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Essays on Society: Religion in a Secular Public Sphere

Is the establishment of a secular public sphere and the privatisation of religious differences the best way to show equal respect to all citizens?

True democracy demands that all citizens should be able to experience a degree of authorship in relation to the laws which govern them, to the extent that even if these laws do not reflect their personal preferences they would still willingly abide by them. To advance this ideal, some theorists deem it necessary to privatise religious differences and establish a secular public sphere. The basic claim underlying this position is that the best way to satisfy the democratic demand for legitimate rule and thus exhibit equal respect to all citizens is to keep the formal public sphere free of religious discourse in favour of ‘public reason’, which is claimed to be impartial with regard to the good life and therefore universally accessible. In my view, this is not the most respectful arrangement because a) it conceals a form of ‘cultural imperialism’ through its imposition of a particular understanding of religion and society; and b) it engenders ‘powerlessness’, in that by demanding deliberation to take place within secular contours, religious citizens are disproportionately burdened and inhibited from fully contributing to the polity. First, I contextualise some key concepts in relation to the basic claim and provide insight into the rationale behind the idea of a secular public. Second, I clarify my position and identify a number of problems that lead me to reject the basic claim. Third, I consider the idea of a ‘heterogeneous public sphere’ and the possibility that this may constitute a better way to exhibit equal respect.


The birth of Liberalism, which followed the Religious Wars and solidified under the influence of the Enlightenment, marks a shift in political theory and practice. Weary of bloodshed, the idea emerged that the best response to religious difference is to separate Church and State, privatise the conscience and erect a framework of civic unity allowing for diverse religions to co-exist (Cavanaugh 2009:123-130; Galston 1995:527). Now, centuries after Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, in contrast to Weber’s (1963) expectations of modernity, our societies are still confronted with religious pluriformity spilling into public life. With sociologists observing processes of ‘desecularisation’ (Berger 1999) or religion’s ‘deprivatisation’ (Casanova 1994), debates among political philosophers concerning the proper role of religion in the public sphere have flared up. While the issues being debated are manifold, in this essay I am solely concerned with the proposition that religious discourse ought to be excluded from the formal public sphere in favour of ‘public reason’.

Here, the formal public sphere encapsulates those spaces where politically motivated action takes place such as campaigning, casting votes, legislation and policy-formation. While it differs from the informal public sphere, or ‘background culture’, it is most sharply contrasted with the private sphere (Langerak 2007:130). To be clear, I depart from the position that the public-private divide is neither natural nor unproblematic. Although liberal philosophy may tempt us to associate the private with freedom (Walzer 1984:317), a brief survey of Western historical thought reveals a more sinister imagery. Whether we refer to Plato, who marked the public as that exclusive realm of citizenship and freedom and the private as that subordinate realm of necessity and slavery (Elshtain 1981), Kant, who posited that society’s enlightenment required the continuation of uncritical discourse in the domestic realm (Flax 1993:79-83), or Arendt (1958), whose public visibility marks one’s transcendence of futility (p.53-55) and enables the revelation of one’s identity (p.177), it is clear that the public-private divide constitutes a hierarchical structure of exclusion.

It is with these historical references in mind that we ought to evaluate the privatisation of religion and the establishment of a secular public. The basic idea underlying this separation in the context of deliberative democracy is that in order to mitigate conflict and enhance political legitimacy, the formal public sphere ought to be ‘cleansed’ of incommensurable ontologies in favour of secular discourse which by virtue of its universality renders deliberations productive and conciliatory (Lafont 2009:128; Levey 2009:13). Secularism, which was dislodged from its Christian roots and has come to represent Man’s liberation from heteronomy under the influence of the Enlightenment (Taylor 2009, 2007), is claimed to offer a language which is neutral with regard to the good life, leaving room only for minor disputes and casting out those views which exceed the limits of ‘reasonable pluralism’ (Rawls 1997:766-767). Within this secular framework and in response to the liberal demand that ‘justifications in social and political life must be available in principle for everyone’ (Waldron 1987:135), citizens and officials are called upon to advance their positions solely through the invocation of ‘public reasons’, which arguably hold the power to be universally compelling (Cohen 1997:414).

Although the logic by which this arrangement is justified may seem commonsensical, with regard to this issue and informed by feminist and postcolonial theory, I am sceptical and suspicious. As Young (1990:41) argues, despite the absence of an identifiable oppressor there certainly is oppression in our societies, operating within our social structures and working through those norms, assumptions and procedures that are taken for granted. Moreover, following Chakrabarty (2000), we ought to be aware that the language through which we think about politics and justify our structural arrangements inevitably ‘bear the burden of European thought and history’ (p.4). While this does not invalidate liberal discourse per se, it does render us attentive to the possibility that liberal understandings of religion and society may be incongruous with the experiences and understandings of those who aspire unto a religious life.

The question now before us is whether the hierarchical and exclusionary public-private divide, within which secular and religious discourse are prescriptively fixed, enables us to exhibit equal respect to all citizens, or whether this ordering conceals forms of oppression, inviting us to seek a better way to organise the public sphere.


At face value, the exclusion of religious discourse from public deliberation does not require the exclusion of religious citizens. However, in order for them to participate they are called upon to exercise restraint with regard to their ‘comprehensive doctrines’ (Rawls 1993). Practically, this implies that religious citizens, in due course, following Rawls’ (1997) famous proviso, have to replace their views with ‘properly political reasons’ (Baxter 2011:1341). Although Rawls’ proviso is rather moderate in comparison to Audi’s (1997) strict rejection of religion, as it does provide some mechanism through which religious citizens can bring their views to bear upon decision-making processes, there are a number of interrelated problems that demand attention.

The first problem pertains to how ‘religion’ is conceptualised in liberal thought, both as a category and in relation to public reason. Rawls’ notion of religion as a ‘comprehensive doctrine’ which permits restraint is a good example. It seems to take for granted that religion is essentially cognitive: a set of propositions which one can choose to either lend assent to or not, invoke or refrain from doing so (Mahmood 2009:844-845). Yet, we must remember that this notion emerged in a particular historical context. Both religion as a distinct category and the understanding of that category as a ‘set of premises and doctrines’ emerged in the context of Europe’s colonial encounters with other existentialities and was devised by scholars of comparative religious studies to classify and contain these ‘Others’ (Scott 1999; Masuzawa 2005). This turned religion into an object of intellectual scrutiny and, as Asad (1993) argues, ascribing a distinct essence unto religion ultimately served to differentiate it from other ‘secular’ spheres of social life.

If we take into account that for quite a few citizens, instead, being religious means striving for wholeness which obligates them to base their decisions pertaining to justice on their deepest convictions (Wolterstorff 1997:105), then in its insistence on the possibility of alternation between secular and religious ‘mindsets’, the restraint principle –which is symptomatic of the logic underlying much of liberal thought– can be seen as a form of oppression. It conceals the imposition of a particular understanding of religion. Especially when coupled with crude and graphic (mis)representations of religious reasons as irrational and inherently inaccessible, the ‘problematic nature’ of religious discourse is rendered commonsensical and its exclusion logical (Waldron 2010:23) –all the more when dramatised with reference to the Religious Wars. In my view, arguments such as that of Rawls which are built on a biased conceptualisation of religion and disregard the actual experiences of religious citizens are unfair and should be read as a form of ‘cultural imperialism’ (Young 1990:58-59)

This brings us to a second problem. In response to Rawls’ restraint principle, both Wolterstorff (1997) and Weithmann (2002) argue that demanding religious citizens to seek ‘publicly acceptable’ reasons places a disproportionate cognitive burden on their shoulders and threatens their existential integrity. Taking this concern seriously, Habermas (2006) devised his famous ‘institutional proviso’ which, although maintaining the separation of Church and State, is meant to distribute this burden more evenly among all citizens, calling especially on officials to translate religious arguments into proper political justifications. In order for this to work, Habermas calls for an attitudinal change. Whereas religious citizens need to develop their capacity for self-reflection, accept the possibility that other religious claims may be true, acknowledge scientific authority and recognise the validity of public reason, secular citizens need to transcend their understandings of modernity and be open to the possibility that religion still holds substantial value (Lafont 2009:131-132).

Habermas’ ‘institutional proviso’ does seem appealing. However, I agree with Baumeister’s (2011) critique that although Habermas’ attempt to distinguish political secularism from the explicit promotion of the secularist perspective in society somewhat redeems religion from its precarious position, by maintaining the distinction between politics and organised religion as two separate sovereign realms and affirming the hierarchical division between secular and religious reason, he fails to secure discursive and epistemic equality. Although the burden of translation may be more evenly distributed, religious citizens are still burdened by the fact that they have to make an extra effort to accept those ‘free-standing’ justifications which secular citizens are less likely to be troubled by, due to their supposed lack of ontological commitments (p.222-224). It follows, then, that the prioritisation of public reason, underlying both the restraint principle and the institutional proviso, which imposes an undue burden on religious citizens inhibiting them from participating in decision-making processes and abiding by their outcomes on equal terms with secular citizens, constitutes another form of oppression, in that it engenders (relative) ‘powerlessness’ (Young 1990:56).

One may object that the issues raised are merely part and parcel of a democratic life and in themselves not weighty enough to warrant the revision of our political arrangements at detriment to civic cohesion. However, this essay is not in search of the best way to secure stability, which may as well be achieved through authoritarian rule. Our aim is to expose the presence of oppression and the concomitant production of inequality. This brings us back to the fundamental problem implicated in both the abovementioned faces of oppression, namely, the manner in which public reason is conceived of and its consequences. As we can infer from Rawls’ (1982) notion of political neutrality as deriving its universal validity from the fact that it is ‘not evaluated at all from a social standpoint’ (p.172), public reason is conceptualised as transcending particularity. This absolves it from interperspectival scrutiny and by implication downgrades religious views. While the justification that public neutrality relegates epistemic competition to the private sphere and leaves it to the individual to articulate her own conception of the good life may sound appealing (Kymlicka 1989:886), in my view, the universalisation of public reason comes at too great of a cost.

As Young (1990) argues, through the rational pursuit of universal truths and public unity, the ‘differently similar’ is rendered ‘absolutely different’ (i.e. incommensurable) (p.99). Whether departing from a ‘view from nowhere’ or from an ‘original position’ behind Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’, the neutrality of public reason falsely assumes the singularity of reason (p.100-102). This not only renders other reasons unreasonable and downgrades vital aspects of human existence such as emotions, bodies and beliefs which make for human diversity, but it may also marginalise citizens associated with those traits and reasons (p.109). The consequence of this is that it allows for privileged groups, who enjoy a greater degree of access to and influence in the public sphere, to usurp power, universalise their particular views and reinforce structures of domination (p.112-113).

Taking stock of these problems, it becomes clear that the establishment of a secular public sphere where particular reasons cloaked in neutrality can take precedence, does not exhibit equal respect to all citizens. Yet, if we decide to abolish this structural arrangement, we are faced with a very complex range of issues. Does it mean that every view should be accorded the same public weight? Are we forced to return to an aggregative model of democracy and submit to majoritarian rule? Perhaps not. In the next section, bearing these questions in mind, I consider the idea of a heterogeneous public sphere and the possibility that this may constitute a better way to exhibit equal respect to all citizens.


Opening up the public sphere requires us to abandon the idea of public reason; allow citizens to put forward any moral justification, trusting that collective contemplation will reveal its worth (Benhabib 1992:98); and refuse to force any person or aspect of a person’s life into privacy (Young 1990:120). In my view, and concurring with Barber’s (1988) statement that ‘neutrality destroys dialogue’ (p.151), only a heterogeneous public truly takes deliberation seriously and is expressive of equal respect.

Such a desecularised, moderately agonistic public sphere is staunchly promulgated by Bader (2009). Pointing to the fact that liberalism arose from a concern for toleration and respect and not a disdain for religion, he argues that we must not confuse liberalism with secularism and that instead of worrying about religion an sich, we ought to recognise that liberal democracy may be threatened by fundamentalists, secularists, scientists, experts, racists, fascists and chauvinists alike (p.111). Opening up the public sphere as he envisages it, then, does not entail unfettered permissiveness and relativism. Restrictions with regard to hate speech and discrimination, which may threaten civic peace, must be kept in place (p.114). Surely, citizens ought to be temperate in their zeal, but they should never be withheld from putting forward their deepest held convictions (p.122-123).

One may argue that abandoning public reason in favour of heterogeneity stifles deliberation and forces us to settle for an aggregative model of democracy (Langerak 2007:133-134). However, depending on the quality of the deliberative process, this may not be so. First, as Swaine (2009:189) argues, we have to abandon the idea that religious citizens lack the capacity to think from the standpoints of others. Second, although citizens should feel free to put forward any moral justification, provided this is done in a respectful manner, Swaine rightly posits that they should also be willing to explain a) why they consider their reason to be valid; b) how they arrived at their reason; c) how their reason relates to other reasons, beliefs and commitments unto which they subscribe; and d) why other citizens should follow their reason instead of any of the other justifications put forward (p.196).

Furthermore, even if opening up the public sphere means that we will be confronted with a stream of inaccessible, incomprehensible or even false reasons, this does necessarily render deliberations unproductive. As Mill (1987) argued in relation to freedom of speech, there is a certain epistemological benefit to being confronted with ‘false views’ in that it may prompt others to identify their true opinions, provide them with a firmer ground for preferring their own opinions and thus embrace their beliefs as ‘living truths’, instead of ‘dead dogmas’ (p.34-35). I should add, however, that deliberation should not entail the mere articulation of a fixed set of positions and their solidification. Ultimately, it is a means for transformation, a collective endeavour to think through the complex problems facing the polity. As Fishkin and Luskin (1999) have shown, genuine deliberation can alter preferences, not only at the individual but also at the aggregate level (see Swaine 2009:203). In my view, for deliberations to be productive of the best outcomes for the demos in its entirety, it is utterly strange to allow only some voices and reasons to be heard prior to arriving at decisions. With this in mind, and pragmatic concerns aside, the privatisation of religious differences is not just bad democratic practice, it is disrespectful.


Technically speaking, it is nearly impossible to claim with certitude that one particular political arrangement is the ‘best’ way to respect all citizens equally, because it would imply that every other alternative that can possibly be imagined has been fully considered. In this sense, arguing against secular politics may seem easier, but such is not the case. The arguments in favour of a secular public sphere are persuasive. Nevertheless, in exposing some of the oppressive forces implicated in its establishment, I have sought at least to make the argument that this particular arrangement is not a good candidate to lay claim to being the best way to exhibit equal respect. First, after historicising the understandings of religion and society that underlie the justifications for religion’s privatisation, I argued that the discursive imposition of these understandings constitutes a form of cultural imperialism. Second, through a critical evaluation of Rawls’ revised restraint principle and Habermas’ institutional proviso, I argued that religious citizens are disproportionately disadvantaged in democratic processes, exacerbating relative powerlessness. Finally, I argued that public reason, which is claimed to be neutral and universally valid, is prone to corruption. It allows for privileged groups with greater access to the public sphere to universalise their values and reinforce structures of domination. In light of these problems, I concluded that the privatisation of religious differences and the establishment of a secular public sphere does not exhibit equal respect to all citizens. In the final section, I briefly considered the idea of a heterogeneous public sphere and argued that this may be a better way.


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