Cristina Lafont: Deliberative democracy: religion in the public sphere. Deliberative obligations of the democratic citizenry

Notes from the research seminar Deliberative democracy: religion in the public sphere. Deliberative obligations of the democratic citizenry, by Cristina Lafont held at the Open University of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain, on December 17th, 2009.

Deliberative democracy: religion in the public sphere. Deliberative obligations of the democratic citizenry
Cristina Lafont

Which has to be the role of Religion in the public sphere? Which one actually is? Which should it be?

Specially in a deliberative democracy, the fact that people have religious believes makes even more important exactly knowing what are the challenges for democracy of this issue.

The deliberative democracy is a fragile balance between the right to debate whatever subject under some few but strong coercive rules.

Jürgen Habermas: a process of deliberation has to be able to be justified and without coercion. Public deliberation has to include all information available; equality, symmetry and reciprocity to all contributions, independently of their source; absence of (external) coercion; communicative equality; and participants have to be sincere, critic, have no hidden goals, and be responsible for their own opinions.

But not only procedures have to be acceptable, but also the contents of the debate.

John Rawls tries to provide an answer this last question. Thus, contents have to be dealing with the public good (vs. the private). So, what happens with religion, normally out of the public sphere? According to Rawls, Religion has to be left outside, with some exceptions, e.g. values gathered in modern constitutions, basic justice, etc.

But some incompatibilities arise when some citizens might not accept coercive solutions that come from public values but not accepted in their own set of comprehensive beliefs. Indeed, the rawlsian thought could even exclude persons themselves from the public deliberation. Or ask them to forget about their beliefs when entering a deliberative process. Or give priority to public interests over personal beliefs.

Habermas “solves” this by dividing the agora in two: the informal deliberation, where citizens can bring in all kind of beliefs, and the institutional deliberation (parliaments, etc.) where these personal beliefs should be left aside or be translated into “secular” principles (e.g. the ones gathered in constitutions).

Habermas’s solution also has some problems, like treating secular citizens differently from religious ones, sometimes leaving them aside of this “translation” of their principles, for not being as explicit as the religious ones.

Lafont offers come comments. Instead of trying to translate them into general or public reasons, an interesting approach would be to take seriously religious proposals and assume they can be right. Thus, they should be debated as proposals of general or public reasons proposals. And hence be prepared to accept them or refute them, based on grounded arguments. The debate should, then, be more about the compatibility of specific beliefs with the common and acknowledged beliefs (again, e.g. the Constitution) and not whether these beliefs are right or wrong or better than others.

[a debate follows, too complex and rich to collect here]