March 05, 2008

Habermas is not telling the Christopher Hitchens of this world to shut up

Religion in the public sphere: Taking religion seriously posted by Simone Chambers

Rawls reformulated his deeply secularist view of public reason in response to the question: Are we treating religious minded citizens unfairly in a secularized public debate? While Habermas also asks this, he adds to it the following more difficult question: What would be lost if religious arguments, appeals, images and meanings disappeared forever from the public sphere? ...

At the individual level, Habermas is not targeting secularists and asking for restraint. He is interested in broad public opinion and the social and political forces that shape that opinion. Habermas is saying that a public sphere dominated by militant and aggressive secularism holds risks for democracy, potentially creating unbridgeable gulfs between democratic citizens. These are risks we should think long and hard about, he says; and we should ask ourselves about the implications of secularist discourses for democratic citizenship.

But in the end, Habermas is not satisfied with the pragmatic democratic citizenship approach to religion – he does not want to introduce a gag rule for the sake of social peace. He wants to convince people that religion in the public sphere is not simply or primarily a source of conflict and strife. He is not telling the Christopher Hitchens of this world to shut up; he is arguing against them. He is saying that religion has and can continue to be a source of moral and ethical insight that we cannot do without. And he makes this argument not as a religious person himself but as a “methodological atheist.” He is squaring off against radical secularists— saying be careful what you wish for. SSRC Home SSRC Blogs Blog Home

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