About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

France, Faith and Laïcité

I always read Giles Fraser's Loose Canon articles in the Guardian with enjoyment. I almost always find myself agreeing with him. He is one of the best Christian minds encouraging us to embrace intelligent religion in our contemporary world. Even if his knockabout style is not yours, it's hard to argue that he hasn't penetrated to the core of whatever matter he is exploring. But when it comes to his latest piece** on France's celebrated (notorious?) doctrine of Laïcité, I think there is more to be said. So I want to try to nuance his article so that we can see Laïcité in a larger context that offers possibilities as well as challenges. 

He is right that the recent cavalier destruction by the French authorities of the church and mosque in the Jungle at Calais was cruel and indefensible, especially when it seems that assurances had been given that they would be spared despite the police plan to create a buffer zone between the camp and the autoroute. But I doubt that when they bulldozed these Christian and Muslim sacred spaces, they had Enlightenment theories of the state's relations with religion buzzing round their heads. They were probably just being thoughtless and rough, oblivious to human consequences, as heavy mobs always are. 

So what is Laïcité? It's the notion, embraced energetically at the French Revolution, that the state should be disinterested when it comes to religion. Public space should be free of religious ideology or values. These belong strictly to faith communities and individual adherents. It's had a chequered history since 1789, but in 1905 it was finally embedded in Article 1 of the French constitution, and this is how it is understood today by the state and its public institutions. 

People read Laïcité differently. For some, it perpetuates revolutionary anticlericalism and is perceived as hostile to any form of organised religion. Its implicit agenda is secularist and atheistic. Others, however, take a more positive view. Literally, the word simply means 'lay-ness', meaning that in respect of religion, the state should properly behave as 'lay', not determining or even pronouncing on, matters that belong to religious bodies. In the best spirit of the Enlightenment, it wants to create a genuinely open space where all expressions of faith (including atheism itself) can be practised, honoured and protected, where no faith is publicly preferred above any other and where no faith finds itself under pressure. It's about the separation of powers.

So maybe we need to differentiate between 'hard' and 'soft' versions of Laïcité. Let's call them versions 1 and 2. The first is the negative form that is root and branch opposed to religion in principle, or (in Giles' colourful words) regards religion as a 'dirty little secret' like the Victorian attitude to sex. It pursues an aggressive programme of marginalising religion to the point where it becomes, in Whitehead's immortal phrase, no more than 'what a man does with his own solitude'. 

The second, soft version, is the positive form that is permissive, more benign, more generous, that promises people of faith freedom from discrimination and that genuinely encourages an environment in which there can be a fruitful conversation between people of different faith traditions or of no faith. Laïcité 2 is about toleration in the best sense of that great word. 

France is only one of a number of countries whose public life is founded on Laïcité. Perhaps the closest parallel is found in the United States. The USA was formed in precisely the same philosophical and political environment as the French Republic. Like modern France, it's a child of the Enlightenment. Here too, the constitution expressly forbids the state's involvement in religion. Yet far from religion being in decline in the USA, it continues to be practised to an extent that fills European believers with envy. What is more, politicians are free to express their personal commitment to faith (which many do, though not always wisely). This is a good example of Laïcité 2: positive, collaborative and humane.

In practice, I think the UK is already moving towards Laïcité 2. That England and Scotland have established churches is making little difference to an increasing disinterest towards religion on the part of public institutions. The fractious debates about same-sex marriage are just one example of how little religious attitudes now influence public policy. (Sometimes, a wearisome political correctness is even driving local authorities and educational institutions into attitudes that owe more than a little to Laïcité 1.) I'm not advocating disestablishment. I'm simply saying that from my experience as an Englishman who knows and loves France, I don't detect that in the sphere of religion a great deal is different. In both the UK and France, churches and faith communities have to find their own way. I don't think this is at all a bad thing if it means that they can shed dependency and come of age.

Indeed, in some ways the UK is more secularised than France. There, Catholic religious festivals are still public holidays. The state, the departments and the communes put vastly more funding into the conservation of historic religious buildings than in the UK, thus enabling worshipping communities to go on using them. There is even a statutory involvement of the President of the Republic in approving appointments to bishoprics. After a century of Laïcité, I dare to hope that there is growing mutual respect, and even co-operation between secular and faith institutions in France that would have been unthinkable in 1789. This is in the spirit of Laïcité 2. Some politicians even speak openly about the contribution Christian history and thought has made in shaping the people of France. 

I am no political philosopher but to me, the idea that 'lay-ness' is the proper vocation of the nation state or a coalition of states like the EU makes sense. Laïcité 2 with its endorsement of the separation of powers (always a healthy thing in institutions) has a lot to be said for it. Churches and faith communities will have space in which to grow and flourish without fear. Different kinds of institutions can become partners rather than foes because their distinctiveness in the public arena is understood. It wouldn't rule out the things we value in the UK: chaplaincies to schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and the armed forces, the solemnisation of marriage, the holding of public religious ceremonies at times of commemoration or celebration. The USA demonstrates how the active engagement of faith with public life is entirely consistent with its officially secular character. 

The fact that France is more cautious in all these areas is no reason why it must always be that way. To be sure, there's still a lot of Laïcité 1 across the English Channel. Islamism, Charlie Hebdo, the Paris massacres and bad-tempered debates about wearing public signs of personal faith have hardened attitudes all round. Muslims in particular, but Jews and Catholics also from time to time, can feel they are on the receiving end of a hostile doctrine. There is no chance that France will give up its cherished Laïcité. But if it could morph into the type 2 version, maybe the whole nation, and not just its faith communities, would feel a whole lot easier with themselves. In our highly diverse societies of many creeds and cultures, that seems to me to be a necessary direction in which to travel.

**Giles' article can be found at http://gu.com/p/4gdyn/sbl. You may also be interested to read a piece in New Republic that's been brought to my attention by a comment on my blog: https://newrepublic.com/article/127179/time-france-abandon-laicite


  1. If you haven't already seen it, have a look at Elizabeth Winkler: Is it Time for France to Abandon Laïcité? - https://newrepublic.com/article/127179/time-france-abandon-laicite.

  2. Thanks for this. An informative piece. I've included the link in the text of my blog.

  3. Thanks for this. I enjoyed Giles' article when I finally found it. Likewise yours. My dashboard has stopped kicking them up, and didn't produce this one at all. It's on my reading list, but it's not coming up. However, that's probably due to my inability to trouble shoot.
    I'm wondering if the concept would/should also include stopping teaching Christianity or any other faith in schools? I've always been concerned that the CofE leaves teaching its tenets to those who do not hold to them. It seems foolish. So stop faith schools, stop teaching faith as such. Just a thought. The CofE schools would present a problem inasmuch as they may be the only school in the neighbourhood.