Rethinking secularism:

Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor in conversation

posted by The Editors

rethinkingIn a 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 came together last month to discuss the project of “rethinking secularism.” Today we are posting audio and a transcript of the October 22 discussion between Habermas and Taylor, moderated by Craig Calhoun, in which the two leading philosophers discuss the place of religion in the public sphere and whether there are differences in kind between religious and secular reasons. (Listen to the paper presentations that preceded this discussion here. Add your own voice to the discussion here.)

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Calhoun: Thank you both, Jürgen and Chuck, for really interesting, challenging discussions. They are similar and connected enough that I think we are discussing a common terrain, and there are enough differences that it ought to be possible to continue discussing it in fruitful ways.

I want to give Jürgen a chance to respond first, having just heard Charles. Let me pose a particular question, to start this.

Part of the burden of Charles’s talk was to suggest that religion should not be considered a special case, either with regard to political discourse or with regard to reason and argumentation in general, but rather that religion is simply one instance of the more general challenge of diversity, including diversity and comprehensive views of the good, in Rawls’s language. Therefore, analogous to the difference between Utilitarians and Kantians, we may have the possibly declining difference between Episcopalians and Catholics these days.

Does this make sense to you? Would you buy this argument? If not, does it give you a chance to elaborate your position a little, to clarify why?

HabermasHabermas: I think I understand the motivation, but I do not accept the reason that Chuck is here proposing to level a distinction which still seems to me very relevant in our context.

As to the motivation, I would immediately agree that it makes no sense to oppose one sort of reason—secular—against religious reasons, under the heading that these religious reasons are coming out of a world view which is inherently irrational […]. Our common human reason is working in religious traditions, as well as in any other cultural enterprise, including science. So there is no difference on net.

However, if it comes to lumping together Kantianism and Utilitarianism, whatever kind of Hegelianism, and so on with religious doctrines, then I would say there are differences in kind between reasons. One way to put it is that—I will use, so to say, “secular”—we have to talk about it in the next step—in the usual, conventional sense that Chuck is trying to circumvent by introducing “official” language.

Anyhow, secular reasons, if they are relating to a context of assumptions—relating to, let’s say, a philosophical or whatever approach, which is distinguished from any kind of religious tradition by the fact that it doesn’t require membership—it is important that, for any kind of religious reasons, you are appealing to membership in a particular or corresponding religious community because of one thing: namely, only if you are a member and can speak first-person about a religious community you can share a specific kind of experience.

To put it bluntly, the most important experience—and I’m not ranking it, please—is coming out from participating in cultic practices, in cultic practices in which no Kantian or Utilitarian has to participate in order to make a good Kantian or Utilitarian argument. So it’s a kind of experience that is blocked, so to say, or not taken into account, is abstracted from, in these secular spaces of giving and taking reasons.

Secondly, there is no reference to getting socialized in a religious community that can be traced back in the five or four great world religions to a historical thinker or historical origins, and is continued through a doctrine and the interpretation of such a doctrine. This socialization is depending on an understanding of what it means to refer, in our kind of religions, to a kind of revealed truth.

It is difficult to explain what it means outside. I am raised as a Lutheran Protestant and now I am an agnostic, so I have memories of my religious socialization. This, again, is abstracted from. Certainly what you have to abstract from if you enter a discussion between Kantians and Utilitarians is that with those doctrines there is not internally connected a specific path to salvation, a path to salvation that enhances considerably religion, as we understand it. A path to salvation means: follow an exemplary figure which draws its authority from ancient origins or testimony.

A path to salvation is different from any kind of ethics—ethics in my sense of explaining how you should lead a life that is not only good in the Utilitarian sense, and not even only desirable in the Aristotelian sense or Augustinian sense, but which is a life where you can, the next morning, look into the mirror and not blush—this kind of life.

Ethical projections are projections for lives, individual and collective lives, within history, and not going beyond the limits of what we can identify as integral events in states. This, I would say, is the difference.

TaylorTaylor: A lot of very interesting points made there. I don’t agree with all of them—I don’t agree, particularly, about the distinction between ethics and religion. Thomas Aquinas talks about the three theological virtues, which give a different idea of what the good life is.

But anyway, let’s leave that aside, because I think the really, really key issue is, what has all that got to do with discourse? If I say something, like ‘I’m for the rights of human beings because humans were made in the image of God’—that’s something that comes out of Genesis—it’s not entirely clear right off whether I’m a practicing Jew, a Catholic, a Protestant, or just somebody who thinks that this is a very meaningful thought that came out of Genesis.

