I would like to add a footnote to Saba Mahmood’s excellent piece “Is Critique Secular?” I think it’s important to explain the power that an affirmative answer to this question carries in our contemporary academy.

What are we to think of the idea, entertained by Rawls for a time, that one can legitimately ask of a religiously and philosophically diverse democracy that everyone deliberate in a language of reason alone, leaving their religious views in the vestibule of the public sphere? The tyrannical nature of this demand was rapidly appreciated by Rawls, to his credit. But we ought to ask why the proposition arose in the first place. Rawls’ point in suggesting this restriction was that everyone should use a language with which they could reasonably expect their fellow citizens to agree. The idea seems to be something like this. Secular reason is a language that everyone speaks, and can argue and be convinced in. Religious languages operate outside of this discourse, by introducing extraneous premises which only believers can accept. So let’s all talk the common language.

What underpins this notion is something like an epistemic distinction. There is secular reason, which everyone can use and reach conclusions by—conclusions that is, with which everyone can agree. Then there are special languages, which introduce extra assumptions, which might even contradict those of ordinary secular reason. These are much more epistemically fragile; in fact, you won’t be convinced by them unless you already hold them. So religious reason either comes to the same conclusions as secular reason, but then it is superfluous; or it comes to contrary conclusions, and then it is dangerous and disruptive. This is why it needs to be sidelined.

As for Habermas, he has always marked an epistemic break between secular reason and religious thought, with the advantage on the side of the first. Secular reason suffices to arrive at the normative conclusions we need, such as establishing the legitimacy of the democratic state, and defining our political ethic. Recently, his position on religious discourse has considerably evolved; to the point of recognizing that its “Potential macht die religiöse Rede bei entsprechenden politischen Fragen zu einem ernsthaften Kandidaten für mögliche Wahrheitsgehalte.” But the basic epistemic distinction still holds for him. Thus when it comes to the official language of the state, religious references have to be expunged. “Im Parlament muss beispielsweise die Geschäftsordnung den Presidenten ermächtigen, religiöse Stellungnahmen und Rechtfertigungen aus dem Protokoll zu streichen.”

I think that these positions of Rawls and Habermas show that they have not yet understood the normative basis for the contemporary secular state. I believe that they are on to something, in that there are zones of a secular state in which the language used has to be neutral. But these do not include citizen deliberation, as Rawls at first thought, or even deliberation in the legislature, as Habermas seems to think from the above quote. This zone can be described as the official language of the state: the language in which legislation, administrative decrees and court judgments must be couched. It is self-evident that a law before Parliament couldn’t contain a justifying clause of the type: “Whereas the Bible tells us that p.” And the same goes mutatis mutandis for the justification of a judicial decision in the court’s verdict. But this has nothing to do with the specific nature of religious language. It would be equally improper to have a legislative clause: “Whereas Marx has shown that religion is the opium of the people,” or “Whereas Kant has shown that the only thing good without qualification is a good will.” The grounds for both these kinds of exclusions is the neutrality of the state.

The state can be neither Christian nor Muslim nor Jewish; but by the same token it should also be neither Marxist, nor Kantian, nor Utilitarian. Of course, the democratic state will end up voting laws which (in the best case) reflect the actual convictions of its citizens, which will be either Christian, or Muslim, etc, through the whole gamut of views held in a modern society. But the decisions can’t be framed in a way which gives special recognition to one of these views. This is not easy to do; the lines are hard to draw; and they must always be drawn anew. But such is the nature of the enterprise which is the modern secular state. And what better alternative is there for diverse democracies?

Now the notion that state neutrality is basically a response to diversity has trouble making headway among “secular” people in the West, who remain oddly fixated on religion, as something strange and perhaps even threatening. This stance is fed by all the conflicts of liberal states with religion, past and present, but also by a specifically epistemic distinction: religiously informed thought is somehow less rational than purely “secular” reasoning. The attitude has a political ground (religion as threat), but also an epistemological one (religion as a faulty mode of reason).

I believe we can see these two motifs in a popular contemporary book, Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God. On one hand, Lilla wants to claim that there is a great gulf between thinking informed by political theology and “thinking and talking about politics exclusively in human terms.” Moderns have effected “the liberation, isolation, and clarification of distinctively political questions, apart from speculations about the divine nexus. Politics became, intellectually speaking, its own realm deserving independent investigation and serving the limited aim of providing the peace and plenty necessary for human dignity. That was the Great Separation.” Such metaphors of radical separation imply that human-centered political thought is a more reliable guide to answer the questions in its domain than theories informed by political theology.

So much for the epistemological ranking. But then towards the end of the view, Lilla calls on us not to lose our nerve, and allow the Great Separation to be reversed; which seems to imply that there are dangers in doing so. The return of religion in this sense would be full of menace.

This phenomenon deserves fuller examination. Ideally, we should look carefully at the double grounds for this stance of distrust, comment on these, and then say something about the possible negative political consequences of maintaining this stance. But in this contribution, I shall only really have space to look at some roots of the epistemological ground.

