Habermas on Religion in the Public Sphere January 04, 2007 Aimee Milburn Cooper
First, Habermas has become concerned that the suppression of religion in the public sphere has created an unacceptable inequality between citizens of the state:
The liberal state must not transform the requisite institutional separation of the religion and politics into an undue mental and psychological burden for those of its citizens who follow a faith. . . . [Citizens should not have to] split their identity into a public and private part the moment they participate in public discourses. They should therefore be allowed to express and justify their convictions in a religious language if they cannot find secular ‘translations’ for them.
Though it is questionable that religious speech should be “allowed,” as opposed to recognized as a basic right, I appreciate that he recognizes the burden and seeks to rectify it.
Second, he reasons that religious citizens have a burden, as far as possible, of “translating” religious reasoning into terms their secular counterparts can understand, to facilitate communication; and the freedom, if they can’t “translate,” to speak freely and publicly in religious terms. He also reasons that secular citizens have in turn the responsibility to listen for possible “truth” in religious arguments:
This requirement of translation must be conceived as a cooperative task in which the non-religious citizens must likewise participate, if their religious fellow citizens are not to be encumbered with an asymmetrical burden. . . . Secular citizens must open their minds to the possible truth content of those presentations and enter dialogues from which religious reasons then might well emerge in the transformed guise of generally accessible arguments.
Note that Habermas, the secular atheist, is acknowledging that religious reasoning may contain “possible truth” that secularity should be open to. This is a far cry from the view of religion as oppressive “superstition” in the original Enlightenment view.
Third, Habermas observes that particular worldviews and religious doctrines are inherent to the formation of the person and cannot simply be laid aside in the public square, but must be taken into account in any public discourse. The expectation that they be laid aside, which he identifies as dominant since the Reformation and Enlightenment, places undue burdens on religious citizens and creates “cognitive dissonances” that, if they penetrate deeply enough into the fabric of the community, can cause its disintegration into irreconcilable segments:
In the absence of the uniting body of a civic solidarity . . . citizens do not perceive themselves as free and equal participants in the shared practices of democratic opinion and will formation wherein they owe one another reasons [emphasis Habermas’] for their political statements and attitudes. This reciprocity of expectations among citizens is what distinguishes a community integrated by constitutional values from a community segmented along the dividing lines of competing world views.
His view is based on the concept of the person as having both freedom and inherent dignity, which in the public sphere manifests as both the right to speak freely and be heard, and the duty to listen to and carefully consider the freely expressed views of other persons. He speaks of the danger to pluralistic civil society when “in the case of conflicts that cut deep, citizens need not adapt to or face one another as second persons” (emphasis Habermas’).
He has developed this idea elsewhere in his theory of “communicative action.” This theory is consistent with recent Catholic teaching on the person and society, beginning with the documents of Vatican II and expressed most recently in speeches and statements of Pope Benedict XVI, such as the Regensburg address, which call for respectful, rational dialogue between persons and societies of differing religious and philosophical views.
Fourth, Habermas has come to believe that modern Liberalism is “intrinsically self-contradictory” because it represses and devalues the free speech of religious citizens, and demands of them “an effort to learn and adapt that secular citizens are spared having to make.” He is highly critical of this prevailing secular prejudice against religion:
As long as secular citizens are convinced that religious traditions and religious communities are . . . archaic relics of pre-modern societies that continue to exist in the present, they will understand freedom of religion as the cultural version of the conservation of a species in danger of becoming extinct. From their viewpoint, religion no longer has any intrinsic justification to exist. . . . [Secular citizens] can obviously [not] be expected to take religious contributions to contentious political issues seriously and even to help to assess them for a substance that can possibly be expressed in a secular language and justified by secular arguments.. . . The admission of religious statements to the political public sphere only makes sense if all citizens can be expected not to deny from the outset any possible cognitive substance to these contributions. . . . [Yet] such an attitude presupposes a mentality that is anything but a matter of course in the secularized societies of the West.
Fifth and last, he criticizes the way that reason itself is used in secular culture, calling it inadequate and a danger. He calls for a “self-critical assessment of the limits of secular reason;” the “overcoming of . . . a narrow secularist consciousness”;and asks “secular citizens . . . [to be] prepared to learn something from the contributions to public debates made by their religious counterparts.” He states “the ethics of democratic citizenship assumes secular citizens exhibit a mentality that is no less demanding than the corresponding mentality of their religious counterparts,” and so calls citizens to a much higher standard of reasoning:
The polarization of the world views in a community that splits into fundamentalist and secular camps [shows] that an insufficient number of citizens matches up to the yardstick of the public use of reason and thereby endanger political integration.
In sum, Habermas is proposing no less than a “revised concept of citizenship” that simultaneously restores freedom of religious speech and reasoning to the public squareand elevates the level of secular reasoning, with an equal duty of respect, listening, and reciprocity expected of all citizens. This is stunning in light of classical Enlightenment and Liberal thought on religion – and very hopeful, coming from such a prominent and respected secular atheist.