Excerpted from the afterword of The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere.
Like Habermas, Taylor is concerned with identifying ways in which the public sphere can help to produce greater integration among citizens who enter public discourse with different views. Habermas stresses agreement and clearer knowledge while Taylor stresses mutual recognition and collaboration in common pursuits. But both see excluding religion from the public sphere as undermining the solidarity and creativity they seek. In different ways, Judith Butler and Cornel West ask about the limits of optimistic visions of the public sphere in which harmonious integration is the apparent telos.
Butler emphasizes occasions when it is impossible to achieve intellectual (or political) integration, including agreement on truth and value. Religious sources of ethical insight may matter enormously precisely when deliberation in the public sphere fails. Deep differences may remain—and remain troubling and troubled. Religion may provide a guide to action in the face of divisions it cannot undo. This is true especially when the realities of state power and geopolitics bring people into the same place, not necessarily by choice, and into social relationships, though they do not understand themselves to constitute a single people or polity. Pluralization is not always a challenge to be overcome.
Butler offers the idea of cohabitation as an alternative, or perhaps a crucial supplement, to that of integrative public reason. It is an understanding of what is both possible and ethically right that she draws from Jewish tradition, shaped by the historical experience of statelessness, subjection, and partial autonomy under states Jews did not control. The ethic of cohabitation thus has an internal relationship to being Jewish—and on this basis criticizing state violence that is at odds with cohabitation must be “a Jewish thing to do.” Butler sees this as more than simply distinguishing “progressive” Jewish positions from others, because it entails taking seriously the limits of any identitarian concept of Jewishness—of identifying Jews with a nation-unto-itself in the manner of much nationalist rhetoric rather than with the position of people always already engaged in relationship with non-Jews.
Recently I’ve found myself reflecting quite a bit on religion and critiques of religion such as you find in folks such as Dawkin, Hitchen, Dennett, and so on. [...]
I think the new atheists fundamentally miss the social dimension of religion. What is forgotten is that religion is not simply a set of claims about the world, but it is also a set of relationships among people. When a believer entertains whether or not to sacrifice a belief, they are not merely raising the question of whether they should shift from treating one set of beliefs as true to treating them as false– for example, switching from belief in young earth creationism to evolutionary theory –no, they are entertaining questions about their place in a network of social relations involving family, friends, and all sorts of other people. In the suburbs of Dallas, for example, people tend to live very alienated and isolated lives. Back yards are fenced in. Garages are on the back of houses entailing that when you’re fiddling about in your garage you no longer easily encounter your neighbors. People seldom tend to walk out on the sidewalks or even spend much time outside. I get the sense that churches function as a sort of supplement, forming a community that overcomes the problem of communities not forming organically in the cities. It is not unusual for my students to tell me that they and their families spend four to five nights a week at their church. In these circumstances, a shift in belief does not merely entail the revision of a belief system, but also carries the very real possibility of exile (and I mean that in the strong sense), from one’s family, friends, and support network. Heightened awareness of this could lead to both a better understanding of why religious discussions are so often pervaded by such heated affect and why argument has such poor traction in persuading others to abandon particular beliefs. Such awareness of this dimension of religious practice would also lead to a very different set of strategic concerns. Rather than focusing on belief and its truth-value, it might raise questions of how alternative communities, alternative networks, might be formed to soften the blow of exile. When Dawkin, for example, focuses on the truth of belief and all of its negative consequences, he speaks from a well established social position filled with a network of supporters in the form of colleagues, friends, and so on. He doesn’t notice that he’s imploring others not simply to abandon their beliefs, but to abandon their networks… And for what? To live in isolation, loathed by those they love? If this network question can’t be answered and solved, there’s very little that such critiques have to offer.