On PTH we were blessed to have a thoroughly engaging and nuanced discussion on the nature and scope of religion in a democratic society thanks to Feroz Khan’s intersting post. I took a lot of points away from the debate and realised that when we are discussing the prospect of faith in society we have to consider a vast array of issues.
There is no one model of secularism, so we must have a separate debate on what type of secularity do we wish to see. In conjunction with a discussion on secularism, we need to debate the prospect of liberalism and what it’s relation to democracy must be.
Linked in with this crucial point there has to be a discussion on what type of ‘’State’’ does Pakistan need. Throughout the debate, a very illuminating point made by poster Krash was that in order to justify the sort of secular model I was proposing I had to logically accept a libertarian State in the classical liberal tradition. But there were other points aswell to be made. But there were other points aswell, such as the notion of what it is to be ‘’modern’’ and is religion necessarily against modernity or can it foster modernity? There were other critical questions raised in that thread aswell such as the history of Muslim political thought and political ethics. We also need a discussion on civic virtue and what does it mean to be a good citizen, in short a wholesale debate on the ethics of citizenship.
But for now I wish (and try!) to discuss the notion of public reason alone, without trying to get sidetracked by other critical discussion on the scope of the State, the nature of religiosity, the nature of the public sphere and theories of modernization and secularization. It is with spirit of free inquiry that characterised Feroz Khan’s post that I pen this one, long may PTH function as a forum of mature discussion.
Public reason is a pillar of modern liberalism elaborated best in John Rawl’s works most notably, A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. Though we can trace the concept of ‘’public reason’’ back to the German philosopher Kant, who wrote on the matter of public reason in his famous treatise, ‘’What is Enlightenment’’:
‘’ The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may, however, often be very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment.’’[i]
Rawl’s Conception of Public Reason
Rawl’s work is immense and has revitalised the field of political philosophy in the last few decades, to the extent that any serious student of political theory will consider Rawl’s texts as mandatory reading in an effort to grasp the essential conflicts of modern political thought. On the question of using religious/metaphysical arguments in the public sphere, Rawls writes:
‘’ There is no necessity to invoke theological or metaphysical doctrines to support its principles, nor to imagine another world that compensates for and corrects the inequalities which the two principles permit in this one. Conceptions of justice must be justiﬁed by the conditions of our life as we know it or not at all’’[ii]
Rawls’s main concern is to try and manage the equality of all citizens in a pluralist society, and this means to develop a language and conception of the common good accessible to all. Though Rawls is not naive, he understands the power that the ‘’comprehensive doctrines’’ of faith have over some citizens he wishes to achieve an ‘’overlapping consensus’’:
‘’ There can, in fact, be considerable differences in citizens’ conceptions of justice provided that these conceptions lead to similar political judgments. And this is possible, since different premises can yield the same conclusion. In this case there exists what we may refer to as overlapping rather than strict consensus.’’[iii]
This notion of an ‘’overlapping consensus’’ can then be tied into a spirit of democratic reciprocity where citizens respect each other’s right and role in the democratic process. Rawl’s innovatory political theory is that citizens from different walks of life can come together to rationally make critical decision about public policy. This can be distinguished from mere liberalism and be described as ‘’Justificatory Liberalism’’, since in this liberal theory thinkers such as Rawls are concerned about the democratic process and how it can be kept alive in the midst of mind-boggling pluralism.
It is perhaps this notion which is widely used by secularist authors who argue that in their model of secular liberalism, religious opinions are to be totally ignored in the democratic process but that religious practice can continue because of the liberal commitment to religious liberty. Rawls defines this project of justificatory liberalism as:
‘’Central to the idea of public reason [as described within justificatory liberalism] is that it neither criticizes nor attacks any comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, except insofar as that doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and a democratic polity.’’[iv]
We should consider Rawl’s work a great achievement and his proposals as a great effort to achieve democratic coherence within modern nation states. However, there are some serious critiques to be made about Rawl’s account of the role of religion in the public sphere.
Recently Jurgen Habermas one of the most influential philosophers today who regards his work as premised on ‘’methodological atheism’’ surprised observers by saying we should wholeheartedly welcome a secularism that incorporates religious arguments and citizens in the democratic process. Habermas writes:
‘’ The liberal state must not transform the requisite institutional separation of religion and politics into an undue mental and psychological burden for those of its citizens who follow a faith.’’[v]
Habermas argues that religious citizens are unreasonably expected to carry the burden of psychologically checking themselves. We cannot derive from the secular character of the state an obligation for all citizens to supplement their public religious contributions by equivalents in a generally accessible language .[vi]
In a way Habermas like Kant is a philosopher who does object to the dogmatism of religious authority but is fascinated with how religious faith can influence moral reasoning and it is in this sense Habermas sees it in the interest of democracy that religious citizens feel at ease with the democratic process and be able to freely cite religious reasons, instead of trying to rely on secular justification. One could argue that the State itself is taking upon a worldview by deliberately ignoring religious citizen’s right to public reasoning, though it is probably more agnostic than atheistic.
The assumption in not only Habermas’s critique but in the work of other political theorists such as Eberle’s Religious Convictions in Liberal Politics; Kent Greenawalt’s Private Consciences and Public Reasons, Jeffery Stout’s, Democracy and Tradition, or Weithman’s Religion and the Obligations of Citizenship, is that the ‘’secular’’ should not be the only centre of universal citizenship, in others ‘’secular political language’’ should not be the only orthodox mode of political discussion in a nation state. Whereas, Rawls only places the burden of ‘’translating political language’’ on religious citizens, Habermas and others expect that all citizens should try and enter into dialogue with each other showing their true intentions and motives. After all a crucial part of the democratic process is the sincerity of all citizens.