I don’t see how you can track in different kinds of discourse—unless we are talking about other kinds of discourse, where I’m saying to you, “Well, I had this great experience, a vision of the Virgin or St. Therese,” and so on—Of course, at that point, that discourse is directly related to this kind of experience. Certain kinds of discourse, if I were trying to describe to you a religious experience, would be directly related to that experience.

But the kind of discourse we’re sharing—Martin Luther King had a certain discourse about the U.S. Constitution and its entailments which weren’t being followed through. And then he had a very powerful Christian discourse, referring to Exodus, referring to liberation. Nobody had any trouble understanding this. They didn’t have to imagine or be able to understand or conceive the deeper experiences that he might have had—you know, the experience in the kitchen when he decided he had to go on.

How can you discriminate discourses on the basis of the deep psychological background?

I could make another story about the psychological background that Kantians have and so on, and why they get excited by certain things which don’t excite me. But what has that got to do with the discourse out there? Can people not understand it? Why discriminate on those grounds?

Habermas: The difference is that religious utterances belong to a kind of category of discourse in which you do not just move within a worldview or within a cognitive interpretation of a domain of human life, but you are speaking out, as I said, from an experience that is tied up with your membership in a community. Talking about being created in God’s image is, in our conditions, easily translatable into what other people would derive from autonomy or from a certain interpretation of being equipped with human rights. That’s not my notion, but you could translate.

To ask a question—in your impulse to level this difference between kinds of reasons—I’m just asking whether I’m right in assuming that there is a defense against subordinating religious reasons to public reasons, or against people who find that religious discourse is not up-to-date, that it’s something of the past?

What we are doing here, the two of us, this afternoon, is we both are moving in the same space of philosophical and historical and sociological reasons, whereas you are motivated, of course, by religious reasons. And that is fine. Why should I be concerned about that?

But the discourse in which we move needs no translation. If it comes to religious speech, then it needs translation, if it comes to public decisions that are enforceable, in order to give some explanation of the reference to Genesis I.

We both are liberals.

Taylor: The difference is that I’m saying you can’t have those kinds of references because they are the references that really touch on certain people’s spiritual lives and not others’. But the same thing goes for the reference to Marx and the reference to Kant. So we are trying to look at, not why we have to exclude those references for the purposes of fairness and universality, but why these references had to be treated specially—and I still don’t understand about the special treatment—because they belong to some kind of different domain.

I certainly agree that there are big, big differences between the reasoning of a deeply religious person about ethics and the reasoning of one who is not, because there are certain conceptions of possible human transformation which are believed in by one and not by the other. That’s for sure the case.

But there are analogues to this. I can have enough sympathy for the Kantian position, for instance, that I can understand the rhetoric of Kant about “the starry sky above and the moral law within” and “Achtung für das Gesetz” and so on. I can understand that. There’s a certain experience behind that. I could imagine somebody saying, “I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Awe and respect for the law? Are you crazy?” Some people just don’t get it.

Habermas: I do want to save, also, the imperative character of religious speech in the public sphere, because I’m convinced that there are buried intuitions that can be uncovered by a moving speech. Listening to Martin Luther King, it makes no difference whether you are secular or not. You understand what he means. He is speaking in the public and was killed for that.

This is not our difference. Our difference is that, in one of your phrases, at least in the paper, you said there is a call for a deeper grounding of a secular justification of constitutional essentials in terms of popular sovereignty and human rights. This is our difference. There I think I could not follow you, because the official language on which we agree is depending on a previous background consensus—however abstract and vague it may be—on what we might call constitutional essentials, because we couldn’t go to the courts or appeal to human rights or make arguments by reference to the Constitution, be it in legislatures or in the administration or, first of all, in the education.

How to settle this background consensus in the first place, if not within, so to say, a space of neutral reasons? And “neutral” now in a peculiar sense. They are secular in a non-Christian sense of secularization, for one reason. This, truly, you have described so wonderfully in your A Secular Age. Secularization from within the church means tearing down the walls of the monasteries and getting the serious commands of the Lord and the appeal for imitatio Christi. […] This is secularization from within the Christian community.

Now, at the very moment when you have to get a consensus, a background consensus, in terms of which you can only appeal to a court in order to solve headscarf cases—Muslims coming in and arguing their case and so on and so on—there are procedures, there are principles. Suppose that every American citizen accepts the current situation. That’s the necessary supposition. It has to work out for all the disagreements.

