Hans Joas’s Faith as an Option is concerned with debunking two myths: first, the idea that modernization—advances in technology and the sciences—renders religious belief obsolete; second, the argument that secularization leads to moral decay. Joas, a leading European social theorist, is more than aware that criticisms of these claims are hardly new—contemporary scholars no longer prove keen to establish a law or rule connecting modernization and secularization, and there seems to be little or no correlation between societies with higher rates of atheism and moral decline. Joas’s study aims to provide a series of illuminating explanations for why these views captured the imaginations of so many for so long.

Yet Faith as an Option is much more than a descriptive attempt to explain a longstanding scholarly misnomer. Joas also provides an alternative conceptual framework for how modernity and faith can now facilitate and enrich one another. On this reading, the modern secular world does not signify religion’s demise, but rather speaks to the emergence of new challenges and ever-changing conditions that push faith traditions to adapt or evolve. This does not at all mean, suggests Joas, that modernity is hostile to faith; in fact, they can benefit one another. Ultimately, Joas’s exhortation for greater ecumenism is inseparable from his desire to secure and revitalize transcendent and universal sources of meaning. This is where Faith as an Option enters controversial territory: Joas does not believe secular reason alone is capable of providing adequate solutions for today’s biggest political challenges.

Who invented the thesis that modernization inevitably leads to secularization? The answer, according to Hans Joas, remains unclear. At the end of the eighteenth century the idea that Christianity would eventually die out had only scattered supporters throughout Europe. Just a century later, argues Joas, “everybody who was anybody in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences supported the thesis of secularization.” The luminaries of the age—Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc.—all expected modernization to weaken religion. In believing so, Joas argues, they—and their twentieth century ilk—made an assumption that history has now proven wrong.

This does not mean the idea of secularism should be rejected. Joas seeks to provide an understanding that is less ideologically driven and more empirically based. The old model of secularization, he maintains, has failed to provide compelling answers for why religious belief persists in the United States—the most modernized country in the world. Moreover, religious faith seems to be increasing alongside so called “modernizing processes” in South America and Africa.

Joas even argues that if Europe remains the world’s “secular exception,” it is simply because proponents of the secularization thesis have failed to recognize that Europe was only “superficially and imperfectly Christianized in the first place.” The ultimate shortcoming of the secularization thesis, suggests Joas, is that it overlooks a crucial consideration: that secularization can occur without modernization.

But before putting forward his alternative model of secularization, Joas aims to shoot down another myth: the longstanding belief that secularization wrecks incentives for behaving morally. Nineteenth century advocates of this view did not live to see actual secularism, but examples of secularized societies today—Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, etc.,—show little sign of moral decline. In fact, Joas, cites the comparative study conducted by the paleontologist, Gregory S. Paul, who suggests that nations which boast  higher percentages of belief in God also have higher rates of “homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection, teen pregnancy, and abortion than nations in which belief in God is relatively low.”

Joas provides two responses for why sources of morality are not weakened by secularization. First, he claims that social reciprocity is a non-religious source of morality that can be learned—by children, for example—through the observation of games and shared play. Second, and more substantially, Joas suggests that secular societies, specifically Europe, are living on borrowed capital by affirming that “even under conditions of secularization an older imagination may continue to guide morality.” Clearly, the “imaginary” that Joas is most interested in is Christianity. He believes that Christianity possesses a certain feature that its rivals—whether religious or philosophical—cannot match: “the strongest imagination of universalism ever bestowed upon humanity.”

What Europe needs to secure itself from moral decline is not Christianity per se, but universal imaginaries, which by default makes Christianity, according to Joas, vitally important for the well-being of Europe. Clearly Europe’s dark history of nationalism hangs over Joas’s analysis—alongside his silent dialogue with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of post-secular societies. Yet Joas’s position also appears difficult to square with his previous argument that Europe has only ever been superficially Christian, which undermines, to some degree, the ghostly role that Joas sees Christianity still playing in secular Europe. But, as we will see, there are clear reasons for why Joas makes this move.

