Rethinking secularism:

Open thread: The power of religion in the public sphere

posted by Ruth Braunstein and David Kyuman Kim

Four of the world’s leading public intellectuals came together yesterday in the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union to discuss “Rethinking Secularism.” In an electrifying symposium convened by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, the Social Science Research Council and the Humanities Institute at Stony Brook University, Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West gave powerful accounts of religion in the public sphere. The Immanent Frame invites you to respond to the symposium presentations by submitting comments in the space below.

UPDATE: Listen to audio of the event here.

As Craig Calhoun summarized in his closing remarks, the four speakers addressed in different ways the problem of the secular. For Taylor and Habermas, this is centrally the challenge of inhabiting a common world without universally shared absolutes, and of respecting the past while maintaining openness to the future. Butler emphasized the need to start from alterity and the recognition of non-belonging. West added the centrality of poetry, prophecy and empathy for suffering. Habermas launched the discussion by challenging the meaning of “the political” as it has been inherited from the tradition of political theology and argued that a “democratic process is also a learning process.” This plea for democratic life undergirds his call to engage the voices and values of religious citizens in public deliberation. “This proposal includes complementary burdens on both sides,” Habermas explained. “Religious citizens who regard themselves as loyal members of a constitutional democracy must accept the translation proviso as the price to be paid for the neutrality of the state authority toward competing worldviews. For secular citizens, this same ethics of citizenship entails the duty of reciprocal accountability toward all citizens. Reciprocity in this sense also entails not dismissing religious utterances as mere nonsense in the public sphere.”  Ultimately, he argued, “This proposal achieves the liberal goal of ensuring that all legally enforceable decisions can be formulated and justified in a universally accessible language without having to restrict the polyphonic diversity of public voices at its very source.”

Taylor made a strong case for maintaining this “polyphonic diversity” within a secular public sphere, while suggesting that secularism is not really about religion: “We think that secularism (or laïcité) has to do with the relation of the state and religion; whereas in fact it has to do with the (correct) response of the democratic state to diversity.” An argument justified by reference to Marx or Kant, he suggested, is no more universal than one justified by reference to scripture. Drawing on his experiences negotiating cultural diversity in Quebec, Taylor argued that citizens must engage in a good faith effort to shape political institutions that do not simply “remain true to hallowed tradition,” but rather, “maximize the basic goals of liberty and equality between basic beliefs.”

Butler took on the centrality of difference and alterity, in concert with equality. She underscored the multiplicity of Jewish values and experiences and offered a courageous critique of Israeli state violence. Working with and against concepts of exile and diaspora, Butler introduced the concept of “co-habitation.” Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, Edward Said and Walter Benjamin, she argued, “it is not only that we may not choose with whom to co-habit, but that we must actively preserve the non-chosen character of inclusive and plural co-habitation: we not only live with those we never chose and to whom we may feel no social sense of belonging, but we are also obligated to preserve those lives and the plurality of which they form a part.” In regard to the Jewish experience, she urged people to maintain a critical remembrance and to “reanimate certain ideals of co-habitation as the ethical basis for a public critique of those forms of state violence that seek to produce and maintain the Jewish character of the state through the radical disenfranchisement and decimation of its minority, through occupation, assault, or legal restriction.  These are attacks on a subjugated minority, but they are also attacks on co-habitation.”

Finally, West gave a rousing talk imploring those gathered to recognize suffering in the world and to muster the courage to bear witness to the catastrophic. He spoke of the indispensability of prophetic politics for the expansion of empathy and imagination, and asked the audience to imagine a public discourse that spurs “righteous indignation against injustice, not just anger at persons.”  His call to engage in prophetic citizenship directed hearts and minds to the conflict in the Middle East, the financial scandals of Wall Street and the unfulfilled promise of the Obama administration. Each of these powerful speakers advanced an understanding of politics as making a world in common, but always in relation to historically constituted diversity and connections, including competing claims to and refusals of universality. The symposium as a whole, Calhoun concluded, addressed the common question, how do societies establish systems of mutual belonging, recognition and care?

The Immanent Frame welcomes your comments, in the hopes of extending this critical conversation beyond the event itself.

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4 Responses to “Open thread: The power of religion in the public sphere”

  1. avatar Rosemary R. Hicks, Columbia University says:

    The Geist of Secularism and Uncivil Religion: Though subsequent commentators may remark on the familiar arguments presented during Thursday’s event at Cooper Union, I prefer to reflect on the lecturers’ collective performance and their individual incantations. The first panel of “Rethinking Secularism” involved Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor—public intellectuals whose works hardly need prefacing and whose presentations were true to form. Both elaborated on the ethics of citizenship within liberal democracies, the first taking up the concept of the political and the latter that of the secular. Despite their differences over the nature of religion, Taylor noted (the first having preserved the category as something unique—or, perhaps, uniquely problematic—within liberal polities, the latter arguing that it was but one among many indices of diversity), they could find consonance in the work of John Rawls. For anyone familiar with their theories about the public sphere, this was hardly surprising. Nor was it surprising that Judith Butler later challenged the neutrality of any public sphere or that of the liberal state. Somewhat channeling Talal Asad on the first matter and Wendy Brown on the second, Butler reminded the elder sages and the audience that they had not attended to the issues of access: the ability not only to speak, but to be heard, and the ability not only to reside and work in a liberal polity but to claim the rights, recognition, and protections of citizenship. These issues were both central to her later presentation, in which (like Cornel West) she presented a human ontology based in suffering, not citizenship, and a resulting ethics of alterity.