Take this secularization from within. In the moment when the religious legitimation must be substituted by a liberal one, let’s say, one version or the other—in that moment, we have to find common reasons, not only between religious communities—at first in the United States, but even in France, et cetera—and also among the non-believers. They were a small elitist party, but still—there were three parties: believers, other believers, non-believers. We have to find a platform in order to get reasons that are secular in a specific, no longer Christian, sense, because the Christian part in the discourse, or struggle, was finally to consent to the perspective tied up to one’s own community of religious or other religious or non-religious communities, and to force mutual perspective-taking so that we can develop a more inclusive perspective. These kinds of reasons in our conventional talk we call secular in this special sense, to which I would like to stick.

Calhoun: Let me push back one last time. Then we’re going to be almost out of time here.

To accent the commonalities here, one of them seems to be that this is all about the capacity for sharing, in some sense, and, from each of you, in a setting where no one has recourse to extra-discursive power. So this is ruling out that set of issues, which would involve one set of issues about religion.

It also sounds like, in fact, when Jürgen speaks of religious utterances in the public sphere, that it’s not all religious utterances that are at stake and it’s not religious motivations, but it’s specifically those justifications which are not amenable to being shared because they are based on either cultic experiences, from which many are excluded, or they are based on references to inherently non-discursive authority, to something outside the political. So it’s not all religious speech. In fact, religious sources for ethics and many other things come in.

But there are certain specific things, and they are problematic precisely if they produce an incapacity to share justifications.

I turn to Charles and ask, conversely, do you think that there is a similar incapacity to share and to discursively resolve the other kinds of differences that you would say are part of the same set with religious differences—cultural differences, ethnic differences, philosophical differences? The claim is going to be that there is the same sort of incapacity, in general, to find fully discursive resolutions or justifications.

Taylor: Yes. Think of the history of liberalism. There were attempts by very hard-bitten Utilitarians to grab the language in the 1830s. This was what it was going to be all about. Also the people who weren’t necessarily religious thought, “This is a takeover. We don’t think in those ways.”

If you want an emphasis on negotiation, where we put together our charter of rights from different people, it can’t be in Benthamite language, it can’t be simply in Kantian language, it can’t be in Christian language.

What Jürgen calls “secular” I’ll call “neutral.” That’s how I see it. I see it as absolutely indispensable.

Calhoun: But that doesn’t seem to be the heart of the difference. It seems to me that the stronger difference is that, in effect, you are saying that it is impossible to abstract from, or prescind from, the differences among deep commitments, comprehensive worldviews, et cetera, whether they are grounded religiously or otherwise. So the fundamental discursive issue is that you can’t abstract enough to carry on the discourse and settle things discursively, from any of these kinds of deep constitutive commitments. So religion is not a special case.

Taylor: Yes, that’s right.

Calhoun: Whereas I think, to confirm, Jürgen is saying that there are certain specific features that he sees in religious discourse which are more completely excluded from discursive resolution, from sharing in the discursive arena. So while there might be difficulties getting Kantians and Heideggerians to talk to each other, or there might be difficulties getting people of different nationalities to talk to each other, in principle there could be a discursive resolution to the variety of problems that emerge there, but distinctively not for religious problems.

Is that right, Jürgen, or is that going too far?

Habermas: I’m, in the first place, maintaining that there are differences in kind between religious and secular reasons. Secondly, I’m maintaining that religion makes, in relation to the legitimation of constitutional essentials and so forth, a difference because of the historical fusion of religion with politics that had to be differentiated out. This is the trivial part.

If it comes to either a constitution-making discourse, let’s say, where we have to develop the background consensus, or if it comes to any kind of interpretation within that frame, then I do not think that there must be any relevant consequences arising from the differences in kind. Religious people would probably know in advance that certain arguments do not count for those people with whom they are trying to reach an agreement. So they have to be taken from the agenda. This is how I think about developing justice questions and differentiating them from existential, ethical, religious. On that level, I don’t need to refer to any difference.

Calhoun: On that level, you’re not going to be in strong disagreement, right?

Taylor: No, no.

Calhoun: The disagreement is at another level.

Taylor: I just want to tell you one more thing. When we say “religion,” we mustn’t think of just Christianity. There are Buddhists, there are Hindus. A lot of the things you said don’t apply to the other cases at all. That really should give us pause before we make general remarks about—

Calhoun: Right. This is being argued from within the Western experience. There would need to be a bunch of different discussions within our historical trajectories.

Taylor: And they’re all here now.

Calhoun: Indeed they are. And they are us.

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