Is Norway a Post-Secular Society?

September 13, 2016

And does it matter?

Jürgen Habermas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Jürgen Habermas. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite extensive debates on the role of religion over the course of the last decade, the notion of “post-secularity” has hardly gained any traction in the Norwegian public sphere. From the cartoon controversies of the early 2000s and up to present discussions on bans on the full face veil, Norwegian public debates on religion have yet to engage this key concept in the “religious turn” in the thinking of prominent political philosopher Jürgen Habermas. This blog post seeks to assess the applicability of the concept for Norwegian conditions.

The Concept

Since 2001, Habermas has developed the concept of “post-secular society” both as a tool to describe a range of societal changes and to discuss the proper responses to these changes. Originally coined in his acceptance speech on the occasion of the Frankfurt peace prize of the German Publishers and Booksellers Association, Habermas has since published widely on different aspects of the post-secular, simultaneously inspiring a whole cottage industry of secondary literature that has taken up and debated the concept extensively across a broad array of different disciplines. This debate has taken on a life of its own, featuring vitriolic pushbacks, notorious obscurantism, ridicule and praise for the concept in unequal measures.

Later theoretical developments notwithstanding, Habermas’ original notion of post-secularity was most fully laid out in his 2008 article Notes on Post-Secular Society. In this text, “post-secular” denotes a change in consciousness attributable to three interrelated phenomena: the broad perception of global conflicts as hinging on religious strife, the increased public involvement of religious organizations in public debates, and increased immigration from countries with “traditional cultural backgrounds”. Reviewed according to these three criteria, Norwegian society is decidedly post-secular, as it displays all of the features listed above. Given the Syrian civil war, the concomitant rise of IS and the domestic and international consequences of the present refugee crisis, one would be hard pressed to identify any Western society that does not conform to Habermas’ model to some degree.  

The Challenge

Importantly, however, Habermas did not end his examination with these fairly uncontroversial, descriptive observations, but added a more normatively infused challenge to citizens experiencing the compound effects of these phenomena:

The insistence that we should discuss how to see ourselves as members of a post-secular society underlines the need to come to terms with the persistence of religion as a social force to be reckoned with in society. According to Habermas, this basic recognition of the status quo is required in particular because of the still widely held assumption that religion in all its iterations will eventually “go away” as a consequence of modernity, a hypothesis that is all but abandoned by the majority of social (although certainly not natural) scientists. 

Not limited to an acceptance that religious beliefs, no matter how far-fetched, seem to be impervious to the findings of the natural sciences, Habermas’ challenge forces a different understanding of the nature of religion itself that goes well beyond classical notions of religion as primarily a matter of personal convictions and formal church membership. Rather, the triple challenges posed by the multiple roles played by religion in conflicts, public debates and migration forces a conceptual and terminological rethinking of what we mean by religion and what role it should play in public life.

Post-Secular Norway?

While it can be fairly easily established that Norway fits the descriptive account of a post-secular society as laid out by Habermas, the extent to which public debates on religion have gone through the conceptual shifts required to engage with the normative challenge is less clear-cut. Nevertheless, some recent changes in public discourse may indicate that this is slowly, but definitively changing: Consider for instance the ongoing, vibrant discussion of the “religiousness” of global conflicts, both in Norwegian and international newsmedia, in particular related to the rise of IS. The trend whereby claims made in the name of Islam at the global level generate considerable definitional discussions on whether this is a “religious” conflict or not may indicate a growing recognition of the challenges of assigning clear-cut labels to complex and contested processes, which would seem to lay at the heart of Habermas’ insistence on a more nuanced understanding of the nature and role of religion in society. This is particularly so in a media age where every involved party in a given conflict actively seeks to brand their cause under their favored labels across numerous media platforms.

While this example is in no way limited to Norway, domestically oriented debates also evince a growing recognition that the social role of religion is not likely to diminish any time soon, forcing a rethinking of how state and social actors can and should respond to different iterations of religion in the public sphere. The public role of religion in Norwegian society has changed dramatically over the course of the last decades, as the waning influence of the Church of Norway (CON) has opened up a space for the contestation of the political role of the church on the one hand side, and the growing involvement of the organizations representing other faith traditions on the other.

Where formerly the CON and its officers were considered natural and authoritative voices in numerous public debates, particularly on the moral fabric of society, recent controversy over the legitimacy of church leaders to speak out on political matters ranging from the protection of the environment to the reception of refugees indicate a growing willingness to contest formerly established religious hierarchies and the proper boundaries of “religious” voices in public discourse. Likewise, the ongoing revision of the Church Act and the Act on Faith Communities and the broad-based process of developing a new policy on the role of religion and belief in Norway open up new definitional battles, ranging from the borders between “religious” and “secular” authority in the inner life of religious communities, and to the exact nature, range and legitimacy of constitutional preferences for the CON. Seen on the background of these brief examples, Norwegian public debate on religion may seem to have begun some of the conceptual reorientations required by Habermas’ normative challenge, as the deliberations of what constitutes “religion” in the public sphere has been thoroughly unhinged from its traditional moorings.

Post What?

The question after all this is, of course: so what? What, if anything, does it mean that Norwegian public debates on religion may be taking on post-secular characteristics? The designation in itself is irrelevant. But if we by designating public discourse as post-secular can identify a general move away from a condition where the content and role of “religion” and counterconcepts like “secularity” are taken for granted and on to a condition where they are increasingly discussed and contested, not only in policy circles and the academy, but by society more broadly, then I believe the term has merit not only descriptively, but also prescriptively. To keep abreast of the multidimensional social challenges involving some form of religion or other, the ways in which we identify and approach religion and the secular matter more then ever before.  Indeed, in our present day and age, it would seem a basic requirement of public discourse to discuss the viability and veracity of some of our most basic and fundamental categories.

However, although these short examples may indicate that public discourse on religion is moving towards an increased recognition of the complexity and embeddedness of religion in the social fabric – including a growing awareness that religion is unlikely to “go away” in the near future – this is only the very first step in the normative challenge raised by Habermas. Much more difficult is the realization of how exactly these changed perceptions may provide clues on what to expect from one another and how to attain the level of “civility” envisioned by Habermas, not least in terms of the level of legal and political involvement in the fostering of such civility. On that particular question, the jury is very much still out.