Whereas Samuel Moyn has argued that human rights represent the last utopia, sociologist Hans Joas suggests that the modern history of human rights represents a critical alternative to the common theory of secularization understood as
- human rights
- Max Weber
- Hans Joas
The sociologist Hans Joas argues in
His argument follows along historical trajectories similar to Samuel Moyn’s analysis of human rights as the last utopia (Moyn 2010), yet within a different theoretical framework. Setting out from Durkheim’s understanding of the social construction of a sacred space, Joas undertakes a detailed and critical analysis of Weber’s theory of secularization as disenchantment of the world. He points out that the idea that religion will gradually disappear in the modern society is a narrative based on Weber’s contemporary situation, yet with extremely poor historical basis. Joas has previously discussed the term “post-secular” condition as defined by Habermas (2001) and argued that there was never such a thing as a merely secular society (Joas 2004). In his most recent book, we are offered a more complex but also a more balanced theory of secularization and re-sacralization as an alternative to Max Weber’s theory of disenchantment. The article presents and discusses the theoretical background of Joas’s argument, formulated in earlier publications such as
In a recent article on sacralization and desacralization, Hans Joas has questioned the traditional understanding of secularization as “disenchantment” (Joas 2019, 17-18). Moreover, his latest book on the power of the sacred (forthcoming 2020 in English) gives a more detailed argument of his critique of Weber (Joas 2017, 201-77). The concept was coined by Max Weber and used in order to describe a long historical development toward a more natural and secular understanding of the world, from the prophets of the Old Testament up to the modern critique of religion. However, Joas takes issue with the description of a one-way development toward a secular modern world, when it comes to religion as well as politics. On the one hand, Europe has seen a significant decrease in religious observance (often referred to as “secularization”), but morality has not collapsed although Christianity lost influence and authority – hence, the apologetics were not right in their fears and prophesies. On the other hand, he writes,
[…] nonbelievers and critics of religion must now relinquish the supposed certainty that religion is historically outmoded and the corresponding notion that believers are backward, that existing forms of religious life are mere remnants, and that in their lack of faith they themselves represent the cutting edge of world-historical progress. (Joas 2019, 19)
Morality is a key issue in Joas’s argument, but his main point is that religion is neither specifically outdated nor irrational compared to other life-views such as atheism. Moreover, whereas political leaders have often tried to make religion instrumental for dominion and moral control, he argues that religious movements such as the prophets in the Old Testament have often been proponents of secularization in the sense of a stronger separation between the rulers and religious authority (Joas 2019, 26).
In his book on the power of the sacred, Joas ventures to give a detailed analysis of all the texts where Weber applies the concept of disenchantment. Based on a comprehensive reading of Weber, Joas concludes that his notion of disenchantment is neither accurate nor appropriate as a description of historical processes. He argues that the term “disenchantment” as applied by Weber sometimes means “de-magification” [
In an incredibly suggestive way, Weber has combined events in the narrative of disenchantment that run from the prophets of the Old Testament via the Reformation and the Enlightenment up to the crisis of meaning in Europe during the so-called
In the last sentence, Joas reveals his own
If we look back at the early modern period in Europe, there was a similar ambiguity in relation to processes of modernization (Lehmann 2007). The period after the Reformation was hardly marked by any decrease in religious observance and influence. It was a period of religious transformation and consolidation within the emerging confessions. The confessional characteristics and doctrines became strong identity markers between groups and nations, with influence on political ideals, mentality, and jurisdiction, and the subsequent centuries gave numerous examples of suppression and persecution of religious minorities, and wars along confessional lines of division (Lehmann 2007, 97). Weber was obsessed with the thought that such differences in mentality could explain the emerging capitalism, but his broad historical hypothesis also included references to the even broader narrative of disenchantment (Joas 2017, 233). However, there are hardly any examples of straightforward or one-way processes with respect to secularization or (re-) sacralization. Such processes are always intertwined with other deep structures of historical development, and thus, Joas has a good case when he rejects the broad disenchantment narrative of Max Weber.