Joas’s constructive task is to articulate a model of secularism that reflects reality and is empirically plausible. Therefore, a critical understanding of secularism will reject the teleological underpinnings that the secularization thesis presumes without sufficient evidence. What history does demonstrate about secularization and modernization, suggests Joas, are their “highly conflictual, heterogeneous, contingent” histories. For this reason Joas sees secularization as occurring in historical waves—such as the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, and the student protest movements of the 1960s—and for entirely different reasons. In turn Joas, who is very much influenced by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, stresses that these secular waves were followed by religious rip currents that often revitalized religious traditions or facilitated new religious options.

Joas’s rather brief historical snapshot of secularism acts as subterfuge for his main thesis: that there is no uniform process of modernization. This “Age of Contingency,” as Joas calls it, is marked by an increase in “individual action options and the growing number of experiences that result from this massive increase.” These increased action options give rise to new forms of social life, which are anything but clear and distinct. Our “secular age,” then, is really an amalgam of impulses derived from religious and non-religious sources that constantly take on novel shapes and forms.

In this reading, religion will never die out, because increased action options facilitate novel conditions that allow religion to constantly evolve in creative ways. But this is exactly where Joas’s Taylorian inspirations take a back seat to his Habermasian anxieties. Increased action options, Joas observes, allow for decisions that run the gamut between universal and anti-universal discourses. Having multiple options thus seems to weaken universalist commitments, since they can so easily be fused with anti-universal sentiments and ideas.

This is problematic, Joas observes, since the foundation for human rights and the liberal democratic state is moral and legal universalism. Hence Joas’s observation that the “most important front running through moral and political disputes today is not that between believers and non-believers but that between universalists and anti-universalists, and both of these groups include both religious and nonreligious people.” What, then, asks Joas, can provide a bulwark against anti-universalism, which is once again rearing its head via the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic platforms of emerging European nationalist parties?

Joas borrows a line from Habermas but takes it in a different direction. Like Habermas, he calls for greater dialogue between religious and secular adherents of moral and legal universalism in their mutual fight against racism and other forms of anti-universalism. But this conversation must not—contra Habermas—reduce religious dialogue simply to a means for benefiting public discourse.

As far as Europe is concerned, Joas is clear that Christianity should have pride of place in this dialogue. This is because he agrees with Habermas that secular universalisms are limited by their tendency to be too rational, individualistic or utilitarian. What Joas calls “the essence of the superiority of the Christian ethos of love” can help check egocentric and utilitarian limitations of secular thought. More importantly, suggests Joas, Christian love enriches notions of justice—the key concept of moral and legal universalism. Of course, Joas is quick to acknowledge that the superiority of Christian universalism is not cause for boasting.

Joas recognizes that some “dogmatic secularists” will view his argument as a religious apologia. In rejecting this idea, Joas states that he has no desire to defend religion and is only interested in opening a space for a conversation. A few sections of Faith as an Option make it clear that part of this dialogue is aimed at Joas’s fellow Christians. In one revealing section, Joas exhorts them to remember that Christianity failed to issue an adequate response to National Socialism and Fascism because its message of love and peace has been weakened by secularism.

This and many other examples reveal a tendency throughout Faith as an Option to separate the supreme message of Christian universality from the secular, tribal and nationalist influences that potentially corrupt or weaken it. Doing so allows Joas to make a distinction between his idealized Christian universalism and the injustices of Christianity as it actually existed, which dovetails nicely with Joas’ insistence that Europe has never really been Christian. Hence the ease by which theology’s political baggage can be downplayed for the purposes of inventing a political theology made safe for democracy and human rights; two concepts whose Christian reception is long and complicated. One need not be a dogmatic secularist to see in such analytic maneuvering a religious apologia of sorts.