A great indicator of successful governance is the way we manage not only our religious but also cultural differences, especially in the process of public reasoning. Should we exclude religious sentiments from the public sphere to prevent a scenario of the Tower of Babel where there are so many different languages being spoken as to make the democratic process incoherent? Or should we try and pursue homogeneity in the way citizens make decisions and reason? The crucial question is of course, in order to try and implement the latter, do we have to adopt the draconian laws of say Arab secularism in Egypt where religious slogans in a political context is an actual offence?
Eberle rightly writes:
‘’ Equal treatment of religious and secular reasons is the order of the day, whether in the halls of Congress or around the dinner table: religious believers have no more, and no less, a responsibility to aspire to persuade their secular compatriots than secularists have an obligation to aspire to persuade their religious compatriots; if laws that lack a plausible religious rationale are permissible, then so are laws that lack a plausible secular rationale; if secularists may support laws solely on the basis of reasons that fail to persuade religious believers, then so also may religious believers support laws solely on the basis of reasons that fail to persuade secularists.’’[vii]
The religious roots of liberalism
Indeed, part of the reason why many object to the exclusion of religious public reason is that traditionally speaking, it can be argued that the language of liberal thought was couched in religious terms, tinged with metaphysics and theology. Indeed, Habermas notes this ‘’complex web of inheritance’’ that fostered the growth of the liberal spirit:
‘’ Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”
But there is another point and that is about modernization. Religious modernization and religious reform is a crucial part of democratization. It can be said that democracy has to in one way or another make its way through the gates of religious theology. Modernity itself is merely an innovative theological shift from one set of metaphysical answers to another more emancipatory set of metaphysical answers.
Modernity should be understood, ‘’as an attempt to find a new metaphysical/theological answer to the question of the nature and relation of God, man and the natural world that arose in the late medieval world as a result of a titanic struggle between contradictory elements within Christianity itself. Modernity, as we understand and experience it, came to be as a series of attempts to constitute a new and coherent metaphysics/theology.”[viii]
The principle of political secularism in so far as to maintain an institutional division between temporal and religious authority is a critical requirement for a modern nation state. However, beyond that the State should have no right to impose a narrow conception of what political language can or cannot be used. However, to avoid confusion, no public policy suggestions which conflict with a nation’s constitutional principles should be taken note of. Citizens be they religious or otherwise are still bound to a fundamental set of values which form the basis of liberal citizenship such as the equality of all citizens and tolerance.
Citizens do not have the obligation to provide public reasons or translations in terms of public reasons for each policy proposal they support or criticize, but they do have the obligation to address those reasons if they are challenged by others. Whenever citizens manage to cast their objections to a proposed policy in terms of public reasons generally acceptable to democratic citizens (i.e., reasons based on democratic ideas of citizens as free and equal, of society as a fair scheme of cooperation, etc.), those who defend it have the obligation to address these objections and to offer convincing reasons against them before such a coercive policy can be legitimately enforced.[ix]
The crux of the democratic process is fruitful, open and inclusive dialogue between citizens, but in order for this to take place citizens must be free to cite the arguments that inspire them to take the decisions that they do. In this instance, democratic reasoning particularly within the liberal framework of citizenship should be citizens learning from each other, which must mean citizens being open about what inspires them to take the decisions that they do.
The public sphere is distinct from the State, and indeed we should view the diversity of viewpoints with appreciation as a sign of a growing democracy. Religion should not be accorded institutional privilege of having uncontested and unchallenged access to legislative power. But religious citizens must realize that the State must remain ‘’neutral’’ to allow the public space and inevitably citizens to have a fair attempt at democratic reasoning.
The type of secularity we advocate must be consistent with the liberal ethic of citizenship and inclusive democracy. Democracy should be a forum for inclusion as a means to diffuse cultural and religious tension by means of dialogue and tolerance.
The public sphere is crucial and we may think of it as analogous with civil society because, it represents:
‘’A theatre in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk. It is the space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs, hence, an institutionalized arena of discursive interaction. This arena is conceptually distinct from the state; it a site for the production and circulation of discourses that can in principle be critical of the state.’’[x]
[i] (Kant, 1784) http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/kant.html
[ii] (Rawls, A Theory of Justice , 1999, p. 398)
[iii] (Rawls, A Theory of Justice , 1999, p. 340)
[iv](Rawls, Law of Peoples – Idea of Public Reason Revisited, 2002, p. 132)
[v](Habermas, April 2006, p. 9)
[vi] (Habermas, April 2006, p. 9)
[vii] Eberle, Christopher. (2008). An ideal of conscientious engagement. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from The Immanent Frame Web site: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/03/14/an-ideal-of-conscientious-engagement/
[viii] (Gillespie, 2008, p. xii)
[ix] Bellah, Robert. (2008). Religious reasons & secular revelations. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from The Immanent Frame Web site: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/02/26/religious-reasons-secular-revelations/
[x] (Fraser, 1990, p. 57)
Bellah, Robert. (2008). Religious reasons & secular revelations. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from The Immanent Frame Web site: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/02/26/religious-reasons-secular-revelations/
Eberle, Christopher. (2008). An ideal of conscientious engagement. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from The Immanent Frame Web site: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/03/14/an-ideal-of-conscientious-engagement/
Fraser, N. (1990). Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy. Social Text , 56-80.
Gillespie, M. (2008). Theologial Origins of Modernity. University of Chicago Press.
Habermas, J. (April 2006). Religion in the Public Sphere. European Journal of Philosophy , 14 (1), 1-25.
Kant, I. (1784). What is Enlightenment? (http://www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/kant.html)
Rawls, J. (1999). A Theory of Justice . Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Rawls, J. (2002). Law of Peoples – Idea of Public Reason Revisited. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.