that Plato explained purely philosophically. However, it can be religious too in the way we know the world religions we are familiar with.

HAFNER: Perhaps it is the origin of the religious when people are required to take an observer’s position that is beyond their empirical biography, in other words not just to ask, “What is the here and now good for?”, but to ask, “What do I have to do to manage my life as a whole?” This is not an empirical but a transcendental act. Furthermore, the observation and assessment of ourselves must not happen according to criteria we give ourselves. Otherwise we arouse suspicion of mere self-assurance. To achieve this, religions use the terms God, Dharma, Law. An authority formulates criteria that regulate, calm or relieve my life.

Could we say that the difference between religious and philosophical belief is that the standards for philosophical belief are not fixed to the same extent as in religious belief?

KRÜGER: This is different when it comes to reason. There are closed systems, for instance the Platonic tradition, but there are also open concepts of reason, like the Aristotelian or Epicurean. This repeats itself in modern times. You find an open conception of reason with Kant. Agnosticism – acknowledging the unknowability of the thing itself – is also a gesture of stepping outside the hermeneutic circle. With Hegel we again have the absolute self-empowerment of reason in the system.

HAFNER: … which also exists in religion. There are religions that do not consider their traditions upon which they are grounded. They claim to go back to the original text and to read the “Holy Bible” and to pray the “True Gospel of God”. When someone disregards 2,000 years of church history and at the same time regards schisms, the alliances with philosophy or divorces from culture as irrelevant and goes back to an “uncontaminated origin” – namely the 150 pages of the New Testament or the Torah as allegedly written down by Moses – well, then this is a quite modern phenomenon, but we consider it pre-modern or fundamentalist. As there are open conceptions of reason, there are also open religions that accept the existence of an interpreting history of their own canonized texts, whether this is done by councils of the Orthodox, the magisterium of the Catholic or the sola fide of Protestant believers. The initial revelation is made more “fluid” by additional revelations for the respective period.

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

KRÜGER: This is a difficult question. I think when we determine whether something is religious, we have to consider the self-conception of those involved. In philosophies of reason there are functional equivalents to God in religion. But when they say to themselves: “We can explain philosophically, by dialectical forms of negation, how the last substance produced itself out of itself, and we do not need to believe in god for this”, it is a form of rationalization. I take such information seriously: “We do not understand ourselves as religious”.

HAFNER: I think what really unites us is that we discover cultures both in philosophy and in religion that use the concept of transcendence, i.e. something that exceeds human nature or a person…

KRÜGER: … these would be the axial cultures …

HAFNER: … yes. And this could be non-religious. But I think it is characteristic of the religious mindset when you say: The transcendence is not only a higher logic, like a universal law that is true and takes place in an adamant logic but that it contains a tendency towards the better. The religious trust that this universal law, this transcendence pursues the good. Then I can worship it. Religions believe that this higher reason has an interest in them and that the broken and unfinished will be healed and made complete. In my opinion, this is the religious added value over metaphysics.

KRÜGER: Yes, this is true when we speak about the world religions that emerged from the axial cultures. They all follow the model of a personal alliance. In other words, the logos becomes personal-ized into a god, and there is an alliance between the believers and god. This tips the scales toward the good. Such a certainty does not exist in philosophy. 

What about the gods of the Greek myths? They did not only want good things for the people…

HAFNER: This is correct. For the most part, the gods in the Hesiodic, Homeric and later in the Roman pantheon are immoral. This is exactly why it was assumed that there is a law that keeps the struggles and generations of gods together or punishes them. It is something that bothered the Greek and Roman religions: Tyche, Fortuna, Fate. This was anonymous, however. Anyway, these immoral stories were a sore spot for Greek philosophers. They either commented on them ironically or interpreted them allegorically.

Today the difference between philosophical and religious belief has again been eroded…

HAFNER: Well, I would even say a major part of philosophy is religion. Plato, Hegel – these are all religious undertakings. Aristotle …

KRÜGER: … Well, this goes too far for me, of course. We could probably say that there was a religious dimension … 

HAFNER: Perhaps, I’ll dare to give a basal definition: Religion is everything when and where people anticipate the existence of a second world. Simply put: A second world that reflects our world, incorporates ours, corrects and unsettles it. The presence of any gods plays no role in the first place, but this world leads to our uncertainty because we perceive ourselves in our contingency.

