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Secularism’s Front Line: A View from France

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.

State and Church

The relational breakup between the state and the church in France has been a clear case of “it’s not me, it’s most definitely you”. Whilst laïcite, the law enshrining government neutrality regarding religion, does protect religious rights and outlaw discrimination (to the joy of Protestants and Jews), this secular force field has expanded outward since the Revolution, squeezing religion out of public institutions like a doggedly thrifty user of toothpaste. Laws hit a centralised state like France with muscle-truck force. A regulation prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols in schools in 2004 wiped out 50-60 high school lunchtime Christian groups around France. There was no explicit connection, but the pressure went up for principals, it became harder to breathe, classroom access disappeared.

France’s secularisation is less extreme than communist Russia in the 1930’s with anti-religion classes, marches, posters, slogans. The French Bart Simpson was never forced into blackboard duty to write “Religion is an opium.”

Laïcite in France means that staff in the schools are not permitted to touch the subject of religion apart from when it comes up in history. Students are not taught that God exists and neither are they taught that God does not exist. “The state is neutral, separated from all religious convictions.”

Of course, it’s impossible to be neutral about anything important. Not mentioning something designates it as insignificant and irrelevant. Students are taught, every hour of every day in the hidden curriculum (that which is communicated silently and unconsciously) that religion and God are unnecessary and unimportant for daily life. Absence is hard to spot; it eludes analysis and curtails any critique. But its effects are clear.

A delightful teacher at the pre-school says our kids can give out Easter eggs but they can’t say it is for Easter because … “laïcite”, that reverse password slamming the door shut on religion and all discussion about it. Our daughter asks a friend whether she loves God and her friend squirms uncomfortably and whispers, “No, and we can’t talk about that here”. In the recent elections the far right strongly supported laïcite as a way of curbing the perceived influence of Islam, mirroring the continually anti-religious far left. The centre occasionally raised the idea of extending the ban on the wearing of religious symbols to those at university. Public perception and personal preference is such that our Muslim neighbour is told her commitment to her headscarf was the reason she was rejected for a job in the reception of a law firm.

Religious Activity

Religious activity in France has declined through the twentieth century in fits and starts like a car running out of petrol. The 1960s were critical, in particular the 1968 student revolts, after which the anti-religious soixante-huitards (the 68ers) slowly but inexorably took over cultural leadership while baptisms and catechisms continued to decline. Marriages are legalised solely by the state. The 8-10% of Muslims in France lift the religious activity statistics up like our dear neighbours who go for prayers and Arabic lessons to their local mosque in a little demountable. However, the Sunday morning church time has been transferred into the sacred Sunday meal for those families who have survived dysfunction and divorce. The impact of religion has been covered over as effectively as the green fields covering no-man’s land. Churches remain like war memorials, inducing an involuntary but pleasant moment of silence thick from that foreign land of the past. Tourists wildly outnumber church attendees, gawking at a rare service like they’re automated marionettes in a museum.

A retired principal of the local school remembered his mother teaching children their catechism classes in her home, as dozens had done throughout the suburb. He lamented their disappearance, noting there were so few still attending they can all be held at the church. Some friends take their child to Saturday morning catechism classes, sandwiched in between golf and music lessons. Ask both why they stopped or keep going now to church and you are met with an uncomfortable pause and a quizzical expression like you asked if you could trim their nose hairs for them.

What about after the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan? Did swarms of people return to the arms of the church in France?  I heard the bombs go off at the stadium that night, avoided a stampede of terrified people, was evacuated from public transport, walked four hours across a Paris in lockdown mode, encountered endless reams of police tape, sirens, flashing lights, people huddled in blacked-out bars and bistros, peering out in fear. Were people discussing religion once more, rattled and wrestling with freshly sparked questions about life and death and the great beyond? That’s a question posed by a religious worldview. I realised this after posing it to more than forty people; only one woman had a friend who had been approached by an atheist with a question provoked by the attacks.

We did overhear recently one Muslim responding to a compliment on his beard at the school gate with a description of his overseas holiday and a “I got radicalised, man”. Laughter at stereotype embracing-busting goes hand in hand with discomfort at any increase in religious activity.

Secular Worldview

So, religion was asked to leave government buildings, believers have exited church buildings and God, like Elvis, has long left the building of the French mind. French society is sodden with the secular worldview. Industrialisation, urbanisation, individualism, philosophical movements, technology, historical enmities, the breakdown of the family and the effects of wealth have saturated and drenched France with a nonreligious mindset.

Historical antagonism with the church coupled with a cultural passion for privacy lead to a distaste for discussing religion. (This desire for privacy extends to names: the first time one meets a French person any mention of your name will be reciprocated not with theirs but with an awkward silence as if you’d divulged the presence of an intimate rash. A discussion about religion would be like you brought photos of the offending irritation.)

One conversation over coffee with an older couple strayed into the religion danger zone, at which point the wife stood up and backed away, literally physically repulsed by the subject. Her husband, on the other hand, gleefully devoured the conversation like a street urchin discovering fresh pain-au-chocolaits, his delight highlighting the novelty of the offer. Religion is not talked of, not thought of.

