Habermas: Notes On a Post-Secular Society
The reason why the Utrecht team has chosen Habermas' lecture Notes On a Post-Secular Society (2008) is twofold: on the one hand the text formulates a broadly shared urgency to rethink questions of citizenship, pluriformity, and the roots of civil practices in secular/religious paradigms. On the other hand, the text raises as many questions as it answers.
Habermas sets the agenda by raising the following question, which we consider relevant and timely:
How should we see ourselves as members of a post-secular society and what must we reciprocally expect from one another in order to ensure that in firmly entrenched nation states, social relations remain civil despite the growth of a plurality of cultures and religious world views?', (Habermas 2008, p.21)
However, the normative framework Habermas offers is symptomatic for a problematic dimension in European debates in that it, good intentions notwithstanding, reiterates a secular, Western, Judeo-Christian bias. Habermas also builds his case on an assumed notion of the subject as coinciding with rationality and consciousness, both of them assumed to be universal in value and application. These assumptions make the generic “we”- i.e: the subject of Habermas’argument – into a very specific – and not at all universal - type of subject. This is the subject of the European Enlightenment and of Western humanism. We have written a more extensive reaction to this text that we would like to discuss with you at the inaugural event,, but here are some preliminary remarks.
First of all, Habermas states that in order to ensure that civil relations remain civil in postsecular societies, it is time to leave the hierarchy implicit in secularism behind. Instead of expecting believers to adapt to the demands of a secular society, an emphasis on the inverse might also be beneficial:
Shouldn't we turn the question around? Is a learning process only necessary on the side of religious traditionalism and not on that of secularism, too? Do the selfsame normative expectations that rule an inclusive civil society not prohibit a secularistic devaluation of religion just as they prohibit, for example, the religious rejection of equal rights for men and women? (Habermas 2008, p. 28)
This reciprocal investigation of normative expectations seem to us a promising start. However, the 'neutral' normative expectations of this inclusive civil society alluded to by Habermas become increasingly problematic once one zooms in on them. They turn out to be quite normative and these expectations tend to favour certain religious practices over others. For instance, in this lecture he talks about the way in which Protestant and Catholic Churches have allied themselves to liberal democracy and rational judgment, whereas 'many Muslim communities still have this painful learning process before them and have no intrinsic link to rationality.' Habermas here reiterates some of the core aspects of secularism: a linear conceptualization of history, and, in spite of its claims to neutrality, an affinity with Christian (mainly Protestant) religion. Elsewhere, Habermas goes further in equating the proximity between certain religions and universal values central to what he considers to be an inclusive public sphere:
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 of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. (Habermas 2006 *, pp. 150-151).
It is safe to say that this is a problematic attitude in that it connects secularity exclusively to Christianity . It risks failing to provide adequate answers to the question Habermas raises himself. The result might be that the expectations that are connected with one’s being a member of a liberal and pluralistic society are distributed unevenly for people with different religious subjectivities: that is to say, it would not be surprising if in Habermas' framework people with a 'Judeo-Christian' background will have to leave less of their beliefs behind in order to participate in Habermas' public sphere, than, say a believer with an Islamic background. Subsequently, one can wonder how neutral and inclusive – let alone universal - this model is, and, following from that, one can wonder whether this model succeeds in contributing to the goal of providing a truly pluriform, inclusive postsecular society.
Consequently, on the one hand this text supplies a relevant description of the challenges that contemporary Western-European societies face. On the other, its reiteration of a secular-protestant bias serves as a reminder of the pitfalls that we will have to avoid. We suggest taking this text both as a starting point, as well as a critical reminder.
We have also supplied a text by Rosi Braidotti, 'In Spite of the Times: the Postsecular Turn in Feminism'** that traces the ways in which debates concerning feminism might be informed by this double challenge. In this article Braidotti argues firstly that we need to relinquish the fundamental premise set by the likes of Habermas and Taylor, namely that secularity is the exclusive prerogative of Christianity and more specifically of its Protestant branch. This neo-colonial statement needs to be corrected by reference to postcolonial, race and feminist theories, research areas that Habermas simply ignores. Secondly, she singles out the location of women’s and gays’ rights in what she considers as a neo-civilizational discourse which over-inflates the historical and conceptual link between the Enlightenment and the emancipation of these minorities. Braidotti argues that we should let go of the dominant idea that emancipation is a secular, critical affair (and by extension, that feminists are necessarily secular) by embracing diversity and correcting our collective ignorance of the tradition of other cultures and other religions. She suggests replacing the traditional litmus test of secularism – as the assumed precondition for emancipation - with a more self-reflexive attitude. This shift also involves a move from Kantian morality to a postsecular ethics of becoming adapted from Spinoza. What is more, Braidotti does not merely criticize the mindless perpetuation of the secular bias, but also argues that critical theory today needs to re-think its connection to spirituality, via the affective turn, or the return to monism, or through the quest for affirmative foundations that safeguard diversity and undermine the civilizational crusade that currently surrounds the public debate about secularity. This approach entails the acknowledgment of the potentially emancipatory worth of religious practices traditionally seen as incompatible with secular emancipation. These need to become serious conversation partners in a more inclusive public sphere.
To conclude, Braidotti's article is an example of academic work that takes Habermas' question ('How should we see ourselves as members of a postsecular society and what must we reciprocally expect from one another') seriously but also critically. She works towards a more affirmative, self-reflexive and inclusive academic practice. As such it is an example of engaged work on the intersections between secularism and religion that we see as an important dimension of this research project.
We hope to discuss these matters in more detail with you in the near future.
* Habermas, Jürgen. “A Conversation About God and the World.” In Time of Transitions, 149–69. Cambridge: Polity, 2006.
** Braidotti, Rosi. “In Spite of the Times The Postsecular Turn in Feminism.” Theory, Culture & Society 25, no. 6 (November 1, 2008): 1–24.