Smelling a Secular Funk: Debating the Power of Religion in The Public Sphere

Secular reason never smelled so funky—at least it didn’t until Cornel West, the prominent social critic and author most recently of Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, A Memoir, stepped on stage to discuss the place of religion in the public sphere. He was the last of four powerhouse speakers (Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Judith Butler preceded him) all gathered at the historic Great Hall at Cooper Union last Thursday to discuss “Rethinking Secularism: The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere.”

Speaking through a cold, but no less poetic and philosophically imaginative, West called for us to realize “the centrality of the catastrophic” in today’s political context. Too many discussions of religion and politics, West claimed, have sought to “deodorize the funk”—to cleanse away the reality of people’s suffering and inequality, of bodies bruised and beaten in the march of progress. West preached instead a prophetic politics, grounded in the realities of historical oppression, and responsive to issues of social injustice and inequality.

As Habermas stated at the day’s end, West wasn’t just talking about prophetic speech: he was performing it.

The Secular Isn’t Especially about Religion

Broken into two panels, the conference started off with Habermas and Taylor, who articulated diverging positions on the place of religion in liberal democratic states. Habermas, the German intellectual and author of the historic Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, contended that religious voices ought to be allowed into public discussion, but with the proviso that religious arguments be translated into a language generalizeable in secular terms.

“Majority rule mutates into repression,” he has argued. In order to remain neutral, in other words, enforceable political decisions must be presented in a language common to all citizens, even at the risk of limiting the field to certain players. Secular reason exceeds religious reason, for Habermas, to the extent that it doesn’t require “membership” within a specific community.

Taylor, the prominent Canadian philosopher and author of the magisterial A Secular Age, argued that mere “containment” of religious discussion, according to principles of church/state separation, for example, wasn’t the best model. As he put it, “the secular isn’t especially about religion.” He pushed instead for a deeper concern with diversity. Taylor called for a neutral state in regard to both religious and non-religious views and advocated the adoption, not of a “civil religion,” but instead of a “civil doctrine” organized around four essential values: secularism, human rights, equality, and democracy. For Taylor, it’s not important how one justifies these values—whether through religious reasoning or secular philosophy, for instance—so long as members of a society can develop an official language that affirms each of them.

The second panel featured Butler and West in what moderator Eduardo Mendieta prefaced as “a performance of reason in the public sphere.” Butler, a leading feminist theorist and author of the recent Frames of War: When is Life Grievable, started from the question: how does one critique the Jewish state? To criticize the violence committed in the name of the Jewish state, she noted, was to risk the accusation that one was, at best, unsympathetic to the history of Jewish oppression, or worst still, guilty of anti-Semitism.

To open space for critique, Butler drew upon the writing of Hannah Arendt to rethink the very terms of political Zionism, beginning with the question of “Jewishness” itself. Rather than consider Jewish identity as a state of being unto itself, Butler suggested that we think about Jewishness in relation to the non-Jew. She called for a workable notion of plural “co-habitation,” premised on the reality that we cannot choose the people in the world with whom we live, yet we must find ways of living together.

Common Ground vs. The Uncommon

The focus shifted across the two panels from a discussion about citizenship in liberal democracies to the politics of difference and suffering, a politics that provided a basis for critiquing the assumptions of liberal secularism.

Disagreements among the speakers became most clear during the roundtable discussion, when, for instance, Butler questioned the grounds upon which religious or subjugated voices could be translated into secular language (in Habermas’ terms) or neutral discourse (in Taylor’s), and asked what “residues,” religious or theological, would be left behind. She further challenged the notion of “common ground,” advocating the “uncommon” instead as the basis of ethics. But the passage from the first to the second panels offered something of a lesson in critical theory as well: a live performance that moved beyond merely “rethinking” secularism.

Describing himself as a “blues man,” West implored the audience to recall the odor of funk emanating from histories of oppression, as he sounded the musical notes of prophetic engagement. Attending not merely to the diversity of voices, but also to the unheard (or even the misheard), Butler in turn questioned “the limits of audibility” through which the public sphere is created.

Coming to Our Senses

Taken together, these two scholars muddied the sterile terrain of the public sphere, invoking the power of the senses as critical to the public use of reason. Indeed, the senses become central to the practice of reason itself, marking reason no longer as merely abstract, linguistic, or philosophical, but also particular, embodied, and historicized. In their terms, reason itself is already suspect, always marked by bodies and by history.

This re-valuation of reason constituted perhaps one of the most significant points of tension between the two panels. Habermas may have sounded it best when he described off the cuff West’s lecture as more than mere talk, as performance. Because in doing so, he (unwittingly?) reproduced that funny distinction between saying and doing—between his own articulation of secular reason and West’s practice of prophetic politics—leaving us to question: what, then, were the performative politics of his own use of reason in the public sphere?

By the end, Butler and West pressed as hard as anyone could against the limits of rethinking secularism; but perhaps we’ll just have to settle, as Butler suggested in the final moments of the event, for continuing the discussion.

Transcripts and more at The Immanent Frame.