    Before discussing the second panel in which the indices of diversity were scheduled to speak, it is worth recalling the various philosophers and fundamentalists conjured up in the first. Neither Taylor nor Habermas saw their prescriptions for liberal citizenship as problematic. Each emphasized the necessity of a liberal, democratic state—Taylor arguing for this, plus human rights, as the essence of secularism, and Habermas connecting it to the neutral public sphere. Vigorous debate could and should exist, they allowed, as long as these debates were somewhat privatized and segregated from public policy, which must apply to all. Such segregation was only problematic for “fundamentalists,” Habermas argued. Meanwhile, Taylor contended that religious practitioners were not unique in needing protection or having particularistic claims. Notably, however, his primary example had to do with Islam (specifically, the somewhat pro forma spectre of the head scarf). In arguing for the unique essence of secularism as “civil religion,” Taylor specifically invoked Rousseau. Despite the historical emergence of secularism as a religious framework, he argued, and despite the historical use of secularism in reference to religion, secularism was not necessarily related to it. Rather, he noted, its essence was comprised of democracy, freedom, and universal human rights. “History has made it the case that the term ‘secularist’ has acquired a referent to religion,” he argued, but origins were not determinative. Striking the chord of progress, Taylor offered a rather prophetic pronouncement about the imminent future, in which secularists might no longer need such a civil religion—or, in fact, any reference to religion at all. Though never specifically conjured, and certainly not intended, the most tangible ghost dredged up with secularism was not Rousseau but Hegel—and not the liberté of civil religion, but the kind on which history’s chopping block is built. I will not rehash here Courtney Bender’s challenge to Taylor’s history of disenchantment, nor the various arguments of Immanent Frame contributors who have connected “human rights” to a new form of imperialism. Rather, I turn to the rest of the performance.

    Framed as fantasy (mediator Eduardo Mendieta), as prophecy, and as poetry, the second panel was orchestrated as a religious response to the first. West introduced himself as “a blues man” and opened his rejoinder by summoning Plato. Rather than privatize the poets and segregate their suffering, he preached, philosophers and politicians must recognize their incivility—must acknowledge the “catastrophe” of history that inhered in their promise of progress and neutrality. West’s voice resonated through the Great Hall in which Lincoln (invoked earlier) once spoke. He celebrated the civil rights alliances of Jewish refugees and black Christians, and called in response to Abraham Joshua Heschel, as Butler somewhat did to Said and Arendt. Referencing Palestinian rights but no actual Muslims, both posed a shifting universality of particularism and a liberating ethics of inter-dependence with others not of one’s choosing. This was the only hope of “moving forward,” Butler argued (something she separated from progress histories and Christianity-based narratives of secularization.) Before the curtain fell, the earlier panelists joined Butler and West on stage, and it was Habermas who stole the show. He turned to West in what was either the opening or closing of a dialog, and contended that West had not only argued for the return of prophetic religion, he had “preformed prophetic religion.” At that point, Habermas contented, “all one can do is stand up and change one’s mind” and any further “academic” conversation was pointless. Was this the recognition of a faulty secular/religion, thinking/feeling, universal/particular binary (something West had somewhat maintained), or a subtle second act in secreting academic/public/neutral reason back to an unmarked domain?

  2. avatar Mara Willard, Harvard University says:

    Butler, Arendt, and Religious Narrative for Political Life

    I found Judith Butler’s careful use of the thoughts of Arendt, Benjamin, and Said to be a terrifically energizing modeling of and reference to the use of religious reasoning in public life.

    Through her proposals of alternate strategies for representing and authorizing Jewish life and ethics by consideration of a diasporic tradition rather than on models of state sovereignty, Professor Butler emphasized the potential contributions of religious thought to the public sphere. Further, the ideas she asked us to consider defied ossification into wholly “religious” or “secular” categories of reason-giving. Instead, they introduce us to the conceptual experiments of three particular late-modern thinkers whose interests were cultural, political and philosophical as well as religious, who “raised a heavy claw” against theological traditions as well as appropriating their insights.

    I would like to continue our attention on the manner in which Arendt, despite her critiques of institutional religion and attempts to overcome metaphysics, made recourse to extracted “corals and pearls” of the religious tradition to articulate and authorize her claims. (I have been considering these ideas for my dissertation “Theological Remnants and Renunciations in the Political Philosophy of Hannah Arendt.”) Such efforts provide a nice resonance to and within Professor Butler’s proposals.

