Habermas: Religion in the Public Sphere – 27/06/2016


A Pluralist Democracy

Here are two assumptions we’ll accept for the sake of argument:

  1. We live in a democracy (or in a state that strives to be a democracy, or at least pretends to be one, however much of a mess they make of it in practice).
  2. The citizenry of that democracy is characterised by religious plurality: various religious and non-religious worldviews and ways of life co-exist, and (importantly) this is likely to remain this way.

Democracies occur in many forms, historically, but all have in common that they ought to be an expression of the Democratic Principle: those who are subject to the law, should be able to view themselves as co-authors of that law.

Of course, the way in which citizens can contribute to law-making can take many forms: electing representatives, voting in a referendum, starting and signing petitions, but also contributing to public debate through open, public forums, which require some basic democratic rights, such as freedom of press, freedom of expression, the right to a defense in court and the right to education (this is not an exclusive list).

An often-made mistake is to equate democracy with simple majoritarianism. Majoritarianism is ‘doing what the majority wants’, which can easily be established by a vote. This system is certainly a useful decision making tool, and can at times be applied in a democracy, but it is not the same as a democracy, since it can run against the Democratic Principle. The problem with majoritarianism is that it can lead to what is known as ‘the tyranny of the majority’. A majority can vote to unjustly oppress a minority, so in a majoritarian system, minority rights are in danger. A majority vote in favour of prosecuting homosexuals is a case in point. The problem with this is that the homosexuals in question would be subject to that decision, but they can hardly view themselves as co-authors of it. A democracy requires that all those who are subject to binding decisions should be able to have access to a justification they could come to accept as reasonable, and they should be able to influence that decision by offering a justification of their own. In short: in a democracy citizens owe one another reasons for laws, a vote alone won’t do.

A democracy, therefore, consists of a wide variety of social rights and institutions. We live in a democracy all the time, not only on election day.

Religion in the Public Sphere

So in a democracy, the public sphere is one of these important institutions. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has written a lot about the public sphere, ever since the seventies. The public sphere is the domain in which citizens of a democracy discuss matters of public concern with each other. This can be online and offline, in the media, in the pub, in the bus, in the classroom. Habermas divides the public sphere in two tiers: the informal public sphere and the formal, political public sphere. The informal public sphere is the domain where ordinary citizens discuss matters of public concern, and the political public sphere is the domain where policy makers and other public official formulate and finalise laws: parliament and the court of law are examples.

Democratic deliberation takes place in these two tiers of the public sphere. Citizens contribute justifications to the informal public sphere that public officials pick up, and public officials justify the laws they make in the formal public sphere.

In the past two decades, the following question has been a topic of hot debate:

In a democracy, can religious justifications count as legitimate justifications for laws, or should laws be supported by secular reasons only?

One of the basic rights essential for a democracy is freedom of religion. Freedom of religion consists of a negative and a positive freedom. The negative freedom entails the right to be free from the religion of others, so others are prevented from imposing their religion on you, even if that were the religion of the majority. The positive freedom entails the right to exercise one’s religion as one sees fit, which enables you to build churches and temples, dress in certain ways or observe certain diets or celebrate certain religious holidays. Each society can negotiate these two freedoms in various ways, but what is important is that both are respected. Habermas explicitly states that he is committed to both the negative and the positive freedom of religion.

So, at face value, this poses a problem. On the one hand, the positive freedom of religion protects the freedom of religion citizens to use their religious views in the public sphere, including in discussions about laws that apply to all. On the other hand, the negative freedom of religion protects the non-religious citizens, or citizens who adhere to minority religions, from having the religion of others imposed on them, which might happen if a law is supported solely with a religious justification. How to solve this problem?

American philosopher John Rawls suggests that citizens can use religious reasons in discussions in the public sphere, but “in due course”, when the law is finally made, the law should be supported by sufficient “public reason”. By “public reason”, Rawls means reasons that every reasonable citizen could reasonably come to accept. For instance, when a religious citizen goes to the polling station, they ought to be able to justify their vote with sufficient reason, even if their own reasons for casting that vote is religiously motivated.

Another philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstorff, however, argues that what Rawls demands of religious citizens is (a) too demanding, and (b) goes against the positive freedom of religion. He argues that many religious citizens are unable to make a “split” in their reasoning between religious and secular reasons, without having to be disingenuous or threatening their own integrity. It is, as it were, part and parcel of their religious commitment that they base their political actions on those religious views. This objection of Wolterstorff against Rawls is called the Integrity Objection. This threat to the internal integrity of religious citizens is particularly a problem because that burden is not asked of non-religious citizens, which poses an unjustified unfairness.

Habermas takes Wolterstorff’s objection seriously and has an alternative to Rawls: he calls it the translation proviso: citizens can use religious justifications for laws in the informal public sphere, even without offering additional secular reasons in support of their proposal. However, in the formal, political public sphere, officials must use secular justifications alone to justify the laws they make. To avoid simply ignoring the religious contributions to public debate, it is essential that religious reasons be translated to secular reasons. This job of translation, according to Habermas, is a responsibility religious and non-religious citizens carry together, as a co-operative task. This means that both religious and non-religious citizens must engage in a mutual learning process: religious citizens must learn to accept that their religious doctrines don’t have a privileged appeal to truth, and that there are rivaling religious and secular doctrines that deserve to be treated with equal respect. Non-religious citizens must learn that religious worldviews are not simply relics of an archaic past, bound to disappear, but that instead religious reasons are vehicles of relevant content that can shine new light on issues of public concern. In the process of translation, Habermas believes that this relevant content can be distilled from religious justifications and reformulated in secular terms.

For Habermas. Secular language differs from religious language in that it is “equally acceptable to all”, whereas religious language is only accessible to those who already adhere to that religion. That is the reason why, in Habermas’ view, at the end of the day, only secular reasons are able to meet the requirements of the democratic principle. His translation proviso, he argues, thus protects both the negative and the positive parts of the freedom of religion.


Habermas, Jurgen. “Religion in the Public Sphere: Cognitive Presuppositions for the Public Use of Reason by Religious and Secular Citizens.” In Between Naturalism and Religion: Political Essays, by JurgenHabermas, 114 – 48. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008
Rawls, John. “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” University of Chicago Law Review 64, no. 3 (1997):765 – 807
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. “The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues.” In Religion inthe Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, by Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1996
If you’re on Academia.edu, you could read this conference paper I delivered a few years ago (I am somewhat critical of Habermas, although I admire very much his position on the whole).
Here’s a brief excerpt of a lecture Habermas gave in 2011. Habermas is perhaps difficult to understand (he was born with a speech impediment and, of course, a German accent), but just watch this and pray you’ll be lecturing like that when you’re in your eighties.



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