What are the lessons of liberalism

Religion and modernity

Wilfried Hinsch

To person

Dr. phil., born 1956; Professor of Practical Philosophy, Philosophical Seminar, University of Cologne, Albertus-Magnus-Platz 1, 50923 Cologne. [email protected]

A common understanding is that liberal democracies are secular States in which the areas of the religious and the political are separated from each other. The area of ​​the political is often equated with that of the public and the religious is assigned to the private sphere. For a long time, under the impression of social-scientific theories of modernization, secularization was understood to be a historical process in the course of which religious beliefs, together with their symbolic representations and social practices, increasingly disappear from publicly perceptible life. That can no longer be said today. The global rise of Islam, the increasing public presence of Christian movements in the USA, but also in Europe and Germany, to name just two tendencies, have clearly made religion and religiosity a public affair and a political issue again. The debates about abortion and prenatal diagnosis or the scientific use of fertilized egg cells, for example, have given religious values ​​and theological figures of argument a new public significance, as has the demand by evangelical Christians to include the creation story of the Bible on an equal footing with evolutionary theory in the curricula of state schools.

The public, we think, is that which concerns everyone and about which everyone should discuss and decide together; The private, on the other hand, is that which only affects the individual and those who are voluntarily or family-related and should therefore also be decided by them at their own discretion. The spatial imagery of "spheres" of the public and private is, however, by all means misleading: Of course, it concerns everyone, whether someone is in his Privatedrug deals or not. On the other hand, it is usually nobody's business whether someone is in the afternoon public Parks with or without a hat.

A more precise understanding of what secularization, secular society, and secular state mean refers to constitutional provisions characteristic of liberal democracies. [1] A secular state is therefore a state with its basic normative order first All members are guaranteed extensive individual religious freedom as a subjective right. No citizen may be forced by the state to accept a certain belief or to give up another, this is negative religious freedom; and every citizen has the right to practice his or her own religion (or worldview) within the framework of the state system in community with like-minded people, this is positive religious freedom.

Secondly If a secular state strives for as complete a neutrality as possible towards all religions and world views and tries to safeguard this institutionally through suitable precautions. As far as this is practically achievable, no religion or ideology should be favored or disadvantaged through state action, i.e. through the exercise of state coercive power - be it in the form of legislative acts, be it in the implementation of political programs.

It is important to realize that the constitutional separation of state and religion only partially coincides with the distinction between the public and the private. Religious freedom means the freedom to publicly profess one's own beliefs, to meet in public with like-minded people and to publicly practice rituals and practices belonging to one's own faith. And it also includes, with certain restrictions, public political partisanship in the name of and in favor of one's own beliefs. The last point poses a number of problems in liberal democracies. It is necessary to clarify the extent to which controversial religious beliefs and values ​​may influence state decisions that are relevant to fundamental rights, which are binding for all citizens and which, if necessary, are enforced with state coercive force.

In this context, the question also arises as to what role controversial beliefs can play that, while not in direct contradiction to the normative foundations of liberal democracies, are incompatible with the natural scientific understanding of the world that is characteristic of modern societies, such as belief in the literal belief Truth of the Bible and the assumption that God - contrary to the theory of evolution teaches - created the world with all creatures in it, as described in the first book of Moses.

State neutrality in liberal democracies

My starting point is the idea that all citizens of a liberal democracy are free and equal persons with equal claims not to be subjected to any regime to which, in the light of reasonable beliefs and interests, they cannot agree. The norms constitutive for the political order of a liberal society are not supposed to be mere "coercive laws" which those involved follow only because otherwise they have to fear penalties and coercive measures. In Germany, where around four million Muslims now live - around five percent of the population - this means: The public political and intellectual debate about the normative foundations of the community must be conducted in such a way that these foundations can also be justified from an Islamic starting point can be understood. And for this purpose, the interpretation and further development of these principles must systematically take into account the views of life and values ​​of Muslim fellow citizens. The same applies, of course, to all other religious communities and denominations.

Contrary to what laicism claims, liberal democracy, with its characteristic religious and non-religious pluralism of forms of life, does not derive its stability from pushing religious convictions and practices back from public life. (Incidentally, doing this would also run counter to the state's neutrality requirement, because it would enable non-religious world views to have a greater influence on the public life of a society than religious world views.) Rather, it derives its stability from the consent of citizens, their Values ​​and concepts of life not only differ greatly from one individual to the next, but are also determined by largely incompatible religious or ideological teachings.

Nonetheless, the question arises as to how much state neutrality is possible with regard to diverging religious and ideological convictions and ties without giving up the egalitarian freedom guarantees of liberal democracies, nor the methodological achievements and knowledge of modern science. John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas gave similar answers to this question.

To Rawls leads the idea of ​​liberal legitimacy based on the possibility of an "overarching consensus" to the idea of ​​a "public use of reason" (public reason)[2] Political decisions that affect essential constitutional content (and above all the basic liberal and political rights of citizens) may therefore only be made on the basis of reasons that can reasonably be assumed that all citizens recognize them as good reasons can. Since religious arguments do not meet this condition in pluralistic societies, they cannot be used as justifications for legitimate political decisions. The problem is that citizens may very well refuse to recognize certain norms if they conflict with their internally unreasonable religious beliefs. At least that is the case as long as we insist that citizens should not be subjected to norms which it is clear that they cannot reasonably agree to. It then seems inadmissible to exclude religious arguments from public political discussion.

With regard to the American civil rights movement, in which the basic political equality of blacks in the United States has also been fought for with religious arguments, Rawls arrives in a revision to a less restrictive understanding of the public use of reason. [3] According to this, invoking religious arguments that are not generally shared is permissible if it serves to justify political decisions that are later also due to non-religious and generally acceptable reasons (public reasons) can be justified. However, even this more open concept cannot solve the actual problem. It is usually not clear to see which political decisions are made at a later time can also be justified by "public reasons" if these reasons are not yet known themselves; and as soon as they are known, religious figures of justification appear largely superfluous anyway. In addition, it is still true that, especially if one assumes a liberal understanding of political legitimacy, unreasonable religious arguments cannot provide a basis for justified objections to certain political decisions and, for this reason alone, must not be excluded from public political discussion.

Habermas has presented a related conception in discussion with Rawls, which also allows religious arguments in the context of political decision-making processes, but requires that the content of these arguments "be translated into a generally accessible language". [4] Such a translation will achieve the goal that all state sanctioned Decisions formulated in a generally comprehensible language and justified can be. This determination of the relationship between religion and politics or political legitimacy is not convincing either. The quality of a translation is measured by the fact that what is communicated in one language is at least essentially reproduced in the other language. If the essence of a religious argument - both in itself and in relation to what it is an argument for - is its religious content, the following possibilities arise: Either this content is lost in the process of "translation" into the language of a secular one Civil society its religious character, but then no translation is available or at best a very bad one, because the essence of the original communication has been lost. (If the result of the translation were to be an argument for a certain political decision with general approval, the underlying religious argument would be superfluous anyway.) Or the religious content is retained in the translation, then a translation is available, but not a general one approvable argument that would have stripped of its controversial religious character. So there remains - not unlike Rawls - at most the vague hope that what can only be justified religiously at the given point in time can be justified at a later point in time without religious arguments.

As a result, it seems to me, we have to recognize that religious arguments should not be excluded from the political arena in the name of liberal legitimacy, and in the end, if there is a lack of consensus, only democratic votes or other non-argumentative forms of dealing with dissent will help.