KRÜGER: This again is the core of all axial cultures and not the specific nature of religion. The same is possible when you proceed from cosmos and logos, the uncertainty of earthly and human life. I think the main difference is something else. Religions really need a liturgy, a sensualaesthetic practice. They need a church service, and philosophers do not. They need an academy where they can discuss and where they can hold their symposia. An aesthetic church service with a strict liturgy that establishes assurance of faith and feelings of security in this world would not be necessary. I think this is a behavioral exercise, this whole liturgy that we do not have in philosophy because there you have to remain open for a dialogue. This is a different culture. In this way you are also able to question more than in religion. In this respect there has always been a conflict between philosophy and religion. Theologians did not like Hegel because he rationalized away their theology …

HAFNER: Stop! Hegel said: Any kind of philosophy is religion because it expresses the speculative …

KRÜGER: Yes … Religion is the lowest form. It is the most sensual form of reason for the masses. This is the bridge. Philosophy provides the complete rationalization of the absolute. It no longer needs a liturgy. It needs the university, the reformed university of the Humboldtian model that we have abolished throughout Germany but that was copied worldwide from the USA to Japan. This was Hegel’s message. 

Mr. Krüger, religion and philosophy have been interwoven throughout history. How and why did they separate?

KRÜGER: The main difference lies in the fact that there is a sensual and emotional practice in religion guaranteeing the certainty of faith while philosophy is always connected to discursive procedures containing a high potential of negation and are thus unstable. This difference has developed historically.

Why did this philosophical way of thinking and living come into being in the first place?

KRÜGER: The axial cultures came into being in conflict zones of different societies and cultures where war had been waged and people had migrated for centuries. This means that the Greek city-states had trade and war relations with the whole world and could make cultural comparisons. This leads to cultural and technical developments but also to philosophical ones. Religion emerged out of similar conflictual situations, for example in Judaism with the Exodus out of Egypt. These conflicts were about life and death. There was also the question of how to establish a long-term life perspective for one’s own group. 

What is the task of philosophy today? Does it give a completely different life orientation to people than religion?

KRÜGER: I think philosophy and religion still have commonalities. Philosophy also wants to gain a long-term perspective about how we fit into the cosmos and the necessary pre-conditions for this. This is the commonality – to go beyond the here and now. However, philosophy constructs it with discursive means. A central issue is the discussion of empirical science, cultural studies and social sciences. 

Mr. Hafner, what do you think of religion?

HAFNER: [laughs] Well, you have to address me more exactly. Are you asking the professor of religious studies, the deacon or the private person? I am a practicing Catholic. I am a layman who attends church services as well as someonewho ministers, a deacon of ten years who prays, marries and buries..

Has your religious affiliation ever been of any relevance during your academic career?

HAFNER: No, it hasn’t. When I was appointed I had not yet become a deacon. A special aspect of the professorship is that it deals with religious studies concentrating on Christianity and overrides the usual division of labor in Germany, i.e. that scholars of religion mainly deal with non-European and esoteric aspects and theologians with Christianity. Here they said they needed someone who could contribute an external perspective on Christianity without being exclusively committed to theology. At the same time the person was supposed to have “rubbed shoulders” with Christianity and would be able to present the Christian religious traditions from inside.

What role does your belief play for your work as an academic?

HAFNER: Well, I studied theology, did my doctorate in philosophy and habilitated in religious sociology. It was a stroll through different disciplines. I have never left the church, which sometimes seems likely when you get to know more about church history. I originally wanted to become a priest...

… but?

Then I met my wife, and this issue was settled quickly.

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

HAFNER: Others have to judge whether one of my roles contaminates another. As an academic, I look at an issue, e.g. “Messiah”, “Pilgrimage” and so on, and then always put something non-European beside it in my lectures to show there are religions that solve the same problem differently or a different problem similarly. This means there is always a fixed initial point, Christianity, from which I examine other religions. There is, however, a trend toward a general religious theory, in which other religions form only a part. This does not mean that I integrate other religions into Christianity but realize that Christianity is part of a bigger religious history. The longer I read and teach, the more I understand that there are some basic problems all religions deal with again and again: the problem of irreversibility, no matter whether it is of life, death, of our actions or guilt.

And does this not shake or relativize your faith?

