The Vexing Presence of Religion in Public Life

The debates about the role of religion in public life have become overheated, intensified by the events of 9/11. Over the last decade or so, we have witnessed a spate of acerbic anti-religion books, like Richard Dawkins’ best-selling The God Delusion (2005) and Sam Harris’ acerbic The End of Faith (2004).

Books are one thing, but contemporary global politics are inextricably entangled with religious animus. President George W. Bush of the United States claimed God’s guidance for his decision to invade Iraq. The current president, Barack Obama, believes America is on the right side of history. The American president’s enemies likewise find transcendental justification for their own monstrous acts of cruelty, violence and mayhem.

In the liberal democracies (now tottering on their last legs), issues of the right to dress in conformity to religious precept and teach biblical perspectives in biology classes precipitate considerable debate, contention and violent hostility.

Now with millions of Muslim refugees overflowing into Europe in a mood of panic, xenophobia screeches in the streets. Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate, even lashes out that America should close its borders to Muslims. It is utterly urgent that Muslims and Christians face their mutual vulnerabilities and maladies towards crafting a new form of religious plurality in this deranged world.

But this is only one side of the complex story. Religious beliefs and practices continue to flourish in the post-secular state. They cannot just be dismissed, oftentimes viperously, by people like eminent biologist Dawkins. People continue to draw on religious resources to counter arid consumerism and vapid secularism. Although science does inform our common sense, questions of meaning and how we ought to “tame our minds” and train ourselves to “act compassionately in the world” persist (often drawing on spiritual sources).

We turn to Ronald Dworkin’s chapter, “Religion and dignity,” from his book, Is Democracy Possible Here? (2006), Jurgen Habermas’ essay, “Faith and knowledge” (2005), and Seyla Benhabib’s commentary on the French “L’affair du foulard” in The Rights of Others: aliens, residents and citizens (2004) for ways of thinking about how leadership in state and civil society ought to handle the role of religion in public life. There is some urgency here.

Religion and dignity

Ronald Dworkin is one of America’s foremost left liberal thinkers, along with John Rawls. Dworkin’s speciality is legal theory, and he writes with admirable clarity and precision on the core principles of liberal democracies. Dworkin reminds us that America’s religiosity is not new. We are, no doubt, aware that America was founded as a kind of Christian utopia, God’s city upon a hill, beaming light to all of humankind.

Throughout the Bush regime the religious right gained confidence to assert its vision of the good life and initiated controversial campaigns to have “intelligent design” taught in science classes, stem cell research stopped, abortion denied and gay marriage rejected. These latter issues were magnets, drawing millions into the public realm and making millions of others fearful of fundamentalism’s aggressive project to enact their theocratic version of a Christian nation.

Clearly, there is a serious need for some serious thinking. Dworkin sets out two models on the role religion should play in public life: the tolerant religious nation and the tolerant secular nation. While a tolerant religious nation would permit minority and diverse religious expression, it might, given that the majority were “Christians”, condemn practices like homosexuality as against God’s will. In contrast, a tolerant secular society would never accept “such a narrow account of the ground of freedom of religion” (p. 61). Ethical decision-making cannot, Dworkin maintains, be restricted to religious-motivated action.

Dworkin anchors his argument in the liberal axiom that the “principle of personal responsibility requires a tolerant secular state and rules out a tolerant religious state” (p. 66). He eschews the idea that a religious majority, believing that its faith is good for the community, could then direct the state to endorse that faith. This would mean, then, that individuals would not be able to make up their own minds and act morally according to their dictates.

Dworkin’s “second principle of dignity assigns to each of us a responsibility to assess and choose ethical values for himself rather than to yield to the coercive choices of others” (p. 76). This principle is part of the strong reasons why many of us living in what’s left of the liberal democracies are alarmed at the power of, say, the Taliban or ISIS, to impose their malevolent vision upon everyone within their communal sphere.

In fact, the European Union’s wariness to include Turkey in the Union lies with their suspicion that Turkey contains forces that would use the state as an instrument to impose a particular faith on all of its citizens. Recently, these suspicions are justified.

With these principles to guide him, Dworkin plunges in and tackles some controversial issues. The science and religion debates in American society are handled deftly by this fine thinker. He believes that anti-Darwinians have the right to “fix the role of faith in their lives, but not to impose that faith on others, including children who are coerced into public education” (p. 80).

The intelligent design movement, thoroughly discredited by scientists, cannot be accepted as a “possible candidate for scientific explanation” (ibid.). While a belief of many, divine intervention can never be proven empirically. Dworkin argues that to accept miracles as compatible with science damages reason. The ID movement does not have the right to impose this faith-position on all young people. They would be utterly disabled for existence in the 21st century.

Living and learning in a post-secular world

Habermas begins his more philosophically elaborate discussion of “Faith and knowledge” by acknowledging that 9/11 has exploded the tension between “secular society and religion” (p. 327). The bombers, we realize only too well, were motivated by religious beliefs. In fact, Habermas believes that the events surrounding the aftermath of 9/11 had apocalyptic biblical overtones.

In his provocative book, The Malady of Islam (2003) the late Abdelwahab Meddeb wonders where the Qur’an and tradition might be “predisposed to a fundamentalist reading” and how persons doing terrible deeds in the name of Allah could have “forgotten the reasons for existence and … transformed a tradition based on the principle of life and the cult of pleasure into a lugubrious race toward death.”

