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A Proper Role for Religion in the Public Sphere
A secular society has a stake in listening to religious voices. This author discusses what Habermas has been saying about religion and politics.

By Craig Calhoun

One of the best places on the Internet for discussion of religion and society is The Immanent Frame sponsored by the Social Science Research Council. The following article is an example, published there March 24, 2008. Craig Calhoun has been President of the Social Science Research Council since 1999. He is also University Professor of the Social Sciences at NYU, and Director of its Institute for Public Knowledge.

Religion appears in liberal theory first and foremost as an occasion for tolerance and neutrality. This orientation is reinforced by both the classification of religion as essentially a private matter, and the view that religion is in some sense a “survival” from an earlier era – not a field of vital growth within modernity. In response to the failure of religion to disappear from the politics of even “advanced” democratic capitalist societies, liberal theorists have sometimes been moved to address religious identities and practices as matters deserving recognition. In his recent writings, Jürgen Habermas helpfully goes further, advancing discussion of religion as source and resource of democratic politics, from within a revised conception of liberalism.

Habermas proceeds, as always, carefully and methodically, but it seems on this occasion with some additional caution and uncertainty about just how far he wants to go. Religion, after all, appears prominently in contemporary politics in the form of strikingly illiberal views and positions, and in a package with practices Habermas can hardly condone. It also appears in more positive and even heroic forms, of course, not least as part of movements for peace, civil and human rights, and equitable development. But Habermas recognizes that the theoretical challenge requires not just accepting “nice” versions of religion, but precisely determining in what way religious positions with which secular liberals may disagree vehemently should carry weight.

At the conference on the occasion of Jürgen Habermas’s Holberg Prize, as in a number of other contexts, the question of what it means to refer to a “postsecular” era was the subject of debate. Helge Høibraaten reflected the concerns of many when he asked whether the prefix “post” wasn’t misleading. Just as the ostensibly “postmodern” reflected cross-currents intrinsic to modernity, wasn’t this true also of the “postsecular”?

We could come at this historically as well as philosophically, noting the dramatic role played by religion – and periodic movements of religious revitalization – throughout the modern era. It is significant not just that Americans remain more religious than Europeans in recent decades, thus, but also that the United States has seen successive waves of Great Awakenings, each transforming not only religious but also apparently secular life. And while the contrast with Europe is not new, having informed both Tocqueville and Weber after their travels in the US, it is also not complete. For the Protestant Reformation was not the last time religion mattered in Europe. We should remember the anti-slavery movement and the influence of especially low-church Protestant religions on a range of other late 18th century and early 19th century social movements, including those also shaped by democratic and class politics. We should not neglect the mid-19th century renewal of spiritualism, even if much of it was outside religious orthodoxy, and we should not lose sight of its fluid relationships with Romanticism, utopian socialism, and humanitarianism. We should see religious internationalism both under the problematic structure of colonial and postcolonial missionary work and in the engagements shaped by Vatican II, the peace movement, and liberation theology. We should recognize, as Habermas does, the importance of religious motivations and understandings (and indeed organizational networks and practices) in a range of social movements during the 20th century, in Europe as well as America, and around the world. And of course we should recognize the growing importance of religion in Europe – largely occasioned by but not limited to Muslim immigration.

What has passed, I think Habermas means to suggest, is not a simple condition of secularity nor even a secularizing trend but (a) the plausibility of the assumption that progress (and freedom, emancipation, and liberation) could be conceptualized adequately in purely secular terms and (b) the plausibility of the notion that a clear differentiation could be maintained between discourses of faith and those of public reason. Note that the assumption and the notion have never seemed plausible to everyone; they shaped secular perspectives more than those of religious people though they did shape the discourse and views of both. In any case, loss of certainty on these dimensions is challenging, most especially for liberalism.

Religion, moreover, is part of the genealogy of public reason itself. To attempt to disengage the idea of public reason (or the reality of the public sphere) from religion is to disconnect it from a tradition that continues to give it life and content. Habermas stresses the importance of not depriving public reason of the resources of a tradition that has not exhausted the semantic contributions it can make. Equally, though, the attempt to make an overly sharp division between religion and public reason provides important impetus to the development of alternative or counterpublic spheres as well as less public and less reasoned forms of resistance to a political order that seeks to hold religion at arm’s length.

This issue is significant for Habermas’s reconsideration of the extent to which prevailing secularist assumptions are adequate for the current era. Not only is there value for public reason to gain if it integrates religious contributions, it is a requirement of political justice that public discourse recognize and tolerate but also fully integrate religious citizens. It is with this in mind that he rejects Rawls’ formulations in which public reason requires arguments conducted entirely in secular terms. Rawls’ reasoning is that this is necessary in order to ensure that all arguments are accessible to everyone. Religious people, in this view, must give reasons for their arguments that are not specifically religious and fully available for acceptance by those who are not religious. But this, Habermas rightly suggests, places an unfair and asymmetrical burden on religious citizens.

Official tolerance for diverse forms of religious practice and a constitutional separation of church and state are good, Habermas suggests, but not by themselves sufficient guarantees for religious freedom. “It is not enough to rely on the condescending benevolence of a secularized authority that comes to tolerate minorities hitherto discriminated against. The parties themselves must reach agreement on the always contested delimitations between a positive liberty to practice a religion of one’s own. And the negative liberty to remain spared of the religious practices of others.” This agreement cannot be achieved in private. Religion, thus, must enter the public sphere. There deliberative, ideally democratic processes of collective will formation can help parties both to understand each other and to reach mutual accommodation if not always agreement.

