Religion in the public sphere:

Taking religion seriously

posted by Simone Chambers

Christina Lafont recently posted an interesting and forceful post at The Immanent Frame comparing the views of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas on the place of religion in the public sphere, and while I find much of what Prof. Lafont wrote to be persuasive, her discussion of Rawls and Habermas misses an important dimension to the debate. What distinguishes Habermas from Rawls on religion in the public sphere is not Habermas’s slightly amended view of public reason, but his willingness to entertain the idea that religion has a positive and substantive role to play in public debate.

Rawls reformulated his deeply secularist view of public reason in response to the question: Are we treating religious minded citizens unfairly in a secularized public debate? While Habermas also asks this, he adds to it the following more difficult question: What would be lost if religious arguments, appeals, images and meanings disappeared forever from the public sphere? Habermas’s question involves taking religion seriously in a way never contemplated by Rawls; and his answer moves him away from Rawls and the purely procedural issues that concern Prof. Lafont and towards questions that have to do with why we should value religious contributions in the public sphere in their own right.

From an uncompromising secularist position in which religious arguments had no place in a well-ordered liberal public sphere, Rawls moved to the stance that religious arguments and appeals could be made in the public sphere as long as, at some future time, equivalent secular arguments could be found. This is known as the “proviso” and Rawls thought that it represented the appropriate level of accommodation for religious minded citizens. Whether or not the proviso is any fairer to religious citizens than the earlier position, I leave open to debate. At this point I only want to highlight Rawls’s fully procedural and external view of religion in public sphere—He is entirely uninterested in the question of what value religious appeals might contain in their own right. He is only interested in the fairness question.

Habermas, too, is interested in the external and procedural approach. But in questioning what we owe to religious citizens, Habermas moves from a procedural to a substantive argument. Fairness, Habermas maintains, requires something more than that we ‘allow’ or ‘tolerate’ religious speech in the informal public sphere. Secular citizens must also take religious citizens and their arguments seriously, he says. If the public sphere is dominated by the attitude that nothing of value or interest could possibly be said in a religious idiom, the rift between religious and secular citizens will grow. Habermas implies that such rifts mean that political community will be more and more a matter of modus vivendi and less and less a matter of shared principles. But what does it mean to take religious arguments seriously, and why should we do such a thing if we honestly believe that religion is bunk or, worse, dangerous bunk? It is at this point that Habermas introduces arguments that move well beyond the liberal secularist’s procedural requirements of fairness and respect, that is, beyond an ethics of democratic citizenship He argues forcefully and directly for the value added of religion in the public sphere. He maintains that religious arguments can enhance public debate for everybody, including secularists, agnostics and perhaps even atheists.

The added value of religion for the secularist or agnostic, according to Habermas, comes in three forms, all of which turn on resistance to what might be called meaning drain – that is, a steady depletion of meaning in public debate. First, religious arguments, appeals and images can be allies in struggles against system domination (e.g., marketization, instrumentalization, and bureaucratization) and dogmatic naturalism (e.g., denials of free will, and neuroscience replacing ethics). Second, secular philosophy, especially moral philosophy, is enriched by encounters with religion. Modern secular philosophy is deeply implicated in a process of ‘salvaging’ whereby moral and existential truths embedded in religious understandings are translated and incorporated into secular philosophy. Why should we assume that that process has come to an end? A continued engagement with religious views and understandings can revitalize secular philosophy. Finally, certain moral insights still elude adequate secular or profane articulation. Here Habermas has in mind such things as our obligations to past or long-dead victims of deep injustice and cruelty. Sometimes religion helps us articulate and think about deep moral feelings even when we are not religious believers.

What then would it mean to take religion seriously? Would it mean, as Prof. Lafont implies, that secularists must exercise an unacceptable cognitive restraint? Contra Prof Lafont, Habermas does not say that it is irrational to believe that religion will disappear, or even that it ought to, in the face of modernity’s relentless progress. He says it is irrational to think that the secularism thesis has a privileged standing in the public sphere vis-a- vis other readings of the future and value of religion. And to back up this claim, he introduces the three arguments just mentioned. He argues against the normative and epistemic versions of the secularism thesis. This is to say he argues against the claim the religion ought to disappear because it is bunk and sometimes dangerous bunk.

Does Habermas’s claim imply that aggressively secularist books like The God Delusion or God is Not Great have no place in the public sphere? Not at all. Habermas sometimes describes the informal public sphere as a babylonisches Stimmengewirr – a polyphonic babble of competing voices. The public sphere thrives on controversy, plurality and complexity, he says. Books like The God Delusion might offend religious minded citizens but they might also stimulate productive debate. Indeed debate surrounding The God Delusion and the well-publicized speaking tours of people like Christopher Hitchens surely bring religion into the public sphere just as much as public talk about Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age; and this is all good from the point of view of a deliberationist.

