A fourth and final excerpt from Michael Novak’s “No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.” This time on secular public engagement and the necessity for mutual respect and true pluralism in order to avoid a lame secular mono-culture:

In 2005, in a lecture at the University of Lodz in Poland on “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas posed another question (again I abbreviate): Are secular men and women ready to admit that toleration is always a two-way street? Religious persons must be ready to learn toleration not only for each denomination’s convictions and commitments, but also for those of atheists, agnostics, and other secularists. In a similar way, nonbelieving secularists must learn to appreciate the creeds, reasoning, and convictions of their fellow human beings who are believers. “For all their ongoing dissent on questions of worldviews and religious doctrines,” says Habermas, “citizens are meant to respect one another as free and equal members of their political community.” Those on all sides must be ready to stand in the shoes of the other, in order to see the other’s point of view “from within.”

As Pierre Manent has pointed out, the history of the last six or seven generations seems to show that Christianity has had an easier time identifying with democracy, and done so more successfully, than secular people have done in recognizing the contributions Christians and Jews have made to the intellectual comprehension of rights. The question Habermas poses is succinctly summarized: Is there sufficient moral energy among secular peoples to overcome this failure to take religion seriously?

Civic Duties of Religious Persons

On the side of religious people, Habermas also poses a test. Among themselves, they may explain their convictions in the language of faith, and even of the Bible. But in public life, at least those believers who enter into politics or activism have a special obligation to employ a “neutral” secular language. Perhaps Habermas is thinking more of the situation of France or other secular European nations with high proportions of Muslim citizens, where he wants to put pressure on Muslims to become more open to Western views, not to stay closed within their own. Perhaps he believes that the preponderance of peoples in European nations is secular, so that among them secular speech is most readily accessible to the largest number. Whatever his motives, his warning is that language in the public sphere (specifically, governmental offices) should be solely secular, lest religious language invite social divisiveness. Yet Habermas is far more open than John Rawls on these matters.

In his lecture “Religion in the Public Sphere,” Habermas writes:

“The citizens of a democratic community owe one another good reasons for their public political interventions. Contrary to the restrictive view of [John] Rawls and [Robert] Audi, this civic duty can be specified in such a tolerant way that contributions are permitted in a religious as well as in a secular language. They are not subject to constraints on the mode of expression in the political public sphere, but they rely on joint ventures of translation to have a chance to be taken up in the agendas and negotiations of political bodies. Otherwise they will not “count” in any further political process.”

In “Faith and Knowledge,” Habermas adds, “The liberal state has so far imposed only upon the believers among its citizens the requirement that they split their identity into public and private versions. That is, they must translate their religious convictions into a secular language before their arguments have the prospect of being accepted by a majority” (emphasis added).

For his part, Habermas does not want to put believers at a disadvantage, although he holds that all parties, including believers, must do their best to give reasons understandable to the other parties. So he lays burdens on both believers and unbelievers: “But the search for reasons that aspire to general acceptance need not lead to an unfair exclusion of religion from public life, and secular society, for its part, need not cut itself off from the important resources of spiritual explanations, if only so that the secular side might retain a feeling for the articulative power of religious discourse.”

By contrast, the assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually “neutral.” In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies. It penalizes or even quarantines those with religious points of view, whose insights and public arguments are not given due weight by narrowly secular officials. Curiously, in a set of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1928, Walter Lippmann made a parallel observation about the famous Scopes trial three years earlier. In a lecture framed as a conversation, the “Fundamentalist” says to his counterpart the “Modernist”:

“In our public controversies you are fond of arguing that you are open-minded, tolerant and neutral in the face of conflicting opinions. That is not so…Because for me an eternal plan of salvation is at stake. For you there is nothing at stake but a few tentative opinions none of which means anything to your happiness. Your request that I should be tolerant and amiable is, therefore, a suggestion that I submit the foundation of my life to the destructive effects of your skepticism, your indifference, and your good nature. You ask me to smile and to commit suicide.”

The Modernist does not grasp the total surrender he is asking the person of faith to make by submitting one source of knowledge (faith) to another (reason), when the latter seems to him inferior.

The parallel challenge that Habermas throws down for secular people, then, is an even newer one: that they, now, live in a “post-secular” age and must not be content with understanding social realities in a solely secular way. They, too, must enter into the two-way dialogue by stepping into the shoes, horizon, and viewpoint of those who are believers, just as is expected of the believers vis-à-vis the secularist.

If the tender roots of something like universal democracy are ever to survive and spread around the world, these conceptions—these breakthroughs for a universal ethos of public communication, and mutual reaching out to understand others from within—make an indispensable contribution. But these new rules for public discourse also renegotiate the historical preeminence that “the enlightened” assign themselves, and the language of contempt by which they have taken believers less than seriously. These rules call upon secularists, too, to be learners, and to master the new morality of communicative discourse. It is a morality that calls for mutual respect.

“[T]he assumption that Rawls and others make is that the secular mode of speech is actually ‘neutral.’ In the experience of many believers of various faiths, secular speech is anything but neutral. Speech limited to secular categories has its own totalistic tendencies.”