Rawls’ account of the public use of reason allows for religiously motivated arguments, but not for the appeal to “comprehensive” religious doctrines for justification. Justification must rely solely on “proper political reasons” (which means mainly reasons that are available to everyone regardless of the specific commitments they may have to religion or substantive conceptions of the good or their embeddedness in cultural traditions). This is, as Habermas indicates, an importantly restrictive account of the legitimate public use of reason – one which will strike many as not truly admitting religion into public discourse. Crucially, Habermas follows Wolterstorff in arguing that it is in the nature of religion that serious belief is understood as informing – and rightly informing – all of a believer’s life. This makes sorting out the “properly political” from other reasons both practically impossible in many cases and an illegitimate demand for secularists to impose. Attempting to enforce it would amount to discriminating against those for whom religion is not “something other than their social and political existence”. On more ambiguous grounds, Habermas does hold it acceptable to demand “properly political” justifications, independent of religion, from politicians even if not from those who vote for or endorse them.

Habermas seeks to defend a less narrow liberalism, one that admits religion more fully into public discourse (including both democratic will formation and the rule of law) but seeks to maintain a secular conception of the state. He understands this as requiring impartiality in state relations to those of any religious orientation or none and to all religious communities, but not as requiring the stronger laïc prohibition on state action affecting religion even if impartially. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that the liberal state and its advocates are not merely enjoined to religious tolerance but – at least potentially – cognizant of a functional interest in public expressions of religion. These may be key resources for the creation of meaning and identity; secular citizens can learn from religious contributions to public discourse (not least when these help clarify intuitions the secular have not made explicit).

In this “polyphonic complexity of public voices” the giving of reasons is still crucial. Public reason cannot proceed simply by expressive communication or demands for recognition, though the public sphere cannot be adequately inclusive if it tries to exclude these. The public sphere will necessarily include processes of culture-making that are not reducible to advances in reason, and which nonetheless may be crucial to capacities for mutual understanding. But if collective will formation is to be based on reason, not merely participation in common culture, then public processes of clarifying arguments and giving reasons for positions must be central. Religious people like all others are reasonably to be called on to give a full account of their reasons for public claims. But articulating reasons clearly is not the same as offering only reasons that can be stated in terms fully “accessible” to the nonreligious. Conversely, though the secular (or differently religious) may be called on to participate in the effort to understand the reasons given by adherents to any one religion, such understanding may include recognition and clarification of points where orientations to knowledge are such that understanding cannot be fully mutual. And the same goes in reverse. Since secular reasons are also embedded in culture and belief and not simply matters of fact or reason alone, those who speak from non-religious orientations are reasonably called on to clarify to what extent their arguments demand such non-religious orientations or may be reasonably accessible to those who do not share them.

Indeed, one could argue that a sharp division between secular and religious beliefs is available only to the secular. While the religious person may accept many beliefs that others regard as adequately grounded in secular reasons alone – about the physical or biological world, for example – she may see these as inherently bound up with a belief in divine creation. She may also regard certain beliefs as inherently outside religion, but even if she uses the word “secular” to describe these, the meaning is at least in part “irreligious” (a reference to a different, non-religious way of seeing things and not simply to things ostensibly “self-sufficient” outside religion or divine influence). It is necessary to demand that the religious person consider her own faith reflexively, see it from the point of view of others, and relate it to secular views. Though this amounts to demanding a cognitive capacity that not all religious people have, it is not one intrinsically contrary to religion and equivalent demands are placed on all citizens by the ethics of public discourse. What the liberal state must not do is “transform the requisite institutional separation of religion and politics into an undue mental and psychological burden for those of its citizens who follow a faith.” And with this in mind, Habermas also suggests that the non-religious bear a symmetrical burden to participate in the translation of religious contributions to the political public sphere into “properly political” secular terms – that is, they must seek to understand what is being said in religious terms and determine to what extent they can understand it (and potentially agree with it) in their own non-religious terms. In this way, they will help to make ideas, norms, and insights deriving from religious sources accessible to all, and to the more rigorously secular internal discursive processes of the state itself.

This line of argument pushes against a distinction Habermas has long wanted to maintain between morality and ethics, between procedural commitments to justice and engagements with more particular conceptions of the good life.
We make a moral use of practical reason when we ask what is equally good for everyone; we make an ethical use when we ask what is respectively good for me or for us. Questions of justice permit under the moral viewpoint what all could will: answers that in principle are universally valid. Ethical questions, on the other hand, can be rationally clarified only in the context of a specific life-history or a particular form of life. For these questions are perspectively focused on the individual or on a specific collective who want to know who they are and, at the same time, who they want to be.
Habermas does not abandon the pursuit of a context-independent approach to the norms of justice. But he does now recognize that demanding decontextualization away from substantive conceptions of the good life as a condition for participation in the processes of public reason may itself be unjust.

A further couplet of questions is also opened which may prove challenging for efforts to preserve a strong understanding of (and wide scope for) context-independence and universality in moral reasoning. First, is a genealogical or language-theoretical reconstruction of reason adequate without an existential connection between social and cultural history on the one hand and individual biography on the other? Second, is “translation” an adequate conceptualization of what is involved in making religious insights accessible to nonreligious participants in public discourse (and vice-versa)?

In my next post, I will argue that mutual understanding between religious and non-religious participants in public discourse requires transformation, not just translation – a process of transformation in culture, belief, and self.

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Date Added: 3/8/2009 Date Revised: 3/8/2009

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