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.