« Secularism, Democracy and Minority Rights » – N. Chandhoke

« Secularism, Democracy and Minority Rights »

By: Neera Chandhoke

Table of contents – Table de matières – Indice – Inhaltsverzeichnis – 指數
English: Minorities – – Italiano: Minoranze
François: Minorités – – Português: Minoridades
Deutsch: Minderheiten – – Español: Minorías – – 中國人: 並通過

1. Introduction

John Locke in his famous essay on toleration wrote: “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will always be arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the side, a concernment for the interest of men’s soul, and on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.”[1]

[1] John Locke, 1689, 1968, A Letter Concerning Toleration (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1689), 67.

Locke’s thesis of the secularisation of state power, or the doctrine of political secularism, powerfully backed his conviction that religion or the care of the soul is purely a private business between the believer and one’s God. This belief formed the basis of his theory of toleration and democracy. The premise of the privatisation of religion blended in well with the spirit of the Enlightenment that swept Western Europe in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, heralding the age of reason and of science. 

It is precisely the privatisation of religion that has been challenged since the last decades of the twentieth century.[2] Across the world, religion has returned to the public sphere often as aggressive and militant politics, making political demands on the state and civil society, and in some cases seeking to capture state power and reshaping society in its image. New religious movements are no longer in the business of saving the soul or showing the path to the divine. They are simply politics in another mode: a form of politics that, particularly in the Arab world and in India, is concerned with state-breaking and state-making projects through the use of coercion and armed violence. It is not surprising that new religious movements are conservative to a fault, focussed on power, intolerant, and rankly undemocratic.

Apart from the fact that they pursue raw political power under the banner of ‘this’ or ‘that’ religion, there is little in these movements/armed gangs that relates to religion as it is understood as a way of comprehending ourselves and our place in this world and the hereafter. The return of religion in many forms, and recognition of the potency of religious beliefs, heralds the onset of the post-secular age. “The world today, with some exceptions…is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever”, writes the philosopher of religion Peter Berger.[3]

[2] Jose Casanova, “Religion Challenging the Myth of Secular Democracy,” in Lizbet Chrisoffersen, Hans R. Iverson, Hanne Petersen, and Margrit Warburg, ed,, Religion in the 21st Century (Surrey and Burlington: Ashgate, 2010), 19-36.

[3] Peter Berger, The Desecularisation of the World (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1999), 2.

For postmodernists the ‘post-secular’ is part of a generic rejection of Enlightenment rationality and of the baggage it carries in its wake. The return of religion to public life provides sufficient proof of the incapacities and infirmities of secular reason. Secularism has simply become redundant. For western philosophers, particularly for Habermas, we have to ‘go beyond’ the concept of secularism in order to accommodate the challenges of the times, notably the increased visibility of religious practices and affiliations in the public sphere. The task is not to dump secularism because it has been found wanting, and adopt religion because it is a popular form of belief, but to understand and reconcile the complexities of the relationship between the two.  

In an October 2001 speech entitled “Faith and Knowledge”, delivered on the occasion of the award of the prestigious Frankfurt Peace Prize of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, and later developed into an essay on religion in the public sphere,[4] (2006), Habermas piloted the concept of post secularism to the centre stage of political theory. “We”, he said in the aftermath of the attack on the Trade Towers in New York, “are in a post-secular age”. Habermas had been moving in the direction of recognising religion as a resource for resolving some of the most troublesome ethical problems confronted by human beings, for example, genetic engineering, since 1992.[5] In admitting religious voices into the public sphere and subjecting them to processes of public justification, Habermas accepts that  advanced capitalist societies that had undergone secularisation now live in a post-secular world that has to recognise and appreciate the continued existence of religion amidst ongoing secularisation. To exclude religious voices from the public sphere would be undemocratic. Interaction in the public sphere transcends mere toleration, and intensifies communicative action between secular and religiously minded citizens.

[4] Jurgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” European Journal of Philosophy 14, no 1 (April 2006), 1-25.

[5] Jurgen Habermas, Themes in Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, trans William Mark Hohengarten (Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press, 1992), 51.

His accommodative stance ends at this particular moment, for religious vocabularies and sensibilities must not be allowed to cross the threshold between the public sphere and policy making institutions in the state. A number of problems have been identified with Habermas’s acceptance of religion, for instance, the impossibility of translating religious experiences into secular languages. Let me however concentrate on another and a rather significant problem which remained under-theorised in Habermas’s philosophy. In a plural society, which religion or set of religions will be admitted into, or excluded from the democratic public sphere?

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