At the individual level, Habermas is not targeting secularists and asking for restraint. He is interested in broad public opinion and the social and political forces that shape that opinion. Habermas is saying that a public sphere dominated by militant and aggressive secularism holds risks for democracy, potentially creating unbridgeable gulfs between democratic citizens. These are risks we should think long and hard about, he says; and we should ask ourselves about the implications of secularist discourses for democratic citizenship.

But in the end, Habermas is not satisfied with the pragmatic democratic citizenship approach to religion – he does not want to introduce a gag rule for the sake of social peace. He wants to convince people that religion in the public sphere is not simply or primarily a source of conflict and strife. He is not telling the Christopher Hitchens of this world to shut up; he is arguing against them. He is saying that religion has and can continue to be a source of moral and ethical insight that we cannot do without. And he makes this argument not as a religious person himself but as a “methodological atheist.” He is squaring off against radical secularists— saying be careful what you wish for.

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3 Responses to “Taking religion seriously”

  1. My impression of Habermas, though, is that it is possible that one day we might be able to do without the moral and ethical insight of religion. Such religious insight is needed for the movement due to its “conceptual richness” that for Habermas cannot presently be matched by secular discourse. Of course, this reduces religion to functionalism in that Habermas is attempting to extract from public religious discourse content that is conducive for the heathly functioning of a democratic public square he perceives as now in jeopardy. Habermas recognizes the problem of functionalism but, as Austin Harrington notes, he continues “to make an individual´s or collectivity´s relation to transcendence subordinate to alterior ends in various respects, as when he writes of religion´s semantic potential and its function for the regeneration of a dwindling normative consciousness”.

    Habermas has stated elsewhere that religious discourses would lose their identity if they were to open themselves up to a type of interpretation which no longer allows religious experiences to be valid as religious experiences. How to reconcile this with his apparent instrumental conception of religion in the public sphere is problematic.

  2. avatar Johan Siebers says:

    The idea that there is a core to religion that remains important also for secularised reason—and that is as yet not completely salvaged by secular reason (‘materialist’ reason) goes back to the work of Ernst Bloch (Atheism in Christianity) and Walter Benjamin (Begriff der Geschichte, first thesis), and via them in a way, to Marx. It is a side-effect, if you will, of Marx’s move to put Hegelian dialectics on its feet. Religion suddenly was no longer an imaginary or symbolic mode of expression for what ultimately has to be grasped in Reason, but a topsy-turvy storehouse of images, feelings, realisations, affects and effects concerning exactly the three things Habermas talks about—power, existence, eschatology (what can’t yet be articulated)—but not reducible to a formal-rational or factual redescription. It is also present in Adorno’s ‘loyalty to metaphysics in the moment of its collapse’ (despite Habermas’ stylisation of Adorno as the fly-bottle he (H.) found a way out of). It is a point for reflection that the long and serious engagment with religious content in this tradition of marxism is so invisible today, and it may well point to a difficulty in Habermas’s reading of the situation: For what are we to do when we, as secular citizens, take our religious fellow citizens seriously? The religious content hinges on the unum necessarium—no ‘post-metapysical’ thinking can take that seriously unless it changes itself. Post-metaphysical thinking is far from ideologically neutral—it also has its totality. In the end there is the promise of taking the content seriously, but on purely procedural terms. The difference with Rawls may not be so significant after all. Only if reason can keep the question about its own nature open, can it avoid its totalising tendency (which as Habermas says appears as defaitism today). But that is always a matter of ‘keep trying,’ and never guaranteed—and only possible in the light of reason’s ultimate. The relation to an ultimate can never be procedural or formal.

  3. avatar Gillian Gamberdell says:

    Overall, I agree with Jürgen Habermas’s arguments. The notions of “allowing” or “tolerating” religious speech imply that such speech is inferior to secular speech—it is something that must be accepted or endured but is not ideal. However, this attitude and the secularization of public discourse downplays and distorts how much of a role religion plays in millions of American’s lives, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Nearly 80% of Americans believe the Bible is the literal or inspired word of God and 40% attend religious services on a weekly basis. Religion is how a substantial number of people see the world and find meaning and answers within their lives.

    As Habermas points out, a fair treatment of religious citizens require that we go beyond allowing and tolerating: religious arguments should be respected and taken seriously. The impulse to keep religion entirely out of the public sphere is more harmful than beneficial. Religious people’s views are marginalized, which can lead to feelings of division and exclusion. However, this is also harmful for nonreligious people: in spite of the large numbers of religious people within the United States, it is possible to be raised and educated in a predominantly secular environment and never really interact with people of faith. When religious discourse and thus their way of understanding the world is kept out of the public sphere, this creates the impression that faith is presented something that can be set aside when it is time to make serious decisions. This in turn creates the impression that religion is inflexible, incapable of being engaged in debate or discussion, and not worth legitimately engaging.

    Marginalizing religious discourse closes the door on genuine debate for both religious and nonreligious people. Books like The God Delusion have just as much a place in the public square as religion: what needs to happen is honest and sincere debate where people can use the genuine language to describe their views and experiences. Allowing for religious discourse allows for more genuine discussion and greater ability for people on both sides to engage and relate to each other.

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