Weber’s argument on Protestantism and Capitalism focuses first of all on the rejection of magical explanations in favor of more rational thinking. A peculiar aspect of his argument is that the Catholics are presented as superstitious because they believe in the
Another aspect of Weber’s disenchantment narrative is the change of focus from transcendent causation and divine interventions – including divine wrath and revenge – toward inner-worldly causation and explanations of victory and military defeat. Weber identifies such changes as early as by the prophets of Israel, in contrast to the Chinese Confucians. This argument is apparently also based on Weber’s contemporary situation, with Capitalism flourishing in Europe and the United States (but not in China at the time), rather than on any deep historical structures and tendencies. This observation reflects a key objection from Joas: the whole narrative of disenchantment fits all too well with Weber’s normative agenda. The early 20th century is obsessed with political and spiritual secularization, and Weber adopts the narrative as an irrefutable straw man argument in favor of his contemporary sociological observations.
Hans Joas, by contrast, claims that there is hardly any empirical evidence that the world has become
A society can neither create itself nor recreate itself without at the same time creating the ideal. This creation is not a kind of optional step, a finishing touch that society adds once it has been formed; it is the act by which it fashions and refashions itself periodically […] The ideal society is not outside the real society; it is part of it. (Durkheim 2008, 317)
In order to rebut Weber’s narrative of disenchantment, Joas thus turns to another classic of sociology. He argues in favor of a Durkheimian understanding of sacredness and sacralization. Following this line of thought, any society would be in the process of producing the symbols and images of the ideal society
This understanding of the sacred and sacralization as an idealization of collective experiences is one of the reasons why he rejects Weber’s thought of a general “disenchantment”: he needs some notion of the sacred in order to project an ideal for the future development of the society. For Joas, any realistic ideal for a future society needs to include the sacred in one way or another, not exclusively in the form of an established
Since Joas’s argument is developed as a counter-narrative to Weber, it both confirms and rejects the theory of disenchantment. First of all, Joas rejects the thought of a general de-magification as mere confessional anti-Catholicism from Weber’s side. Second, he questions the need for a de-transcendentalization as an expression of modern self-understanding. On the contrary, he advocates either a religious or a Kantian understanding of transcendence that remains a critical corrective to human and national hubris. This second step is significant in order to leave a space for the sacred
Hans Joas takes the idea of an “Axial Age”, first presented by Karl Jaspers in 1949, as a key to understanding the historical development of sacralization and desacralization. The idea is controversial but supported by sociologists concerned with the history of ideas such as Robert Bellah and Shmuel Eisenstadt (Bellah & Joas 2012).
What is, more precisely, the theory of an Axial Age? How does it influence, respectively, the narratives of disenchantment and secularization? Canadian philosopher and author of
On the one hand, the “transcendent” realm, the world of God or gods, of spirits, or heaven, however defined, which previously contained elements which were both favorable and unfavorable to the human good, becomes unambiguously affirmative of this good. But on the other hand, both the crucial terms here, both the transcendent and the human good, are reconceived in the process. […] The transcendent may now be quite beyond or outside the cosmos, as with the Creator God of Genesis, or the Nirvana of Buddhism. Or if it remains cosmic, it loses its original ambivalent character, and exhibits an order of unalloyed goodness, as with the “Heaven,” guarantor of just rule in Chinese thought, or the order of Ideas in Plato, whose key is the Good. (Taylor 2012, 35)
As we can see here, the theory is universal and it has a global scope. It covers philosophies and religions as different as Platonism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, and is even extended to other movements in the period from around the sixth to the third century AC. It is seen as a civilizational step in the process of evolution, indeed even a transcivilizational step including humanity as a whole. Moreover, it is perceived as a step of humankind in the direction of a more
In the discussion of a theory of the Axial Age, there are critical voices too. The philosopher of religion Ingolf Dalferth has described it as a normative reinterpretation of Platonism for the 20th century (Dalferth 2012, 181). The Egyptologist Jan Assmann describes it as a sympathetic theory but admits that although many of the analytical tools are helpful, he does not really
Two of the key notions emerging in the period of the Axial Age are the concept of transcendence and the concept of self-reflexivity. The latter has strong philosophical and moral consequences, and the former has also political consequences: When societal and religious ideals – including God or gods – are perceived as transcendent, it becomes easier to distinguish between power and sacredness. Through the subsequent process of differentiation, the tension between idea and reality was, according to Hans Joas, intensified. He argues that one important consequence of this process was that religion became an instrument of desacralization rather than the opposite:
Religion, which could be a powerful instrument of the sacralization of power and domination, particularly in the archaic states, becomes an instrument of the desacralization of this very power. Divine kingship is not compatible with this concept of transcendence. If God or the gods exist beyond the realm of the mundane, it is no longer possible for a ruler himself to be God. (Joas 2019, 25)
