Faith, religion and the secular 2

This is part 2 of a three part posting from an unpublished essay from summer 2012. 

Religion and the public sphere

Central to the marginalisation of the religious and the spiritual is their position within the public sphere. This set of concepts, arising principally from the work of German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, posits that the development of places for democratic deliberation has been one of the defining features of modernity. Habermas extended his analysis from the cafes of 19th century middle Europe to the development of German post-war cultural configurations. In short, the public sphere for Habermas was a place where people met, discussed matters of state and society and agreed or disagreed with each other before deliberating through democratic politics. While access to and resources attributed by the public sphere were always differential for Habermas, his central idea lacked a reflection of political developments that took place in Europe after 1968. Later analyses drew attention to an unconsidered role of women, ethnic minorities and the disabled in Habermas’ seminal work. However, for the purposes of this essay, I want to refer to the critique of the public sphere provided by Michael Warner. For a public sphere to exist at all, argues Warner, a public must be created; only some are authorised to create and constitute such a public. To publish newspapers, periodicals and journals (and now online and through television) one must construe oneself to have an audience to whom one appeals. From this arises an authority to address a public, a mass of people to whom one addresses matters of concern. For example, for a journal such as The Furrow to succeed it must assume for itself some measure of an audience ‘out there’ which is constitutive of a public. That this audience declines in number over time is largely incidental to the force that its ideas are given in reconfigurations of power that take place across that same time period.

Extending out from Warner’s critique of Habermas’ understanding of the public sphere, I want to paint a picture of an environment within which we can detect a secular public sphere in Ireland today. In such a picture, consideration must be given to the authority currently constituted by the Catholic Church both in Ireland and across Europe. In Spain for example, the authority of the Church must deal with an anti-clericalism which has its roots in the first half of the 19th century. In England, the authority of the Church is within the context of it being a ‘minority’. In Ireland, where national identity is identified by others and intimately bound with Catholicism, little distinction is made in the public sphere between the general concept of religion and Catholic identities. Critiques of faith, religious belief or the Church itself arise from a general understanding of the right and proper place of religion in society. In Ireland, where the privatisation of religious belief does not hold much currency, being in public encompasses many different types of practice: the blessing of boats before a fishing season, devotion to Our Lady at grottos, the Angelus on the public broadcaster. Each of these, in their own scales, contributes to a sense of who the public is and is not. How and where these practices are authorised, and more crucially by whom, is one of the defining characteristics of religion in the public sphere.

For example, in the consideration of who can get married and where, the authority to be involved in this consideration is dependent upon the construal of a massed public, whether that public be defined as Catholics or otherwise. In this sense there is no gay marriage lobby, nor is there a liberal agenda at play. Instead, the ground upon which the public discussion about gay marriage is held is as important as the central question of the morality of the state’s proposed legislation. Much public discussion (it should be stressed online as well as offline) will therefore focus upon the Catholic Church’s right to be involved in the discussion. Very often this public discussion addresses its audience as sharing this understanding of the right and proper place of religious faith. If this be on the basis of ‘the church should keep its opinions to itself’ then this will find resonances in other parts of a public discussion, whether that has authority or not. In a further example, the Church’s views on a range of matters are often solicited at particular times of the year, e.g. the cost of clothes for the Sacrament of First Holy Communion. The journalist and editor conceive of the Church’s authority to comment on such matters and so it seems entirely appropriate for a comment to appear in the national newspaper. The crucial difference between these two examples however is the bracketing of the latter as a religious issue and the reservation of the former as one related to state power.

The public sphere is made up of many audiences and ideas, some of which are materially reproduced. Secularisation of the public sphere is thus not a process that moves in one direction from more to less religious. The secular is more properly constituted as an on-going deliberation on what limits are placed on certain forms of authority and how that authority is managed. For Asad and for others, one cannot talk about the secular without understanding the role of state formation processes and the legal structures put in place to manage these processes. The secular public sphere therefore is not one that disregards religion and the spiritual entirely. The state too has its rites: national anthems, flags and investiture ceremonies. Instead, the secular public sphere is one in which the nominally-framed ‘religious’ is negotiated into some places and not into others. This pervades the most mundane aspects of people’s lives, e.g. the statement that ‘we have only one life to live’ as well as the most serious, e.g. how children are educated, instrumentally and morally.

Part 3: “Get the Church out of education”


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