I think this has its source in what one might call a myth of the Enlightenment. There certainly is a common view which sees the Enlightenment (Aufklärung, Lumières) as a passage from darkness to light, that is, as an absolute, unmitigated move from a realm of thought full of error and illusion to one where the truth is at last available. To this one must immediately add that a counterview defines “reactionary” thought: the Enlightenment would be an unqualified move into error, a massive forgetting of salutary and necessary truths about the human condition.

In the polemics around modernity, more nuanced understandings tend to get driven to the wall, and these two slug it out. Arnold’s phrase about “ignorant armies clashing by night” comes irresistibly to mind. What underlies the understanding of Enlightenment as an absolute, unmitigated step forward?

This is worth asking, I believe, because the myth is more widespread than one might think. Even sophisticated thinkers, who might repudiate it when it is presented as a general proposition, seem to be leaning on it in other contexts.

Thus there is a version of what Enlightenment represents, which sees it as our stepping out of a realm in which Revelation, or religion in general, counted as a source of insight about human affairs, into a realm in which these are now understood in purely this-worldly or human terms. Of course, that some people have made this passage is not what is in dispute. What is questionable is the idea that this move involves the self-evident epistemic gain of our setting aside consideration of dubious truth and relevance and concentrating on matters which we can settle and which are obviously relevant. This is often represented as a move from Revelation to reason alone (Kant’s “blosse Vernunft”).

Clear examples are found in contemporary political thinkers, for instance Rawls and Habermas. For all their differences, they seem to reserve a special status for non-religiously informed Reason (let’s call this “reason alone”), as though a) this latter were able to resolve certain moral-political issues in a way which can legitimately satisfy any honest, unconfused thinker, and b) where religiously-based conclusions will always be dubious, and in the end only convincing to people who have already accepted the dogmas in question.

This surely is what lies behind the idea I mentioned at the outset, entertained for a time in different form by both thinkers, that one can restrict the use of religious language in the sphere of public reason. We must mention again that this proposition has been largely dropped by both; but we can see that the proposition itself makes no sense, unless something like (a) + (b) above is true. Rawls’ point in suggesting this restriction was that public reason must be couched in terms which could in principle be universally agreed upon. The notion was that the only terms meeting this standard were those of reason alone (a), while religious language by its very nature would fail to do so (b).

Before proceeding farther, I should just say that this distinction in rational credibility between religious and non-religious discourse, supposed by (a) + (b), seems to me utterly without foundation. It may turn out at the end of the day that religion is founded on an illusion, and hence that what is derived from it less credible. But until we actually reach that place, there is no a priori reason for greater suspicion being directed at it. The credibility of this distinction depends on the view that some quite “this-worldly” argument suffices to establish certain moral-political conclusions. I mean “satisfy” in the sense of (a): it should legitimately be convincing to any honest, unconfused thinker. There are propositions of this kind, ranging from “2+2=4” all the way to some of the better-founded deliverances of modern natural science. But the key beliefs we need, for instance, to establish our basic political morality are not among them. The two most widespread this-worldly philosophies in our contemporary world, utilitarian and Kantianism, in their different versions, all have points at which they fail to convince honest and unconfused people. If we take key statements of our contemporary political morality, such as those attributing rights to human beings as such, say the right to life, I cannot see how the fact that we are desiring/enjoying/suffering beings, or the perception that we are rational agents, should be any surer basis for this right than the fact that we are made in the image of God. Of course, our being capable of suffering is one of those basic unchallengeable propositions, in the sense of (a), as our being creatures of God is not, but what is less sure is what follows normatively from the first claim.

To propound the distinction is much easier if you think you already have a “secular” argument for rights which is watertight, as Habermas does for his “discourse ethic” (which I unfortunately find quite unconvincing).

In fact, modern diverse democracies operate on the basis of what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus.” We agree on affirming a right to life, but we justify it in our own diverse ways. One proposition that such a democracy cannot enshrine is the view that one of these justifications is canonical and correct, and the others faulty and invalid. The Enlightenment myth can’t be part of the overlapping consensus.

The (a) + (b) distinction, applied to the moral-political domain, is one of the fruits of the Enlightenment myth; or perhaps one should say it is one of the forms which this myth takes. What underlies this? I think there are three important sources, which I only have space to identify briefly here.

The first two can be traced back to Cartesian foundationalism. This combines a supposedly indubitable starting point (the particulate ideas in the mind) with an infallible method (that of clear and distinct ideas) and thus should yield conclusions which would live up to claim (a). But this comes unstuck, and in two places. The indubitable starting points can be challenged by a determined skepticism, such as we find in Hume; and the method relies much too much on a priori argument, and not enough on empirical input.

But even though his foundationalism and his a priori physics were rejected, Descartes left behind (α) a belief in the importance of finding the correct method, and (β) a rationalist temper of mind, which applied to ethics has led to the widespread modern view (which I find both startling and erroneous) that we can derive all right actions from a single highly abstract principle; a premise shared by both Utilitarians and those who write in the wake of Kant.

The third source (γ) is embedded in the modern social imaginary; it is the modern notion of moral order: society, made up of individuals, finds its legitimacy in its defense of rights and its fostering of mutual benefit. The way in which these three work together to sustain the illusion of an epistemic superiority of “reason alone” needs to be worked out in detail. It would be a fascinating and instructive story.