Whether we accept the theory of an Axial Age or not, this observation concerning the role of religion in relation to power is quite important: Religion itself does not necessarily contribute to sacralization of the state or the ruler. It could also have the opposite impact, and in that case, religion contributes to the distinction between secular and sacred power. In the prophets’ critique of the ruling powers of Israel, Joas sees such a process at stake and hence a secularizing tendency in the sense that there is a clearer distinction between political power and divine authority. This is one of Weber’s favorite examples too, but Joas argues that this development has nothing to do with “disenchantment”. What happens in this period, of which the prophets is just one example, he claims, is that religions across the Eastern/Western divide become more
In the development of universal human rights from the late 18th century to the Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Joas sees a parallel to this development, a leap forward “in the radical desacralization of political power and domination” (Joas 2019, 31). However, the various nationalisms of the 20th century, including the French, American, and German ones, represent dangers of particularism to this development. The most deterrent examples of such self-sacralization of the state are found in the totalitarian regimes, such as under German, Japanese, and Soviet totalitarian rule, but Joas observes contemporary versions of the same tendency in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Hence, this is not primarily a question of religion versus secularism; it is a modern version of what Durkheim described as the self-sacralization of power and dominion (Joas 2019, 32).
Joas sees this as a continuous threat to not only states but also religions, and his alternative suggestion is to desacralize “every agency of political power” following the tendency of the Axial Age and the idea of the sacredness of the person, underlying the universal human rights. His understanding of how such values evolve (including sacred values) was presented in
The history of human rights is a history of sacralization and desacralization. If I am right to assert that what we see in this history is a sacralization of the “person” – in other words, of every individual regardless of his merits and misdemeanors – then this unconditional appreciation of the person and his intrinsic value requires the relative desacralization of state, nation, ruler or community. It does not, as secularists often assume, require secularization, an abandonment of the notion of the holiness of God, because this very notion may provide a counterweight to the sacralization of earthly political power. (Joas 2019, 31)
After the Axial Age and the development of the world religions, Joas sees the development of universal human rights in the 19th and 20th centuries as the second big step of humankind toward a more self-reflexive, universal, and humanitarian moral code. However, he warns against the tendencies of refragmentation and reparticularization, as is already the case with French nationalism, which paradoxically declares itself a “nation of human rights” (Joas 2019, 32). Hence, in Joas’s alternative story to Weber’s narrative of disenchantment, the universal human rights play a similar role to the
This is a beautiful idea with far-reaching consequences for the understanding and placement of human rights, albeit by no means undisputable. There have been many spokesmen of the churches, most prominently Pope Benedict XVI, who would see human rights as a secular version of Christian anthropology and hence as unthinkable without the Christian heritage. Hans Joas acknowledges a continuity here, but he nevertheless insists that no single religious tradition can make such a claim. On the contrary, it was a major point prior to the proclamation of the charter of universal human rights in 1948 that all “world religions” were included. Hence, when Joas speaks of human rights as the expression of an ideal fact, it follows from a collective
This genealogy of human rights is contested, but I think Joas has a good point here, given his theoretical point of departure in Durkheim’s theory of religion. Defining them as an expression of sacred ideals and sacralization is not so much a question of what human rights were intended to be. They were, perhaps, the fragile expression of some common values after the atrocities of World War II and have more recently been reinvented as the last utopia, as Moyn (2010) has argued. From the beginning, they represented an ideal formation and a basis for the establishment of the UN, yet with hardly any political or moral impact beyond their symbolic status. According to Moyn, human rights were almost completely overlooked in international politics throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s except for some conservative hardliners in Europe agitating against the Soviet Union and the iron curtain (Moyn 2010, 47; 69). Toward the end of the 1970s and the following decade, they finally gained force as a utopian framework for international activism, but it was first after the end of the cold war, when politicians and organizations were searching for a new world order, that human rights according to Moyn became
Among the ideals and utopias that filled this gap within the states, and even beyond the national state, be it at the UN or within the EU, human rights achieved a prominent place. If we accept a Durkheimian understanding of sacralization, human rights may function as such a sacred ideal that is needed for any community, and every state, not only at the moment of its constitution but also for its confirmation and continuous refashioning: “The ideal society is not outside the real society; it is part of it” (Durkheim 2008, 317).
