Secular vs Religion and the Public Square

On and off again I refer to the little book published that consists of the debate between Jurgen Habermas (eminent German philosopher) and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict). The title of this book is Dialectics of Secularization. Mr Habermas opens, sets the stage and gives a brief argument (streching 30 pages of a small format book) … and Cardinal Ratzinger replies in like length. This book is published by Ignatius Press (2006) and is quite inexpensive (and available on Amazon). It was, of course, originally published in German.

The Question:

Does the free, secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee? This question expresses a doubt about whetherthe democratic constitutional state can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence; it also expresses the assumption that such a state is depenedent on the ethical traditions of a local nature.

Mr Habermas takes the affirmative, and of course Mr Ratzinger the negative.

In this opening piece, as I intend as time (and interest?) permits in following essays to explore the arguments as presented.

Mr Habermas begins by clarifying the statement by suggesting five thesis which he will defend. That is, he makes five specific points which in five short chapters he attempts to defend. Those statements which he will defend specifically are:

1. If “law” is a stratighforward matter of de facto legislation — and nothing else — is it still possible to provide a secular justification of political rule, that is, a justification which is nonreligious or post-metaphysical.

2. Even if such a legitimization can be conceded or found, when we consider human motivations (and flaws) whether a society with a plurality of world views can acheive normative stabilization.

3. It may even be possible to neutralize this doubt (that is to satisify point 2), it still remains an open question whether liberal societal structures are dependent on the solidarity of their citizens and if this solidarity goes “off the rails” whether such local structures can be formed.

4. Instead he redirects this point to suggest that cultural and societal secularization is (or should be seen as) a double learning processes that compels both the traditions of Enlightenment and the religious doctrines to reflect on their own respective limits.

5. Finally (and this was debate was post 9/11), with regard to postsecular societies, he considers (or asks) what cognitive attitudes and normative expectations the liberal state must require of its citizens (theist and atheists alike) and for them to both put into practice in their dealings with each other.

So, that is the structure of the Habermas remarks. Next point one from above and Mr Habermas’ points with respect to that statement will be examined.

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  1. Boonton says:

    I’d like to take a stab at this but I think you need to boil this down to a very basic level.

    For example:

    This question expresses a doubt about whetherthe democratic constitutional state can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence;

    OK what if it can’t ‘renew itself’? What does that mean? One day we wake up and the roads don’t have speed limits anymore and social security checks can’t go out and calls to 911 don’t get answered because the ‘state has expired’ since it couldn’t renew its ‘normative presuppositions of its existence’????

    I think a more existential stance might be that the state exists, therefore figuring out why it exists may or may not be very useful but in the meantime it exists now so why not try to make it exist well?

  2. Mark says:


    OK what if it can’t ‘renew itself’? What does that mean?

    No. The question is if law and order breaks down (NY Riots, Paris car burnings, and so on) does the secular liberal state contain within itself that which can restore order or does it depend on factors outside that, religious or ethnic institutions and structures that will set the system back on the rails. Can a liberal state where the law is “de facto” with no external justification outside the text … reset itself in crises without depending on history or religion?

  3. Boonton says:

    Existential appeals would not be sufficient? By which I mean if riots are happening, cars are burning etc. Appeals to religious or ethnic institutions might ‘work’ but then so might an appeal to the simple fact of our existence….we all have to exist and our existence is easier to cope with if we stop people from rioting and burning cars?

  4. Mark says:

    How does that keep the form of government the same?

  5. Boonton says:

    It’s illegal to riot and burn cars in the liberal state. Why would the gov’t form need to change to simply enforce a law that is already a part of the current gov’t form?

  6. Mark says:

    This is a breakdown of order, that typically doesn’t involve normal law and order, i.e., how many arrests followed NYork riots after blackouts? How about the various riots and uprisings in ’30s Germany?

  7. Boonton says:

    There were a lot of arrests after the NYC blackouts. There were also plenty of people who got away with rioting who didn’t get arrested. I’m not seeing why that is philosophically important here?

  8. Mark says:

    You were suggesting that law enforcement restores order. I was suggesting it was something else.

  9. Boonton says:

    I would suggest under neath law enforcement is existential concerns. Living with one or two cars being burned in a protest is tolerable (unless they are your cars), after a week of car burning people generally start to feel like enough is enough. The result will be either increased law enforcement, or decreased motivation for people to burn cars, or individuals being more willing to challenge proto-car burners or some combination of all of the above.

    This would seem, though, to be purely pragmatic philsophically. What challenges does the liberal secular state really face in this department when it comes to ending a riot?

  10. John says:

    Hi, I am from Australia, I have been here before.

    I much prefer the very sobering assessment of the state of the world altogether, and how we got to here given via these references

    Plus this critique of conventional self-serving exoteric religiosity which is the only kind of religion that now exists, especially in the USA (although some would like to pretend other wise)

    Plus the Universal Scientism at: