Secularisation and the Place of Religion in Modern Society

Habermas starts his dialogue with Joseph Ratzinger with a question and a doubt. He questions whether or not the modern secularised state is able to guarantee the normative presuppositions upon which it is based; the very fact that this question has been raised gives rise to the doubt that the state is able to renew ‘from its own resources’ (21) these normative presuppositions. Underpinning this scepticism is the assumption ‘that such a state is dependent on ethical traditions of a local nature’ (21). This post will focus on the issue of whether or not the state can self-legitimate, focusing on two questions: How rational are the foundations of the democratic constitutional state? What do we do with religion in a secular society?

The modern constitutional state is founded upon democratic procedures; to the extent that such procedures are able to flourish – free elections and universal voting, for example, a state can be deemed as democratic. That the state is rational depends on the extent to which the democratic process ‘satisfies the conditions for an inclusive and discursive formation of opinion and will’ (26). Democratic procedures are enshrined by legal institutionalisation, which demands that basic liberal and political rights are granted ‘simultaneously’ (26). It is, moreover, the rule of law that governs the ‘innermost core’ (26) of state authority; as such, political power is ‘totally permeated by the law’ and there ‘is no ruling authority derived from something antecedent to the law’ (27). Nevertheless, systems of law are legitimated self-referentially, that is ‘on the basis of legal procedures born of democratic procedures’ (27). Following Kant, the proceduralist understanding of the constitutional state requires that the basic principles of the constitution have ‘autonomous justification and that all citizens can rationally accept the claim this justification makes’ (28). In sum, the rationality of the state depends upon the legal institutionalisation of democratic procedures, the principles of which must be autonomously justified and universally accepted.

For Habermas, the state is able to satisfy its own need for legitimation ‘on the basis of the cognitive elements of a stock of arguments that are independent of religious and metaphysical traditions’ (29). By this, he means that the state can self-legitimate in a rational and self-sufficient manner. However, a doubt remains ‘with regard to the question of motivation’ (29), for in reality the ‘normative presuppositions for the existence of a democratic constitutional state’ (29) place a higher demand upon citizens, than if they were merely citizens of society and addressees of the law rather than authors of it. The higher demands issues from the basic principle of the democratic state – equality; citizens must participate not purely on the basis of their own interests but also ‘with an orientation to the common good’ (30). To be motivated to act on behalf of others, particularly others with whom one has no direct connection, is a ‘more costly commitment’ (30), which cannot simply be imposed by the law. Thus, the democratic procedures upon which the state is founded, purportedly enshrined in legal institutions, require motivation that cannot be explained in purely rational terms. Rather, as Habermas argues, ‘all one can do is suggest to the citizens of a liberal society that they should be willing to get involved on behalf of fellow citizens whom they do not know and who remain anonymous to them and that they should accept sacrifices that promote common interests’ (30).

It would seem, then, that political virtues originate, rather than motivate, in socialisation. What is that socialisation founded upon? Habermas seems to suggest that the status of the citizen, the socialised individual, is ‘nourished’ (30) by the ‘“pre-political”’ (31). Pre-political feelings, intuitions or insights contribute and support the solidarity upon which the state depends; solidarity is the ability to put oneself in another’s position, the willingness to take on their position, thereby opening one’s horizon up to the possibility of otherness. I read Habermas as saying that the pre-political exists side-by-side with normative presuppositions, and that the former is able to bridge the gap between what is rationally acceptable, such as giving up food for one’s family in times of food crises, and a more abstract solidarity with human beings in general, whereby one extends bread to a stranger. Here it is worth quoting Habermas at length:

Taken by themselves, moral insights and the worldwide consensus in moral indignation at massive breaches of human rights would suffice only for the wafer-thin integration of the citizens of a politically structured world society (if that were ever to become a reality). An abstract solidarity, mediated by the law, arises among citizens only when the principles of justice have penetrated more deeply into the complex of ethical orientations in a given culture. (34)

In the modern state, the markets have penetrated into an increasing number of regulatory functions in areas of life that were previously ‘held together in a normative manner’ (36), in other words, by political structures of pre-political forms of communication. Not only does the private sphere aim more and more for realisation of individual interests; at the same time, ‘the sphere where public legitimation is necessary is likewise shrinking’ (36). There is an entrenched feeling that the global community is utterly powerless when the need for action has never been greater; our political leaders continue to be driven by national interests in the face of a global economic crisis. Habermas attributes the depoliticisation of citizens to precisely the ‘dwindling of any genuine hope that the global community would be a creative political force’ (36). For when the leaders fail to deliver, the individual retreats further away from the public sphere of symbolic interactions, from precisely the democratic procedures that should, theoretically, empower engagement.

The radical scepticism with regards to reason that resonates in the post-Enlightenment world is ‘profoundly alien to the Catholic tradition’ (37). The continued existence of religion perhaps shows that, in spite of the gains made in humanism, Enlightenment and political liberalism, there is nevertheless an audience for whom ‘the theory that the remorseful modern age can find its way out of the blind alley only by means of the religious orientation to a transcendent point of reference’ (37) really makes sense. This is not just true in the case of the mundane congregation who attend church dutifully every Sunday. Religion still yields an enormous amount of power in the political sphere even when it is unashamedly fanatical, as evidenced by the powerful pro-life lobbying seen in the US and now the UK. Thus, it is the task of philosophy to take this phenomenon ‘seriously from within…as a cognitive challenge’ (38). It is no longer enough to dismiss religion out of hand as ‘simply irrational’ (51).

Habermas identifies the starting point for the philosophical discourse about reason and revelation (knowledge and faith) as the idea that ‘when reason reflects on its deepest foundations, it discovers that it owes its origin to something else’ (40). The continued existence of religion is down to the ‘something’ that remains intact in the communal lives of the fellowships it engenders, ‘something that has been lost elsewhere and cannot be restored by the professional knowledge of experts alone’ (43). Again we return to the ethical considerations upon which the principle of justice must be based, to the sense that motivation to correct societal pathologies, distorted patterns of behaviour towards other human beings and alienation or disassociation from society, springs from the pre-political. Nevertheless, the principle of tolerance, particularly in pluralistic societies, requires believers and non-believers to grasp the fact that dissent exists and will continue to go on existing. It is only the neutrality of the state authority on questions of worldviews that ‘guarantees the same ethical freedom to every citizen’ (51).

All quotes refer to Habermas’s essay ‘Pre-political Foundations of the Democratic Constitutional State’ in Dialectics of Secularisation.