From Public Reason to Reasonable Accommodation: Negotiating the Place of Religion in the Public Sphere

Mathias Thaler
University of Edinburgh
In recent years, debates about the legitimate place of religion in the public sphere have gained prominence in political theory. Departing from Rawls’s view of public reason, it has lately been argued that liberal regimes should not only be compatible with, but endorsing of, arguments originating in religious belief systems. Moreover, it has been maintained that the principle of political autonomy obliges every democratic order to enable all its citizens, be they secular or religious, to become the authors of the laws to which they are subjected. Mere toleration, it is often said, strengthens social cohesion in the wrong way because it narrowly defines it as the product of bargaining processes, posited against the backdrop of power structures. The consensus many liberal defenders of religion in the public sphere wish to advance, however, aims at something radically dissimilar: particular institutions and arrangements need to be endorsed “for the right reasons”, i.e. based on arguments to which all citizens could hypothetically agree. This paper primarily grapples with the contractarian idea as a lens through which the legitimate place of religion in the public sphere is negotiated. I argue that the emphasis on “right reasons” is mistaken in an essential way: it underrates the impact of power structures on the ways in which particular institutions and arrangements are actually justified or criticized. I shall claim that public reason must rather be conceived in terms of a discursive and dynamic modus vivendi. This implies acknowledging the pervasiveness of power structures in society at all times, without giving up on the potential for deliberation among secular and religious citizens. As a case study, the paper looks into the findings of the Bouchard/Taylor commission in Québec (2007-2008) and maintains that the context-sensitive method used by the authors exemplifies this novel, more useful approach to public reason and modus vivendi.
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