Original Research

Religion in the public sphere: What can public theology learn from Habermas’s latest work?

Jaco S. Dreyer, Hennie J.C. Pieterse
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 66, No 1 | a798 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v66i1.798 | © 2010 Jaco S. Dreyer, Hennie J.C. Pieterse | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 03 February 2010 | Published: 18 October 2010

About the author(s)

Jaco S. Dreyer, University of South Africa, South Africa
Hennie J.C. Pieterse, University of South Africa, South Africa


The complex and problematic role of religion in the public sphere in modern, democratic societies raises many questions for a public theology. The aim of this article is to contribute to the ongoing debate about the task and methods of public theology by asking what we can learn from the ideas of Jürgen Habermas. Habermas was a leading participant in the thinking process on the secularisation thesis in Western societies. His view was that religion will eventually disappear from the public scene due to the rationalisation of society. In recent years he seems to have changed this view in the light of new developments in the world. He now maintains that religion has something important to offer in the public sphere. Religion could thus participate in this public discussion, provided that it satisfies strict conditions. We argue that public theology can learn from Habermas’s recent ideas regarding religion in the public sphere: attention should be paid to the cognitive potential of religion, especially regarding the importance of the lifeworld and the role of religion in social solidarity with the needy and vulnerable; hermeneutical self-reflection is important; a distinction should be made between the role of religion in faith communities and in public life; we have to accept that we live in a secular state; and we have to learn the possibilities and impossibilities of translating from religious vocabulary into a secular vocabulary in order to be able to participate in the discussions in the public sphere.


religion; public sphere; public theology; Habermas; translation imperative


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