HAFNER: If tomorrow I found a religion more logical than the Christian one, I would convert immediately. This is completely clear to me.

KRÜGER: There is nothing more logical than Catholicism. At least he can say this very calmly.

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

KRÜGER: I was brought up in an Evangelical family and received an atheist education at school. Since high school the solution of this conflict for me has been Herder, Lessing, and Jacobi: Pantheism. Deus sive natura. When you have read these three you are often surprised about the conflicts between atheists and Christians. Like in Lessing’s Nathan the Wise you keep your distance and say that the ring distinguishing one religion does not exist anyway. The competition between the various religions for better human existence is the most important. I am still a pantheist today. When travelling to China or Japan, though, I have been slightly disturbed by Zen Buddhism. I had to realize that I am already a bit too old to adopt a new form of religion. I am mentally not as well structured as Mr. Hafner. I could not play a second role in practice. I would confuse it with my role as a philosopher.

It is said that the motor of philosophy is doubt. Mr. Krüger, aren’t you sometimes afflicted by the fact that basically everything can become uncertain for a philosopher?

KRÜGER: No, because I think that uncertainty can also contain an opportunity. I try to open all forms of negativity and keep them free from one-sided assessment. Uncertainty, the infinite, the unconditional are negative determinations that you can neutralize. This is something religion cannot do because it wants to give security. In philosophy you have to neutralize and uncover phenomena and structures indiscriminately against a one-sided attachment to values. So there is first a curiosity for knowledge and recklessness with regard to our own life. In philosophy you have to question, to challenge everything, even things society takes for granted, like your country’s constitution.

What does it mean for you that we live in a secular state with a separation of religion and politics? Should and can the state remain a neutral mediator between religions and between believers and atheists?

HAFNER: I would say the secular state is a great blessing – if I may use that word – for religions. Only through it did religions become especially devout. Religions had only ever been intertwined with other subsystems. They had to legitimize power or operated educational institutions and hospitals. Modern societies have taken over these functions, and religions can now concentrate on what they and the churches actually should be doing, namely dealing with the great irreversibilities – guilt and death – and their flipsides – the victims of crimes and the question of life after death. That cannot be delegated. The religious are persistently asked these questions.

KRÜGER: I regard the separation of church and state also as an evolutionary achievement. Of course, there are follow-up problems. In Europe the separation has been understood as if the state should act atheistically, whereas in the US there has always been a fusion of religion and politics. Secularization was not supposed to mean privileging an atheistic worldview. We need a public exchange between the religious and non-religious and not a hidden – and in our case-atheistic worldview. Political life should be accordingly diverse. 

Mr. Krüger, if the various religious and non-religious belief systems increase, would we have to prepare ourselves for an increase in societal conflict?

KRÜGER: I think bringing two aspects together is difficult for every group: living out one’s conviction in any kind of collective form, while recognizing that a pluralistic society permits various beliefs and is always generating new ones. It was still thought during the ideological conflicts of the 20th century that some social or economic revolution could change society in such a way that everyone’s worldview would be consistent. Worldwide we basically experience a rather intensive continuation of the processes of individualization and pluralization. This mean we should be eager to learn about new and foreign belief systems.

HAFNER: I very much hope that pluralization will also lead to a civilizing of religions. It is becoming increasingly difficult for religions to move and operate only in their own Lebenswelt. When these milieus crack, they see that they are only one persuasion among others, which initially leads to conflict and resentment. In the long run, though, this has led in modern times to an unwavering set of beliefs on the one hand – people counterfactually hold onto that which they believe and withdraw into themselves – but on the other we see that religions band together when it comes to certain questions. This is not necessarily in the questions of high theology but rather in practical concerns, like how to deal with the environment, how to maintain peace, how to fend off the excessive demands of meritocracy, how to develop generational responsibility. This is where religions are increasingly engaging in dialog.

The Scientist

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


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Jüdische Studien und Religionswissenschaft
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
E-Mail: hafneruni-potsdamde

Prof. Hans-Peter Krüger studied philosophy at the Berlin Humboldt University. Since 1996 he has been a professor of practical philosophy and political philosophy at the University of Potsdam.


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Philosophie
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam

The Interview was conducted by Dr. Sophia Rost and Matthias Zimmermann, Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa, Translation: Susanne Voigt