    Such recourse to religious discourse to political effect includes Arendt’s frequent reference of the second genesis creation myth (“male and female created He them”) to depict the givenness of human plurality. Against racist ontologies of the ethnic nationalists (Hitler’s “God the Almighty has made our nation”) she references the myth of Adam, and our common humanity. Arendt insists that the human is not a universal essence, created in the image of sovereign God, and must not be similarly molded into a universal form by the sovereign state. Instead, we are a kind of being that is dynamic, subject to the contingencies of its own action. Augustine articulates as much in his creation story: humans were created “that a beginning be made” (“initium est”). Such stories provided “conditions of possibility” for rethinking political life after totalitarianism, as Arendt noted in her journal in 1950.

    Arendt thus appealed to myths that facilitated political life as she understood it (responsive to human plurality, finitude, and capacity for action) to countermand myths that suppressed such an understanding. Jaspers, who insisted (contra Bultmann) on the value of myth for articulating existential truth, that “the Bible is a favorite arena of spiritual contest; another one is provided by the Greek epic poems and tragedies,” was surely proud of his student.

    As Professor Butler emphasized, Arendt never appropriated religious tradition wholecloth. It was the contrasting effect of “rich and strange” citations, religious and otherwise, thrown against the hegemonic and stifling logic of the moment, that did her work for her. Yet it was, as I suggest above and as Professor Butler herself modeled, an internal critique of the religious tradition.

    In sum, Arendt’s objections to a philosophical-political tradition that she found solipsistic, unable to theorize the human as plural and dynamic, both challenge the Platonic-Christian legacy and sustain certain of its repressed claims. She uncovers hidden claims of humans as created in difference, or ontologically endowed with the capacity to begin, that the tradition has not handed down. Such forms of reason-giving contest the silences of the tradition, its exclusions.

    Arendt, though she objected strenuously to both political liberalism and the ills of mixing religion in claims of the nation, surely understood the power of religious stories in public contentions over our efforts to form a political life after the lessons of totalitarianism.

  3. avatar Wolf Heydebrand says:

    Thank you for the invitation to participate in this virtual discussion.

    It would be hard to deny the importance of the “liberal goal of ensuring that all {legally enforceable?} decisions can be formulated and justified in a universally accessible language” (Habermas), or making a “good faith effort” to “maximize the basic goals of liberty and equality between basic beliefs” (Taylor). However, the burden of proof or consent is less on those holding secular beliefs than those who profess more or less fundamentalist beliefs and insist on their right to expect non-believers or “infidels” to shed their agnosticism and conform or convert to the beliefs of the “believers”. The intolerant and destructive implications of such expectations—a form of institutional violence—are shared, unfortunately, by both fundamentalist Christians and the Taliban, although to different degrees.

    The appeals to peaceful “co-habitation” (Butler) and “the need for righteous indignation” about the lack of imaginative empathy and compassion (West), in addition to their moral fervor, share the virtue of exhibiting a greater degree of historical specificity and concrete urgency than that invoked by the first two speakers. West also expands the scope of the discussion by transcending religious conflict and addressing issues of economic equality and political responsiveness.

    All told, these speakers raised powerful voices in what seems to be an expanding moral vacuum in both developing and developed societies.

  4. avatar John D. Boy says:

    I wrote these reflections on the Cooper Union event months ago and for some reason never sent them. I figured I’d better share them late than never.

    The disagreement between Taylor and Habermas seems to boil down to this. Taylor, in his triumphalist account of our age, claims that western societies are characterized by their unmediated spaces of direct access. (None of Cornel West’s focus on the “catastrophic” here!) Hence it is possible for Taylor, in his “radical” formulation of secularism, to claim that collective will formation in western publics is not premised on any kind of mediation. Rather, “overlapping consensus” is sufficient to overcome religious and other differences in the public sphere. Habermas is not convinced by this idea. In his view, religious differences are particularly obstinate due to what Roger Caillois called “sursocialization”—intense processes of character and group formation through sacred ritual. This excess introduced by religion, what Habermas calls “religion as a vital force,” sets religious speech apart from other kinds of speech and necessitates translation (i.e., institutional mediation).

    Habermas is right to question Taylor’s notion of direct access, but wrong to attribute its shortcomings to alleged essential characteristics of religion that set it apart from other kinds of discourses or identities. Neither Taylor’s notion of neutrality and overlapping consensus, nor Habermas’s notion of translation are particularly “radical” approaches to rethinking secularism.

    Despite their disagreement on the question of “translation,” both Taylor and Habermas think that revising secularism means altering the relationship between the state and religion. For Taylor, that entails greater state neutrality vis-à-vis religion; for Habermas, ensuring the possibility for religious inputs into public deliberation without shortciruiting public institutions. Neither pose the question whether the crisis of secularism needs to be addressed at another level. Thus, they repeat the assertion that secularism is essentially about religion and its relationship to the state. This has been questioned, inter alia, by Talal Asad, who makes the point that secularism as a political arrangement is undergirded by conditions, desires, and attitudes that cut across demarcated spheres like religion, civil society, or the state.

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