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Monday, February 11, 2008

Religion is likely to figure in the global future to an extent that most cosmopolitan theories have not considered

Jürgen Habermas’s account of the public sphere and its transformations, for example, pays almost no attention to religion (although his recent work does – see my next post). The error here is not simply Habermas’s own, but rather his participation in reproducing and extending an Enlightenment tradition of imagining religion outside the frame of the public sphere. This was tendentious, since empirically religion figured prominently in public life (though it was widely understood as fading). The Enlightenment theorists and many successors were not reporting on social reality so much as seeking to construct a reality in which religion would be outside the frame of the public sphere.
Modernity has hardly been an era of simple secularism, then, though of course few would interpret the secularism thesis so simplistically. The “postsecular” cannot be a reference to moving beyond a historical past so simplistically conceived. It can be a matter of moving beyond particular projects of achieving mutual understanding and conceiving of progress in entirely secular (and especially universalistic and nonsubstantive) terms. In this sense, thinking about postsecular public reason can potentially be helpful for improving the way we think about new projects of mutual understanding and social solidarity based on choice rather than mere imposition or inheritance. In particular, postsecular thinking may help us see some limits in many existing approaches to cosmopolitanism and some ways of enriching the pursuit of cosmopolitan ideals.
The ideal of cosmopolitanism is today rendered overwhelmingly in political terms. Citizenship of the world is a theme of political philosophers concerned with human rights, peace, and the responsibilities all humans owe each other. Even while these philosophers seek to transcend the nation-state, they somewhat ironically understand citizenship largely in the jural terms states have given the concept and in the logic of equivalence the rhetoric of nationalism has encouraged in domestic discussions. Most of these cosmopolitans are heirs of Enlightenment and French Revolutionary humanism, as well as more distantly of Diogenes Laertius, so this is not surprising.
Religion is likely to figure in the global future to an extent that most cosmopolitan theories have not considered. It is not just one among the various sources of diversity to be recognized and accommodated. There are also a number of religious projects that are direct competitors to secular cosmopolitanism, not because they are backwardly or defensively parochial but because they aspire to occupy the same space, providing moral and cultural and sometimes even political frameworks for global integration. Several religious traditions have produced transnational discursive fields of great scope and complexity. They mediate migrations as much as any secular accounts of cosmopolitan universalism. They inform relations among nations and among activists across national borders. The great world religions are internally diverse and polyvalent and not automatically forces for good or evil – any more than, say, nations and nationalisms are. But at least as much as nations and nationalisms it would be unwise to build social theories that in effect wish religion away, imagine it a fading inheritance from the past, or a private ‘taste’ that can be kept beyond the frame of the public sphere.
Cosmopolitanism is not realistically imaginable as the transcendence of all forms of belonging. To propose a leap into traditionless secular reason is to propose the tyranny of the pure ought, and indeed, an ought without a can. It is also to privilege a class and a cultural group able to identify its traditions – including secularism – with neutral reason. Global solidarity will be achieved – if it is ever achieved – by transformation of religion and other forms of cultural belonging rather than by escape from them. And it will be achieved on the basis of hope and critical perspectives and solidarity that inform public reason but are not produced simply from within it.
But the question of perspectives that should legitimately inform public discourse is not a trivial one. Indeed, religion, after all, appears prominently in contemporary politics in the form of strikingly illiberal views and positions, and in a package with practices that are difficult to condone. It also appears in more positive and even heroic forms, of course, not least as part of movements for peace, civil and human rights, and equitable development. What is normatively required of perspectives and reasons that inform public discourse? In my next post, I’ll explore critically Jürgen Habermas’s views on this vexing question.
[As part of an ongoing series of events on Rethinking Secularism, sponsored by the SSRC and the Institute for Public Knowledge, tomorrow evening Craig Calhoun will host and moderate a public dialogue at NYU on “Exploring the Post-Secular.” More details at Calhoun’s new blog, Societas.—ed.] This entry was posted on Monday, February 11th, 2008 at 6:00 am and is filed under Religion in the public sphere.

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