Habermas’ Idea of Public Debate and the Problem of Neutrality (pt. 1)

The following series is by Andre Costa, graduate student at Trinity Western University and contributor to The Humanist Lens. Andre’s research has to do primarily with political, historical and philosophical problems in the contemporary liberal democratic state and its difficult relationship to Christian commitment. In this piece, he offers a critique of the political theory of Jurgen Habermas in the context of religion and the distinction between the private and public spheres of political life. 

Jurgen Habermas, political theory, religion

Habermas’ political theory involving religion and public life leaves something to be desired

The idea of a secular state does not necessarily deny the significant influence of the Christian tradition in its development. According to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, one of the most important proponents of the idea of the “neutral state” (the idea that state power does not take positions on religious matters), the fact that a constitutional democratic state might have borrowed from Christian symbols in its establishment attests to the role of philosophy as the translator of religious symbols for all citizens.

The questions to ask of Habermas concern his understanding of religion’s role in the constitutional democratic state. For, through his “methodical atheism,” he seems to welcome religion as long as it provides material for ethics and forms of life for individual citizens while confining religion to the private sphere.  Habermas wants to protect the state from the dogmatism and metaphysical baggage of religious traditions.  The main thrust of his argument is to present the democratic constitutional state as independent from Christianity in order to defend his position of neutrality. In addition, by presenting Stanley Hauerwas’ understanding of narrative ethics, it seems evident that Habermas’ approach excludes religious citizens from fully engaging in a public debate, since neutrality is already an answer to some of the major issues in the perceived “culture wars,” ie. abortion. Finally, while defending neutrality, Habermas’ project is strongly attached to presuppositions provided by Christian tradition. To be sure, his own theory does not do without metaphysics, ethics and a particular historical tradition.

The question regarding the self-sufficiency of the secular state is essential to Habermas’ idea of the neutral public sphere. He is aware that to attach the secular state to a particular tradition “would indeed bring the state obligated to world-view neutrality into trouble.”[1]  If, for example, a democratic constitutional state found itself dependent upon a particular religious tradition, the neutral state might also succumb to a form of bigotry as such a fact would deny the principle according to which all ideas must enjoy equal value in society.[2] As Habermas observes, “against religion, the democratic common sense insists on reason which is acceptable not just for members of one religious community.”[3] While Habermas makes it clear that neutrality is fundamental to his idea of state; one might wonder whether his rejection of Christianity as a necessary source for the development of the Western state could reveal an anxiety to affirm the principle of neutrality rather than a legitimate conclusion derived from a historical analysis.

Habermas does not deny Christianity as a relevant influence of the democratic state;[4] however, he insists that it is only through the philosophical work of the translation of Christian symbols into a language accessible to all that democracy is to flourish.[5] Indeed, there is something innovative about Habermas’ idea of neutrality. Unlike the secularist approach brought by the Enlightenment that imposes an anti-religious rationality as its pillar, Habermas’ approach aims to bring neutrality to a new level – i.e. a neutrality of neutrality. To be sure, the German philosopher has observed “the world-view neutrality of the state power, which guarantees equal ethical liberties for every citizen, is incompatible with the political generalization of a secularist world-view.”[6] Habermas highlights the fact that secularism turned out to be just another worldview which was necessarily unable to foster the type of neutrality that must prevail within the democratic constitutional state.

Note that Habermas seems to follow the recent trend experienced by contemporary philosophy that relates to the rediscovery of religion, or, what some have called, the return to religion. This return is the result of the exhaustion of secular rationality in the West.[7] Interestingly enough, the young Habermas, who embraced the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, would certainly hesitate to affirm the importance of religion for the formation of social ethics. Ironically, the crisis caused by the limitations of modern positivism – one of the main targets of the violent critique of Frankfurt School against modern rationalism – forced Habermas to revisit the meta-legal sources of the constitutional state, among which is religion itself. This return to religion that Habermas experienced may represent recognition on behalf of secular thinkers regarding the limitations of secularism, however, it hardly represents an apology for the integration of religious discourse in the public sphere. Habermas holds a strong belief that, in order to participate in the public debate one must translate religious symbols into secular language. As he observes, “under the conditions of post-metaphysical thinking, whoever puts forth a truth claim today must nevertheless translate experiences that have their home in religious discourse into the language of scientific expert culture – and from this language translate them back into praxis.”[8] So even though he is aware of the shortcomings of secularism and more knowledgeable about the relevance of religion in modern life, Habermas still confines religion to the private sphere.


[1] Habermas, Jürgen from Mendieta, Eduardo. The Frankfurt School on Religion: Key Writings by the Major Thinkers. Psychology Press, 2005. Print. Page 339

[2]  As Andre Edgar described, Habermas defends that the access to the public sphere should be open to all, and within the sphere all are treated as  equals” Edgar, Andrew. The Philosophy of Habermas. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 2005. Print. 27

[3]  Habermas from Mendieta, op. cit, 332

[4] Habermas from Mendieta, op. cit, 343

[5] Habermas from Mendieta, op. cit, 334

[6] Habermas from Mendieta, op. cit,  348

[7] Zimmermann, Jens. Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. IVP Academic, 2012. Print. 43

[8] Zimmermann, Op. Cit., 43

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