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Experiments with the Post-Secular Part II

Date:06 September 2012
Author:Religion Factor
Experiments with the Post-Secular
Experiments with the Post-Secular

Following on from Part One, which discussed the post-secular as a description of 21st century society, Part Two explores the post-secular as a prescription for public life in the 21st century.

Jurgen Habermas offers us perhaps the most comprehensive outline of the post-secular as a prescription. His main objective, it seems to me, is to move us beyond secular assumptions about political participation that exclude religious reasoning and argumentation from public debate.

He posits two main reasons for this. Firstly, contrary to expectations, religion has not died out and is in fact stronger than ever. Rather than bothering with questions of whether religion should be part of public life or not, Habermas instead accepts that it is, that it will likely remain so and our politics and public life should reflect that reality.

Secondly, Habermas is responding to the growing challenges to human existence in the 21st century. Increasing inequality, multiple moral and ethical dilemmas and mounting social and environmental crises all highlight that something is desperately wrong with politics as usual. For Habermas, then, the post-secular also offers a way of resisting dominant neoliberal, secular rationalist modes of thinking, offering the potential for alternatives and transformation.

Habermas makes a series of arguments about what should be required of citizens participating in public debate in a post-secular society. It is unfair, he says, to insist religious citizens translate their reasoning into secular language, since translation is not a burden required of all citizens. Further, religion provides a unique source of meaning and identity, and public discussions are the poorer without them. In other words, religion offers a source of resistance to dominant modes of politics as usual. Other scholars have since argued that religion, along with art, drama, music and other less ‘rational’ forms of argumentation should be allowed into public debate because, given the multiple crises the world is facing, we need to harness every avenue of human thought and endeavor in our efforts to address them.

But is this perhaps a Eurocentric view of the ‘post-secular’? Is the idea of the post-secular even applicable beyond Western contexts, in societies where the attempt to privatize religion and separate it from politics has never been made?

Is ‘post-secular’ even useful for describing the realities of early 21stcentury Western society? Many commentators are skeptical about the utility of simply attaching ‘neo-‘ or ‘post-‘ in front of words to signify that ‘something’ is changing, but we’re not sure what yet. Perhaps the same is true of post-secular? And if so, what do we use instead?

And is it even the case that both belief and unbelief are equally acceptable now? Perhaps the idea of the post-secular as a self-reflexive point of resistance, open to various viewpoints, is an ideal that is far from the reality. I’ve no doubt that people still have to be careful about what they say, where and to whom. I was once discussing my faith with a friend who commented (only slightly condescendingly) how ‘quaint’ it was that I maintained a personal faith, as though I were some delightful but nonetheless archaic relic from a bygone era. It also cannot be denied that there are highly exclusionary, intolerant and violent interventions from various traditions, both religious and secular, present in contemporary public debate.

But all of these uncertainties are to some extent the driving forces behind establishing this blog. We want to see if the prescriptions that Habermas makes for post-secular public debate can actually work in practice. Is public debate enriched or undermined by religious arguments? Does the post-secular have any relevance or application beyond Western contexts? Can we come up with an alternative concept to describe what we currently refer to as ‘post-secular’? Perhaps most importantly, can post-secular debate and discussion offer an effective form of resistance to the politics as usual that is contributing to rising inequality, intolerance and marginalization, and instead promote democratic participation, inclusion and social justice?

Who knows? But given the myriad problems we face in our world today, we need to be experimenting with new ways of talking to one another and developing solutions. And that is exactly what ‘The Religion Factor’ is – an experiment in post-secular public debate.

Erin Wilson is a displaced Australian working at the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen

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