Since human rights are one of the best expressions we currently have of an ideal society, they have somehow come to play the role of a universal utopia but also of a civil religion. In many respects, Hans Joas is right in this observation, and he is not the only one to make it. The Czech philosopher Jan Patočka argued in his defense of Charta 77 that the notion of human rights is
[…] nothing but the conviction that states and society as a whole also consider themselves to be subject to the sovereignty of moral sentiment, that they recognize something unqualified above them, something that is bindingly sacred and inviolable even for them, and that they intend to contribute to this end with the power by which they create and ensure legal norms. (Patočka 1977; quoted in Moyn 2010, 165)
The idea of human rights as something
I can follow Joas’s argument against Weber and in particular his critique of the common reception of Weber, where the so-called disenchantment becomes not only a descriptive but also a normative explanation of how the modern world ought to be understood. He criticizes this narrative as suggestive and implausible, since Weber neither gives sufficient empirical evidence for this narrative nor takes obvious counterexamples into account. By giving preference to Durkheim’s theory of the sacred, he convincingly argues that human rights represent a secular formatting of the sacred, thereby transcending some of the group-specific and national limitations to Durkheim’s analysis of religion. Joas thus establishes a new and alternative narrative of secularization and human rights, where the latter represents a resacralization of the person. This seminal theory is a result of not only putting Durkheim up against Weber but also, and in other respects, transcending the scope of Durkheim’s theory of religion. With his postsecular approach to the issue, Joas is able to argue convincingly that processes of sacralization and desacralization are still at work in the 21st century, although the framework of understanding has changed.
This counter-narrative is a good and innovative starting point for further discussion, but Joas’s theory of “the power of the sacred” calls for critical assessment and objections too, and the following discussion addresses some of its key points. First, it seems like Joas runs into several problems and contradictions when he constructs a narrative of sacralization that follows a pattern opposed to and yet in other respects resembling the one presented by Weber. Second, I will raise some concerns related to the
Joas criticized Weber for letting his contemporary normative agenda dominate the reconstruction of history as a narrative of disenchantment. I agree with Joas that this is a precise objection to Weber’s theory, to such an extent that it undermines its credibility, but what comes up if we look more carefully at Joas’s own theory? Does not the alternative narrative presuppose a normative (moral) agenda, too, although a different one? Moreover, am I right in suspecting that this normative agenda is the basis for his (rather selective) reconstruction of the history of human rights as a history of sacralization?
Hans Joas readily admits that there are several normative presuppositions for his defense of human rights as a sacralization of the person: (a) the need for a continuous desacralization of the nation and a sacralization of the person; (b) an emphasis on self-reflexivity and transcendence; and (c) the idea that every community – even the global community – presupposes a sacred space where it permanently refashions the ideal society
My second critical remark concerns the sacred ideal (or “ideal fact”) and the affirmative genealogy with which Joas seeks to undergird the position of human rights today. The social anthropologist Talal Asad has recently criticized the role of human rights and humanitarianism as a quasi-religion in Western societies. He argues that this quasi-religion has taken over the role of Christianity as a hegemonic religion in the West. Responding to the claim by Charles Taylor, Stephen Pinker, and others that we are today observing a more benevolent, compassionate, and humanitarian world than any generation before us, Asad expresses some reservations. These ideals of benevolence, compassion, and freedom, he argues, are followed by new forms of suppression, violence, and control – either directly or by proxy:
This should alert one to the possibility that what the modern world has inherited from the Enlightenment is not simply the moral standard that universal suffering should be reduced but a complex genealogy that is partly older than the eighteenth century in which compassion and benevolence are intertwined with violence and cruelty, an intertwining that is not merely a coexistence of the two but a mutual dependence of each on the other. (Asad 2015, 402)
The key point in Asad’s argument is that the same values that we defend for the sake of humanity, which are thereby considered as “sacred” values, are
A typical example is the defense of military intervention in Afghanistan for the sake of human rights. Since women have a traditional status in Afghanistan, they are suffering, from a Western perspective, under a “violation of women’s human rights”. Hence, Asad writes, “the military presence of NATO in Afghanistan is, in part, justified as an attempt to restore them; what this justification does, in effect, is to try to transform a conception of moral rightness into a positive right” (Asad 2015, 409). His critical point is that since the intervention depends on the use or threat of violence, it should be measured by its
Muammar al-Gaddafi is reported to have warned NATO before the intervention started:
“Now listen you people of NATO. You’re bombing a wall, which stood in the way of African migration to Europe and in the way of al Qaeda terrorists. This wall was Libya. You’re breaking it. You’re idiots, and you will burn in Hell for thousands of migrants from Africa”. (BBC 2018; Blum 2018)
Since 2011, there has been a flood of refugees moving to the north – many of them dying in the Mediterranean Sea. However, Europe, to a considerable extent responsible for the collapse of Libya, has hardly been willing to take the consequences by giving the refugees asylum in respect of human rights. Similar questions of credibility can be raised in the case of Syria and other conflicts where human rights language was involved.
