Habermas, Post-Secular Society and Turkish Secularism

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas is among the few prominent Western thinkers who still believe in the promise of the Enlightenment.

German philosopher Jurgen Habermas is among the few prominent Western thinkers who still believe in the promise of the Enlightenment.

His conviction that the Enlightenment remains an “unfinished project” allows him to thread a fine line between tradition, modernity and what may come after the two. His recent piece, “Notes on a Post-Secular Society” (available at www.signandsigt.com), outlines his vision of the current state of the world, which he labels as increasingly “post-secular.”

Habermas notes that while the core areas of Western civilization remain secular and the process of secular modernization continues unabated, the non-Western world presents a different case. The so-called rise of the rest and its interactions with the global system affect the debate about modernization and secularism, from theology and politics to culture and education. Habermas maintains the basic assumption of the secularization thesis: that modernization will lead to the increasing irrelevance of religious beliefs and institutions in technologically advanced and industrialized societies. But he also notes that “the awareness of living in a secular society is no longer bound up with the certainty that cultural and that social modernization can advance only at the cost of the public influence and personal relevance of religion.”

While Habermas’ analysis sheds important light on debate about the state of secularism, it misses an essential point: the end of the Enlightenment exceptionalism. Given the Enlightenment’s robust and arrogant universalism, much of the current disenchantment is directed at the Enlightenment’s self-proclaimed claim to universality. In a leap of faith, the Enlightenment thinkers had turned their particular experience of secular modernization into an a-historical and transcendent model, violating the very principles of self-criticism that they had used to defend and define themselves against medieval Christian Europe. This exceptionalism re-emerged in the 20th century as Euro-centrism and continues to create all sorts of problems for the global system and relations between Western and non-Western societies.

This is not to suggest that such values as democracy, rule of law and human rights, which are historically traced back to the works of the intellectual fathers of the Enlightenment, should or will be brushed aside. There is no need for such an erasure of common history. Yet even this genealogy is flawed, for it assumes that all universal values either came from or were formulated by European culture. The debate about the new models of modernization and multiple modernities reveals the concern and even zeal of non-Western peoples of the world to (re-) define themselves as actors and agents of history, not docile followers of European modernization.

The secularism debate in Turkey is part of a larger debate as to what kind of a model of modernization Turkish people will develop in the 21st century. The secularist establishment has frozen its concept of secular modernization in the early part of the 20th century when religion was seen as the main obstacle to economic growth, social development and political consolidation of the nation-state. Max Weber’s “Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism” (1905) and Richard Tawney’s “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism” (1926) challenged this assumption, but they remained mostly unknown among the founders of the Turkish Republic.

Turkish secularism has two definitions. The first is the separation of religion and politics whereby the state remains neutral on religious issues and is at an equal distance to all religious groups. The second definition is secularism as a way of life, a complete ideology and a worldview based on the 19th century scientism of August Comte, the rationalism of Ernest Renan and the materialism of 19th century Enlightenment thinkers. This crude form of secularism is today outdated. The problem is that the

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