To understand how we ought to proceed in such a febrile environment, Habermas addresses the question of “secularization in post-secular society.” What interests this master thinker is the continued existence of religious communities in the “context of ongoing secularization” (p. 329). How are those of secular sensibility to converse with those of religious disposition? How are adherents of different faith-communities to speak with one another?

These questions seem almost ridiculous in the face of horrific images of bombed out mosques and icons of Christ machine-gunned to smithereens or partially burned and left tottering on a damaged altar in churches in Iraq and Syria.

I hang my head in despair: I advocate complementary learning processes between Islam and Christianity and secularists in a respectful public sphere. All I see are bullets through stained glass windows.

For their part, religious communities must come to terms with other religions, adapt to the authority of the sciences, and agree to the premise of the constitutional state. This reflective learning process has been forced on those of religious consciousness by modernity. In fact, the possibility of this necessary learning process may already have gone off the rails and disappeared down the canyon.

Without this “thrust of reflection,” Habermas avers, “monotheisms in relentlessly modernized societies unleash a destructive potential” (p. 329).

By now, we are familiar with the role that the scientific revolution and the western enlightenment penetrated through some of common sense’s “illusions about the world” (p. 330). Habermas argues that “everyday knowledge, which is linked to the self-understanding of speakers and actors. Learning something new about the world, and about ourselves as beings in the world, changes the content of our self-understanding” (ibid.).

Although our world has been disenchanted and the Darwinian revolution has undermined our positioning in the world of beings, Habermas insists that: “No science will relieve common sense, even if scientifically informed, of the task of forming a judgment, for instance, on how we should deal with pre-personal human life” (p. 331).

Like Dworkin, Habermas argues that the “democratic common sense insists on reasons which are acceptable not just for the members of one religious community” (p. 332). But he quickly admits that members of religious communities are often unfairly burdened; they must split their identities in ways that secular people do not.

Religious persons must translate their religious axioms into secular language. “But only if the secular side, too, remains sensitive to the force of articulation inherent in religious language will the search for reasons that aim at universal acceptability not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from the public sphere” (p. 332).

Habermas embarks on a difficult excursion into philosophy’s dispute with religion. It is hard to understand his thinking without some background in philosophical languages. But the gist of his analysis is that religion contains rich symbolic resources that can be drawn on to confront the spiritual deficits of science harnessed to profit and meaning attached only to commodities.

These resources remain available for translation into the language of the public sphere. Both sides must listen and be open to learn something new. However, if the Habermasian complementary learning process is to get off the ground, religious “communities of interpretation” must learn to read sacred texts away from justifying war and monstrous deeds of cruelty, and practice the art of translation of dogma into practicable ways of living well with others in a freshly imagined world beyond endless destruction.

L’affair du foulard

Seyla Benhabib, a leading critical theorist in the United States, offers a sophisticated analysis of the scarf affair in the republic of France. She sets the stage for her argument by referring to “reverse globalization.” That is, peoples from the poorer regions of the world—Middle East, Africa, S.E. Asia—have flocked to the global cities of London, Paris, and Rome. However, they have not arrived with only their battered suitcases.

They have also come with religious and cultural beliefs, which they now attempt to adapt (or not) to a secular environment. Those immigrants who landed in France happened to arrive in a nation that was adamantly neutral to “all kinds of religious practice” (p. 186). The affair actually began on October 19, 1989, when several Muslim girls decided to “transpose an aspect of their private identity into the public sphere”.

They no longer treated the school as a “neutral space for French acculturation.” They “left home to become public actors in a civil public sphere in which they defied the state” (p. 186). Benhabib shows us the various meanings attached to the scarf-wearing.

Eventually, Benhabib informs us, l’affair du foulard “came to stand for all dilemmas of French national identity in the age of globalization and multiculturalism” (p. 190). We have touched on this dilemma in our discussion of Dworkin and Habermas. But Benhabib believes that we need “new models of legal, pedagogical, social, and cultural institutions to deal with the dual imperatives of liberal democracies to preserve freedom of religious expression and the principles of secularism” (ibid.).

During this whole affair, which stirred up a publishing storm, the girls’ own views were hardly ever sought. The pedagogical dimension of the affair entails asking the girls to “account for their actions and doings at least to their school communities, and to encourage discourses among the youth about what means to be a Muslim citizen in a laic French Republic” (p. 191). However, the learning process cannot flow in only one direction.

“Learning processes would have to take place on the part of the Muslim girls as well: while the larger French society would have to learn not to stigmatize and stereotype as ‘backward and oppressed creatures’ all those who accept the wearing of what appears at first glance to be a religiously mandated piece of clothing, the girls themselves and their supporters, in the Muslim community and elsewhere, have to learn to give a justification of their actions with ‘good reasons in the public sphere’” (p. 192).

In the end, Benhabib observes that: “Culture matters; cultural evaluations are deeply bound up with interpretations of our needs, our visions of the good life, and our dreams for the future” (p. 196). We have to “learn to live with the otherness of others…” (ibid.). It is important, then, that a vibrant multicultural liberal democracy not stifle “cultural-political conflict and learning…through legal manoeuvres” (p. 197).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.