[Milton-L] Exclusionary Speech in the Public Sphere--a reply to Dennis Danielson

Feisal Mohamed f.mohamed00 at gmail.com
Sat Oct 3 13:08:50 EDT 2009

Dennis enters a dense thicket in the paragraphs below—and does so with
judicious tentativeness—and I agree with much of the spirit of what
he’s saying.  But I would also offer some qualifications.  “Inshaa’
Allah” translates to “God willing.”  To my mind that is exclusionary
speech: it testifies that future events are determined by a divine
hand, which will also exercise judgment on those of us who do not
embrace the religious import of the phrase.  Of course, as Dennis
notes, to eliminate statements of belief from public discourse is also
exclusionary.  (If secularists reply to “God willing” with “Keep it to
yourself!” they are policing public discourse in a way that runs
counter to the principle of equality.)

Habermas engages these issues in his 2006 article “Religion in the
Public Sphere” (_European J of Philosophy_, 14.1, p. 1-25).  The
compromise he strikes is that public discourse should not impose the
test of rationality, but should rather be receptive to potentially
salutary claims arising from belief.  This means that secularists must
learn not to see believers as intellectually immature members of civil
society.  The core institutions of the secular state, however, must
impose the test of reason upon their decisions so that the principle
of equality can be upheld.  (If it does not do so, I would add, it
ceases to be a secular state.)  The undergraduate essay seems to me
more a venue of public discourse than a core institution: it can make
claims arising from belief, but those must be tested by standards of
academic rigor (which is not the same thing as the test of reason).

Those of us who study the early modern period might be equally
interested in the category of “civil theology”—a theological category
of publicly legitimate belief practices—that Augustine attributes to
Varro in De civ. 6.5.  Augustine rejects that category outright and
insists that there should be no distinction between our view of God as
he is and God as he is worshipped.  One would not be amiss in seeing
the entire English Reformation is a hashing and re-hashing of that
Augustine/Varro divide, with supporters of the national church arguing
that some measure of outward conformity is necessary to public peace,
and those on the further left of Reformed thought insisting that
conscience must be followed wheresoever it leads.  Milton, and
especially late Milton, of course falls in the latter camp.

As this fascinating discussion thread has shown, the debate over the
status “civil theology” is still very much with us, with secularists
insisting on a civil theology of reason and strong believers insisting
in Augustinian fashion that one cannot leave belief at home like a
pair of slippers.

Feisal Mohamed
U of Illinois

Dennis Danielson wrote:
Secondly (and I'd better speak only for myself!), I find it a useful
exercise to ponder just the sorts of issues that this discussion has
brought to the fore: How does one balance the need to be authentic to
one's deepest commitment, reject the notion that public discourse must
be neutral or even atheistic discourse, and yet be as respectful and
inclusive as possible? One response is "Do unto others ..." etc.

If I'm in conversation with a Muslim and she refers to plans we share
in, and adds "Insha'Allah" after, let's say, "See you tomorrow," I feel
included, not excluded. I know she's being what she is--pious in a
certain way--and is relaxed enough about it that she feels no need for
self-censorship. That's sort of how I heard the original reference to
Christ in the writing of Margie's student (although the cases obviously
aren't parallel in lots of ways). I try to encourage students to speak
as who they are, and I promise to do everything I can to respect their
attempts to do so (while of course asking for good analysis and critical
thought, not just gushing or assertion supported by a "hier stehe ich").

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