- the liberal emphasis on the obligation to provide nonreligious reasons in support of coercive policies with which all citizens must comply, on one side, and
- the critic’s insistence on the right of religious citizens to adopt their religious stance in public deliberation about such policies, on the other.
Habermas agrees with the liberal position in defending the separation of church and state, and thus the institutional priority of nonreligious reasons in politics. Consequently, he accepts the Rawlsian view that nonreligious reasons must be offered to justify coercive policies in political deliberation at the institutional level of parliaments, courts, ministries and administrations, that is, in the formal public sphere. But he proposes to eliminate this requirement in the informal public sphere. Religious citizens who participate in political advocacy in the informal public sphere can offer exclusively religious reasons in support of the policies they favor in the hope that they may be translated into nonreligious reasons. But the obligation of translation should not fall exclusively on the shoulders of religious citizens, as the Rawlsian approach suggests. According to Habermas, secular citizens must share the burden of translating religious into nonreligious reasons. In order to do so, they have to take religious reasons seriously and should not deny their possible truth from the outset.
At first sight, this proposal may seem less restrictive than the Rawlsian and thus better equipped to enable the political inclusion of religious citizens. However, unlike Rawls, Habermas imposes additional constraints on the epistemic attitudes appropriate to democratic citizenship. According to him, the normative expectations of democratic citizenship can only be met after some crucial “learning processes” have taken place among both religious and secular citizens. On the one hand, religious citizens must develop a self-reflective attitude towards Modernity. This involves accepting the possible truth of other religions, the authority of science, and the institutional priority of nonreligious reasons in politics. On the other hand, secular citizens must develop a self-reflective attitude towards the post-secular society in which they live. This involves transcending a secularist understanding of Modernity, according to which religions have no cognitive substance. As a consequence, severe restrictions are imposed on the types of reasons that may legitimately be used in political discussions in the public sphere. For example, religious citizens cannot appeal to religious reasons that deny the authority of science or the possible truth of other religions, and secular citizens cannot appeal to secularist reasons that deny the possible truth of religious beliefs.
Now, for all that, Habermas could still be right in claiming that the political inclusion of all democratic citizens will only be possible if their respective cognitive stances undergo these transformations. Certainly, if citizen’s cognitive stances were to become similar enough the problem of political integration would eventually disappear. But it seems to me that if an ethics of democratic citizenship is needed at all, it is needed precisely to answer the question of what citizens should do in cases of conflict before such an ideal endpoint is reached. Under conditions of pluralism, a solution to the problem of political integration can hardly consist in the hope that the problem will evaporate if and when some views at both extremes of the spectrum disappear (e.g. the views of religious citizens who believe in creationism and secularist citizens who believe that religions are irrational). What is at issue here is whether democratic citizens can be politically integrated as they actually are, i.e., given their actual religious or secularist cognitive stances.
But is it possible to organize public deliberation in such a way that the right of democratic citizens to adopt their own cognitive stances is recognized without giving up on the democratic obligation to secure that only public reasons count in support of coercive policies with which all citizens must comply?