I am afraid that the same duplicitous grammar applies to the ideal construction of human rights suggested by Joas. In my opinion, this is not a big problem as long as we discuss human rights as an expression of minimal moral and juridical standards, the “power of the powerless” in a world of suffering and suppression. However, as soon as human rights are perceived as a universal ideal for structuring and reformatting the society, it also becomes an ideology and a utopian ideal, where sacred values of compassion and benevolence are intertwined with violence and cruelty, as asserted by Asad. Joas’s combination of a grammar of the sacred with universal ideals undermines the credibility of human rights rather than undergirding their rational and societal foundation. A similar problem applies to his affirmative genealogy of human rights, where he only identifies the
In my third critical remark, I will discuss the moral idealism central to Joas’s theory of the power of the sacred. Whereas Joas seeks to reconstruct a sacred narrative of human rights, Samuel Moyn argues that the contemporary emphasis on human rights is a recent invention (Moyn 2010, 225). Joas is less inclined to accept this perspective and endeavors to undergird their moral and ideal status by reconstructing the genealogy of human rights from the Axial Age until today. This is in stark contrast to Moyn’s assessment:
Instead of turning to history to monumentalize human rights by rooting them deep in the past, it is much better to acknowledge how recent and contingent they really are. Above all, it is crucial to link the emergence of human rights to the history of utopianism – the heartfelt desire to make the world a better place. […] And so the program of human rights faces a fateful choice: whether to expand its horizons so as to take on the burden of politics more honestly, or to give way to new and other political visions that have yet to be fully outlined. (Moyn 2010, 225-6)
With his affirmative genealogy and theory of sacralization, Hans Joas – consciously or not – contributes to the tendency of mythologizing and monumentalizing human rights. This tendency is enhanced by his normative agenda in favor of universal moral standards, what Moyn characterizes as the “moral burden” of human rights. Moreover, in a period of three decades, human rights have undergone the transition from representing the “power of the powerless” to the “power of the powerful”, a completely different challenge where they aspire to the doubtful honor of representing a host of (even conflicting) political agendas (Moyn 2010, 227). With his thought of desacralization of the state, Joas seeks to counter this tendency to sacralize the powerful in the name of human rights, but he does not succeed in drawing a clear line of separation here. As soon as human rights achieve the position of a sacred value that ought to represent a high normative ideal for international politics, they do so because they have already become instrumental for the political agendas of the powerful. I cannot see that Joas clearly identifies this dilemma, and I presume this is the reason why he has not identified the danger of maximum politics in the name of human rights when they come to represent a secular formatting of the sacred.
Hans Joas has convincingly rejected Max Weber’s understanding of a general “disenchantment” of the world by deconstructing this idiosyncratic term in a close reading of Weber’s texts. This is the most significant achievement of his latest book on the power of the sacred. However, the alternative historical narrative he presents is in many respects similar to the one he criticizes. Joas explains the contemporary emphasis on human rights as the result of a sacralization of the person, with roots going back to the enlightenment and the so-called Axial Age. His Kantian idealism in favor of universal normative standards represents a questionable presupposition for this affirmative genealogy. Human rights are claimed to be universal in scope and content, and thus, they may fill the role of religion in the public sphere, as political ideal, and as foundation for national laws. Hence, in the 21st century, human rights have come to represent a secular formatting of the sacred that supplements and/or replaces public religion.
In international politics, human rights have gained force and influence over the last decades, but their normative and sacred role also inevitably makes space for new forms of political dominion