Hans Joas

Tension often arises between religion and modernity where non-believers and the religiously minded perceive one another uncomprehendingly, if not even antagonistically, as do the followers of different faiths. Hans Joas does not look at the divides but instead seeks common ground.

A key approach that he has developed to tackle the issue is a graduated model which enables religious experiential patterns to be interpreted and described. Joas believes the starting point for all religious experience is self-transcendence. Here he is referring to the psychological description of a phenomenon that all adults have probably experienced during their lifetimes – for example, a sense of being at one with nature by the sea, on a mountain peak or deep in the forest. Joas also puts falling in love into this category, as well as experiencing the death of someone close. As the experiences of self-transcendence evoke a general consciousness, Joas establishes a basis for a reciprocal understanding between believers and non-believers.

Religious belief nevertheless goes far beyond the experience of self-transcendence. Believers interpret this differently and through it can experience what Joas refers to as “sacramental experience”, which is the second level in his model. Joas once explained this very vividly in an interview using the example of prayer: “We know that many non-believers have a slight tendency to pray occasionally. However, for believers who really presume that a divine being exists as a counterpart, receiving an answer is a possibility. In this respect, faith extends people’s possible range of experiences.”

Transcendence in the religious sense finally comes into play in the third level of the model. Transcendence means that God, the gods or the divine principle are not simply part of the human universe, its knowledge and experiential spectrum but are instead above them. As it also says in the bible, this suggests: “My kingdom is not of this world.” The notion of transcendence emerged in antiquity during the “Axial Age” between 800 and 200 B.C. in which the major world religions, such as Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, have their origins. Joas sees transcendence as a “profound common trait” between world faiths that enables peaceful dialogue.

Hans Joas is nonetheless far too much of a realist to believe that his model could provide the solution to the current religiously charged conflicts. As he emphasizes, political Islamism can certainly not be understood purely from a socio-religious perspective. Instead, the entire nexus of historical, political and military factors have to be taken into account. The future, underscored Joas in the interview, is less dependent upon interreligious dialogue than political decisions.

Hans Joas recently attracted great attention with another approach where he again combines religion and modernity. This concerns human rights, their origins and therefore also their universal validity. The origins of human rights were previously usually attributed to the Enlightenment and the Christian tradition. As a result, human rights are quickly labelled as being “Western”; this makes it easy to contend that they are not applicable in other cultures.

Joas puts forward an entirely new explanation of their derivation. He argues that human rights emerged during the 18th century as a result of cultural change, namely the notion of the sacralization of human beings. The view that each individual is unique and therefore, to some extent, holy in light of their individuality, has gradually gained acceptance. Joas illustrates through this approach that human rights function like religious doctrines in the secularized countries of Europe. Joas believes the basis of this sacralization is found long before Christ: in ancient philosophy and the bible but also in other cultural environments, such as in Buddhism in India or Confucianism in China.


Hans Joas was born in Munich in 1948. He studied sociology, philosophy and German literature and obtained his doctorate in 1979 from the FU Berlin. He then spent eight years conducting research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and gained the postdoctoral qualification for the full university professorship from the FU Berlin during this period. In 1987, he was appointed to a professorship at the FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg.

Three years later he moved to the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies and the Institute for Sociology at the Freie Universität Berlin where he remained a full professor until 2002. He was then appointed Max Weber Professor and Director of the Max Weber Center at the University of Erfurt. He then worked as a fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) from 2011 to 2014 and has since been an Ernst Troeltsch Honorary Professor at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin.

Hans Joas’ works have been translated into many languages and recognized in many countries. He has been invited to many universities abroad as a guest professor, including as a Theodor Heuss Professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. He has also spent several research residencies in Sweden and South Africa. In 2000, the University of Chicago appointed him a member of the prestigious Committee on Social Thought. He also served as Vice-President of the International Sociological Association from 2006 to 2010.

Joas has received honours on many occasions for his works, including two honorary doctorates, the Hans Kilian Prize and the Bielefeld Science Award in memory of Niklas Luhmann. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation awarded him the Werner Heisenberg Medal in 2012 for his extraordinary services towards promoting international academic cooperation.


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