Religion in Public Sphere: Can we Apply Rawls and Habermas Perspectives in the Indian Context?

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Our Editor-at-Large, Norway-based Amit, debates on the religion in public sphere issue, in the Rawlsian and Habermasian perspectives. He contextualises these in the Indian context. Here are the erudite deliberations, exclusively in Different Truths.

India is neither an absolute secular country nor a theocratic state with a state religion.

However, in a Hindu majority country religion plays a major part in domestic politics. In communally sensitive country religion has always been a trump card – for all political parties using religion to grab the power. In the recent rise of a Hindu political party – religion has emerged as a dominant and hegemonic political power. It is expected, also observed, particular religion will prevail over rationalism; reasons will be replaced by revelations, at least in public sphere. In a time, when political leaders employing religious discourse to polarize already religiously divided communities, we need to seriously reflect over the theoretical underpinnings of the current secular-religious impasse in India. We need to rethink how much religious reasons shall be allowed in public sphere. In this context, legendary political philosophers Habermas and Rawls had deeply delved and reflected over the position of secular and religious reasons in public sphere.

Also, does current Indian leadership hold to qualify political post in Habermasian and Rawlsian theory? This article is an attempt to answer this question through Habermas and Rawlsian perspectives.

For Habermas, the boundaries between secular and religious reasons are fluid. In Religious Tolerance – the Pacemakers for Cultural Rights (2004, p.15-18), Habermas calls for self-modernisation of religions. Religious citizens may contribute reasons for political positions in their own terms while acting as members of an informal public political sphere. They must, however, accept that when it comes to law making, those reasons can be translated into secular counterparts and may serve as a source of justification.

Habermas recognises the contribution of ‘religious reasons’ in public sphere. He favors a conception of the public sphere that relies on fair procedures that guide public deliberation but do not restrict citizens’ participation. While Rawls argues citizens ought to provide public justifications for political positions, Habermas leaves open the types of reasons that can be provided in the informal public sphere (cited in Yates, 2007, p.181).

Habermas argues that secular and religious citizens should share an equal burden in trying to understand one another’s reasoning in the informal public sphere, thus, both religious and secular citizens ought to share the burden of splitting their identities and change their attitude (cited in Yates, 2007, p.887). Habermas, on the one hand, pushes the boundaries of public discourse by challenging secular citizens to grapple with the “profane truth content” of religious statements while, on the other hand, urging non-religious citizens to embrace the realities of a “post-secular” world that must learn to accommodate the continued existence of religion as a force in public life (Sheddy, 2009, p.4).

However, Rawls’s idea of ‘duty of civility’ demands citizens to share the burden of separating their political views from essentially religious while holding government officials accountable who violate public reason (1997). For Rawls, public reason, which establishes norms for democratic discourse, applies to a limited domain but, rather, within a more restricted sphere. The public reason in its strictest form precludes appeals to particular comprehensive moral, religious, or philosophical doctrines in the public sphere (Rawls 1993)[1].  For Rawls, free exercise of religion remains a “private” right of individuals (although it is a right most often exercised by individuals as members of various groups).

Nevertheless, Rawls’s doctrine prevents religious citizens from having a ‘religiously integrated existence’ forcing them to make a sharp division between reasons that they link closely in their minds. Rawls comprehensive theory, in the Indian context, does not appreciate its multicultural reality and diverse opinion. For ordinary Indian citizen, it would be extremely challenging to separate their religious moral values from entering into the public sphere where most of the social-political dialogue occurs, thus, nearly impossible to keep religious matter totally into the private realm of life.

Bhikhu Parekh’s (2006) opinion differs from Rawls and Habermas. He noted, “Political deliberation is contextual and culturally embedded, is never wholly cerebral or based on arguments alone, and no single model of it fits all societies. He blamed Rawls for rationalist bias, homogenising and taking a one-dimensional view of public reason, assimilating the political to judicial reason, and unwittingly universalises the American practice. Parekh is equally critical to towards Habermas whose “discourse ethics fails to appreciate the depth of national diversity; takes a narrow rationalist view…ignores other forms of reason, takes a homogenous view of political arguments (2006).”

The Indian Context

Currently, religious discourse seems to replace secular reasons in public sphere. Some government decisions is guided by religious motivations such as closing down “illegal” abattoirs suspected without any evidence of processing beef in Uttar Pradesh; support to Cow vigilante (based on religious motivations) and their violence against Muslims, by Hindu leadership; invocation of religious god, practices, songs, and mythology to run the state and nation, are such examples.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that mentors the BJP to push India towards becoming a Hindu Rashtra, appointing a man like Adityanath to head the country’s most populous state makes a perfect example.

Seen through the  Rawlsian theory; public reason in its strictest form precludes appeals to particular comprehensive moral, religious, or philosophical doctrines in the public sphere whereas in the opinion of Habermas, in dealing with law making (government decisions) religious reasons can be translated into secular counterparts and may serve as a source of justification.

However, as in above cases, decisions are based on religion reasoning with no secular interpretation thus disqualify in secular setup. When political leaders like Modi and Yogi with their know abhorrence against Islam plant the seeds of hatred and suspicion towards Muslims community to consolidate the Hindu vote – it clearly breaches the secular and democratic norms – at least in Habermasian and Rawlsian perspective.


Habermas, J (2004) Religious Tolerance: The Pacemaker for Cultural Rights Authors(s):  Philosophy, Vol. 79, No. 307 (Jan., 2004), pp. 5-18

Parekh, B (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, Cambridge, Harvard University Press

Rawls, J (1997) The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, The University of Chicago Law Review, Vol.64, No. 3, pp 765-807.

Shaddy, M (2009) Religion in the Public Sphere: The Limits of Habermas’s Proposal and the Discourse of “World Religions” Journal of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society Graduate Students Association, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009

Yates, M (2007) Rawls and Habermas on the religion in the public sphere, Philosophy and  Social Criticism, vol.33 no. 7, pp.880-891

©Amit Singh

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Amit Singh is a human security and social justice expert. He is a doctoral candidate at University of Coimbra, Portugal; hold master degrees in history, human rights, and multiculturalism. He is a columnist for several newspapers in Norway and India.