Utrecht Group on Habermas

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T de Graauw
Utrecht Group on Habermas

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.

john vignaux smyth
Slavoj Zizek and Jean-Pierre Dupuy

I had added this to Lee Medovoi's first comment in the Orsi forum, but thought it might be of interest here too:


The Portland group plans to invite Zizek and Dupuy on the relation between religion and the secular, if they will come, together to Portland sometime after the New Year. We will hence also add these authors' several directly relevant works to our own group's reading list and discussion topics, hoping that others in Holland, Israel, and China may also be interested.

Lee's post concludes with a hope that we can move from ethics to politics (he was talking specifically about Orsi's ethics and Habermas' politics). Zizek as a communist atheist--but also a "Pauline" one (to cite his own self-description)--certainly makes politics central; indeed he himself ran for high political office in Slovenia.

Since the perhaps rather too "Euro-centered" Habermas (as both the Utrecht and Arizona posts suggest) raises the question of which European thinkers, if any, provide a more profound political understanding of the religion/secularism tension and interchange, it is useful to turn to Zizik and Dupuy as examples (directly related to each other via Zizek's many citations from Dupuy) of other kinds of European thinking on the subject. 

Zizek's claim to "Pauline" atheist communistic universalism (influenced in part by Alain Badiou's book on Saint Paul and the "foundation of universalism") may perhaps help us to clarify what is at stake in the claim to "rationality" or "universalism" more generally (however Western, European, or otherwise). His dialogue with, and somewhat surprising praise of Dupuy (since Dupuy is associated with the theory of religion proposed by René Girard) may also complicate our understanding of what is at stake in both authors'conception of the relation between religion and secularism, particularly as it devolves on politics. Dupuy's understanding of the relation between economics and the sacred, for example, may also add something important to the mix.

john vignaux smyth

Suresh Raval
On Habermas

I write as a non-specialist, with little knowledge of either the conventions or the scholarship in religious studies and various affiliated disciplines that are central to the issues discussed by both Habermas and Orsi. There are some things in both essays/chapters that I find important for further reflection. (I work within English and postcolonial literary studies and am bound to be ignorant in more ways than one about these disciplines.)


Habermas’ idea about the emergence of post-secular modernity seems valuable for rethinking the usual/standard Enlightenment conception of rationality that heralded (to my naïve understanding) post-religious and therefore secular society in the West. Habermas’ point that secular citizens must be open to religious influence surely suggests some serious revision of the idea of rationality wedded to scientific inquiry. His remark that “the boundaries between secular and religious reasons are fluid” is interesting to me because it implies that there is room for dialogue between these seemingly implacably opposed domains/forms of life. The idea that one’s Western cultural heritage is somehow wedded to something supremely modern (important or indispensable) and other cultures are somehow sorely bereft of that possibility is a throwback to colonialist dichotomies and all the baggage that comes with it.  


While acknowledging that the identity of Western culture is rooted in Judeo-Christina values Habermas points out its openness to other cultures and thus his interest in arguing for “post-secular balance between shared citizenship and cultural difference.” Given the increasing and I suppose permanent presence of migrant populations of Asians, Africans, and others in the West, cultural difference is a strong dimension of the new social configuration in Europe and North America. Habermas is right in crediting secularists that they, too, like migrant populations, “insist on the indispensability of including all citizens as equals in civil society.” 


How might meaningful dialogue take place between secularists and the religious? In North America at least if not in Western Europe the majority community is comprised of huge numbers of believers in one or another form of Christian faith. The relation of these believers with secularists is often quite fraught. Migrant communities are often marked by their own highly nativist religious commitments. So the need for dialogue between/among secularists and the religious is more urgent than ever before. And any dialogue between them in this fraught situation is going to be all but impossible without admitting that reason/rationality is not a province of any one group.


(One simple admission on my part here: I grew up in a Brahmin Hindu family in a village in India where I had quite a bit of exposure to ancient Hindu texts. I have deep regard for the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Gita, and can read them with some fluency in Sanskrit because of my upbringing. However, I have never had any problem pursuing scholarship in Brit lit studies and related fields. My two books on lit theory attempt their analyses more or less in terms of Wittgenstein. Nothing in my early personal background prevents me from pursuing my work in purely secularist terms. And Hindu fundamentalism, like any other religious fundamentalism, does greatly bother me.)


However, fundamentalism of every religious stripe is part of our global reality. I tend to think that the roots of fundamentalism are in nearly all cases economic and political--extremist aberrations are of course there and may never cease to exist--and in fact they are such that post-colonialist binaries about East and West are simply too monolithic for our contemporary context. (Richard Rorty—to draw from another context—seems right to me in condemning the conduct of multinational corporations in third-world countries. First-world governments are inevitably complicit in that. I don’t care, by the way, for these “first-world,” “third-world” terms that I use for convenience only.)


And hence the importance of cross-cultural and intra-cultural dialogue if only because many of the tensions in communities within any given society have their roots in political and economic fear. In such a situation religion becomes—or can become—the means with which a given community separates itself from others and defines its grievances.


I thought Orsi’s idea of inhabiting the in-between space from within which to understand each other is a really productive way to deal with cross-cultural situations, especially in order to avoid pernicious forms of othering that turn others into monsters.  That requires quite a bit of empathy and preparedness to learn about and from others. And it requires what anthropologist call thick description to understand another culture or community. A great deal of translation of another culture’s vocabulary and its concepts becomes unavoidable. We do translate others all the time but bringing empathy, inhabiting an in-between space in the sense of detaching from one’s own deepest convictions and beliefs, not instinctively othering those who do not belong to one’s own culture –these things are hard. Secularists and the religious have to make the effort if they are to have a dialogue. It is to be expected that those who are privileged must take the first step.

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