Secularism’s Front Line: A View From France

Religious activity in France has declined through the twentieth century like a car running out of petrol

“If there is a front line of secularism, perhaps France is it. It’s true she hasn’t had the iron fist of state-enforced atheism like communist countries and there are other nations with more atheists per capita like the Czech Republic or more secular policies like the Netherlands with euthanasia. But she has lead the world relentlessly.”

 

It’s 3am, I’m outside the local government prefecture sandwiched between an Algerian and a Turk, waiting in a queue of 50-60 people to be among the first twenty-five who will receive an appointment for their titre de séjour, the card that means they can stay in France another year. People lean against the rough concrete wall, swapping stories about bumbling bureaucracies and long-ago lives in other countries. Some sleep sprawled out in folding chairs, the lucky ones steal away to snatch an hour or two in their cars. This social psychologists’ experiment spontaneously produces “the list” each night—a badly ruled, A4 page filled with hastily scrawled names that ostensibly determines the order in the line, but as 9am draws closer we surge chaotically against the bars of the precinct like a herd of zombies sensing human flesh.

The last hour of rain seems fitting, perhaps ordered by the precinct to thin out the queue, but after 11 hours waiting it’s ignored like a muffled announcement at a train station. The feeling of anticipation and triumph over a cold night on the footpath builds among the queue as the security guard warily opens the iron gate. We rehearse our stories and begin the exaggerations for our friends and imagine how luxurious tonight will feel in bed.

They take three people. Two of her colleagues are sick, a wary lady explains semi-apologetically. The rest of us file past her grimly focusing 11 wasted hours into one withering stare. Someone says, “The shame” and I realise it is me. Then we are back out onto the footpath facing another chilly sleepless night. Mind you, it’s better than being condemned to a desert island.

The year before an angry Chinese man had shaken his fist and yelled, “Ils s’en fichent de nous!” They don’t care about us. Immigrants are grudgingly allowed into France, with legal rights but administrative and practical limits abounding, just like religion. Actually, immigrants can become citizens of France and can even make it to the post of Minister of Education like Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, a girl from the Moroccan rural villages made good.

But religion is firmly locked out in the cold.

If there is a front line of secularism, perhaps France is it. It’s true she hasn’t had the iron fist of state-enforced atheism like communist countries and there are other nations with more atheists per capita like the Czech Republic or more secular policies like the Netherlands with euthanasia. But she has lead the world relentlessly along the philosophical path from theism to secularism with the leading figures in the enlightenment (Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau), existentialism (Sartre, Camus) and postmodernism (Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida) all coming from the same family français like a brood of rowdy brothers you fear your kids will be friends with. Her influence has waned as American popular culture has taken up the secular baton and left the wheezing Europeans behind. Men like Edward Bernays, the father of public relations and one of the most influential yet least known men of the twentieth century, have slowly been replaced by Disney and then Apple and Google. Yet France is perhaps where the effects on civilian life can be seen most clearly.

A Pew survey published in 2016 measuring the importance of religion to different countries placed France at third from bottom just above China and Japan, the lowest post-Christian country. The indifferent Australians were fourth.

What does it look like to live on this front line of secularism? A dusty street in a run-down frontier town with a book jacket of Michel Onfray (France’s Richard Dawkins) tumbling end over end past the jumbled piles of stone from crumbling old churches? Bobos (the bourgeois-boheme, French hipsters) dressed in the spectrum of black to really dark grey, legs stretched out under the small tables of cafes and bistros, tapping ash off their Gitanes into the dregs of their espressos; sophisticated, agitated, apathetic, empty?

Secularisation, the process that leads to secularism, according to Charles Taylor, is used to refer to (1) the increasing detachment between the state and the church, (2) the dwindling participation by the public in religious activities or (3) the saturation in society of the secular worldview that focuses on the here and now. France’s experience of secularism is acute in each of these dimensions.

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