In his essay “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas joins the debate between liberals and critics of liberalism on the proper role of religion in the public sphere. His proposal focuses on what each side of the debate gets right: the liberal emphasis on the obligation to provide nonreligious reasons in support of coercive policies with which all citizens must comply, on one side, and the critic’s insistence on the right of religious citizens to adopt their religious stance in public deliberation about such policies, on the other. Habermas agrees with the liberal position in defending the separation of church and state, and thus the institutional priority of nonreligious reasons in politics. Consequently, he accepts the Rawlsian view that nonreligious reasons must be offered to justify coercive policies in political deliberation at the institutional level of parliaments, courts, ministries and administrations, that is, in the formal public sphere. But he proposes to eliminate this requirement in the informal public sphere. Religious citizens who participate in political advocacy in the informal public sphere can offer exclusively religious reasons in support of the policies they favor in the hope that they may be translated into nonreligious reasons. But the obligation of translation should not fall exclusively on the shoulders of religious citizens, as the Rawlsian approach suggests. According to Habermas, secular citizens must share the burden of translating religious into nonreligious reasons. In order to do so, they have to take religious reasons seriously and should not deny their possible truth from the outset.
At first sight, this proposal may seem less restrictive than the Rawlsian and thus better equipped to enable the political inclusion of religious citizens. However, unlike Rawls, Habermas imposes additional constraints on the epistemic attitudes appropriate to democratic citizenship. According to him, the normative expectations of democratic citizenship can only be met after some crucial “learning processes” have taken place among both religious and secular citizens. On the one hand, religious citizens must develop a self-reflective attitude towards Modernity. This involves accepting the possible truth of other religions, the authority of science, and the institutional priority of nonreligious reasons in politics. On the other hand, secular citizens must develop a self-reflective attitude towards the post-secular society in which they live. This involves transcending a secularist understanding of Modernity, according to which religions have no cognitive substance. As a consequence, severe restrictions are imposed on the types of reasons that may legitimately be used in political discussions in the public sphere. For example, religious citizens cannot appeal to religious reasons that deny the authority of science or the possible truth of other religions, and secular citizens cannot appeal to secularist reasons that deny the possible truth of religious beliefs.
I find Habermas’s diagnosis of the changes in mentality required of religious and secular citizens in a post-secular society highly problematic. Being a secular citizen myself, I certainly would welcome the acceptance of the authority of science by everyone, religious citizens included. From an epistemic point of view, I do not see any rational alternative. But, even so, I fail to see how this could suffice to justify the quite different claim that accepting the authority of science is a moral duty of democratic citizenship. That claim demands substantive justification, something that Habermas does not provide. This omission seems particularly problematic in the context of an approach that aims to enable the political integration of religious citizens (i.e., of religious citizens as they actually are, one would assume) in liberal democracies. An even more problematic suggestion is that democratic citizens are required to transcend a secularist understanding of Modernity, according to which religious beliefs have no cognitive substance. Here it is not only unclear what could justify the claim that citizens should open their minds to the possible truth of religious beliefs in order to be democratic, but it is even unclear what could justify the claim that they should do so in order to be rational. As long as the proper understanding of Modernity is a contested issue, it is hard to find anything irrational in citizens who believe “that, in the long run, religious views will inevitably melt under the sun of scientific criticism and that religious communities will not be able to withstand the pressures of some unstoppable cultural and social modernization.” Since we do not know yet whether the secularist hypothesis is true or false, as Habermas himself recognizes, it cannot be rationally required of any citizen to believe one way or the other. In the absence of conclusive evidence, universal acceptance of the post-secular diagnosis of Modernity does not seem particularly desirable from an epistemic point of view.
Now, for all that, Habermas could still be right in claiming that the political inclusion of all democratic citizens will only be possible if their respective cognitive stances undergo these transformations. Certainly, if citizen’s cognitive stances were to become similar enough the problem of political integration would eventually disappear. But it seems to me that if an ethics of democratic citizenship is needed at all, it is needed precisely to answer the question of what citizens should do in cases of conflict before such an ideal endpoint is reached. Under conditions of pluralism, a solution to the problem of political integration can hardly consist in the hope that the problem will evaporate if and when some views at both extremes of the spectrum disappear (e.g. the views of religious citizens who believe in creationism and secularist citizens who believe that religions are irrational). What is at issue here is whether democratic citizens can be politically integrated as they actually are, i.e., given their actual religious or secularist cognitive stances.
This is indeed a major concern of critics of the liberal proposal. A central objection to the Rawlsian proviso that requires citizens to offer nonreligious reasons in support of coercive policies is that it may force religious citizens to be disingenuous. Given that we cannot take an instrumental attitude towards our own beliefs or cognitive stances in order to choose what reasons we find convincing and what reasons we do not, the obligation to provide nonreligious reasons may force religious citizens to argue for something other than what they actually believe. This difficulty is addressed by Habermas’s proposal to let citizens provide religious reasons in public deliberation. But, as a consequence, the difficulty reappears for secular citizens. According to Habermas, allowing religious reasons in public deliberation only makes sense if all citizens take those reasons seriously and do not deny their possible truth from the outset. It follows that secular citizens should not make public use of their sincere beliefs if they happen to be of a secularist type that contradicts the possible truth of religious claims. However, if disallowing democratic citizens to publicly adopt their own cognitive stance is unacceptable, it seems that this would be so whether those citizens happen to take a religious or secularist stance. This problem is aggravated by what is likely to strike secular citizens as a disquieting additional obligation, namely, the obligation to open their minds to the possible truth of religious reasons as a precondition for finding out whether they can be translated into secular ones. Beyond its doubtful feasibility, this obligation seems to deprive secular citizens of the very same right to publicly adopt their own cognitive stance that the proposal aims to grant to religious citizens.
But is it possible to organize public deliberation in such a way that the right of democratic citizens to adopt their own cognitive stances is recognized without giving up on the democratic obligation to secure that only public reasons count in support of coercive policies with which all citizens must comply?[Stay tuned for the next installment]