The word “secular”, from the Latin saeculum, is linked to the French word siècle, century. This century, not the eternal age to come. Not the eternal future or an eternal kingdom, but the ever-present, ever-blinking, ever-updated here and now. Christianity values and respects the here and now but relativizes it in view of the eternal kingdom of God. The secular worldview absolutizes immanence and obliterates transcendence.

No one escapes its influence in modern societies, be they atheist, agnostic, deist, theist, pantheist or apatheist. The knowledge that one’s belief in God is contestable is due to the secular worldview. What is not contestable is the insignificance of God to modern life. The real impact of the secular age is revealed not in the question of the existence of God in the minds of the inhabitants but in the irrelevance of God to their lives.

Enduring identification with religion and belief in God in countries like France hides the triumph of the secular worldview. In 2008, the atheist campaign just across the channel supported by the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins targeted bus advertisements against the lingering belief in God with the words, “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It’s hard to know which is more mistaken: the idea people are forsaking their mobile phones and fretting about the divine or the idea that the ad achieves more than whatever it replaced. The McDonalds or latest television reality show ad which preceded it did a much better job at focusing people on the here and now.

In Café Flores where Sartre and Camus discussed the absurdity of life, people scan their phones safely cocooned from such disturbing ideas.

This secular worldview doesn’t issue in endless exchanges about the sufficiency of scientific epistemology or sardonic banter bravely surmounting the absurdity of life. It is sealed firmly in the present, in the here and now, reinforced daily with the technologically-infused liturgy of the twenty-first century. The first jarring electronic alarm in the morning signals the start of the daily wading through the ball pit of devices that is modern life. Merely ensuring all the gadgets are regularly plugged into power requires the skill of an old-school switch board operator; the ability to keep on top of what has changed or been updated on Facebook, Twitter, emails and news, that of an air traffic controller. Fear not, there will soon be a device or an app and then a game for such things. There already is? I missed it while I was typing this sentence. Technology is not neutral, it has a bent; it magnifies, it extends, it amplifies human activity. In Café Flores where Sartre and Camus discussed the absurdity of life, people scan their phones safely cocooned from such disturbing ideas. Trains, lifts, even waiting at traffic lights are all opportunities to rehearse our secular liturgy: look down, pull out, flip open, here and now, here and now.

This is not to say the transcendent or the supernatural is wholly absent, merely on level pegging with any other subject. Cheaply photocopied ads for clairvoyants appear regularly in mailboxes promising healing, requited love, exorcism, sorcery, justice and drivers’ licences. More overt than the glossy ads for department stores but far less convincing. A dinner conversation spiralled out of its secular comfort zone with a story of a visit to a shaman for a dodgy elbow, along with the obligatory mention of Buddhism (tedious even seemingly to the teller). This cross-current outburst of the supernatural harmlessly subsided back into a discussion about the best market for artisanal products, all the guests soothed by the secular understanding that any supernatural interaction was firmly under the control of the consumer, like buying organic.

According to the Pew survey, those in poorer countries are more religious; they attach greater significance to the transcendent. Explanations for this routinely and condescendingly invoke either a lack of education or the influence of their environment. A quick scan of the television in Western society is enough to dismiss the first explanation out of hand. The second rightly points out the effect of a harsh world on a vulnerable poor society in leading people to search out meaning in religion. The environment of a society does impact the beliefs of its inhabitants. A truth totally overlooked by rich societies in the West; cocooned in comfort, seduced by safety, gripped by gadgets, distracted by diversions, preoccupied and consumed and lost and deluded by the benefits of technology.

The awful poverty which afflicts many in those poorer countries is far more than a lack of material possessions or money. That’s why throwing money at the problem rarely works. It is a web of factors including isolation, powerlessness, fragility and vulnerability, that combine to entrap and entangle those caught in its grasp. Lasting change will not take place without understanding and engaging with all the aspects of the web.

What if riches, or to use a less loaded term, material resources, are a spiritual web that entangles and ensnares its plump little well-off flies? Is this what Jesus meant when he said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”? (Mark 10:23) Critiques of consumerism or greed or materialism only barely scratch the surface of the problem. The blessings of abundant resources to ungrateful hearts transform into a web of distractions, the delusions of invulnerability, control and independence, an unprecedented assortment of idols, and a veneer of moral respectability. Multiple shiny sparkly layers waterproofing the thick raincoat of the secular worldview from the steady drizzle of reality.

The secular worldview isn’t raging out there with the atheists; it turns out it is within us, in what we love, in what we live. More than roiling our minds with intellectual doubts, it’s in the habits of our hands, the darting of our eyes and the fickleness of our hearts. It’s in our desires, where it’s always been, that same temptation to crave like Eve the vivid, here-and-now, physical goodness of the fruit in our hands and what it offers. That readiness to be deluded like the Israelites when we’ve eaten and are full that it is by the power of own hand to get wealth that we have achieved it. The lure of idolatry: the attempt to capture the yearning for eternity in the here and now, enshrining desire and distraction in accessibility.

France is just like the rest of the secular Western world, trapped by its own success, ensnared in a web of its own making; a rebellious adolescent critiquing its parents while simultaneously enjoying their largesse, cocooned from the hard edge of vulnerability and reality. While no firewall can protect lives from pain, habits and surroundings form powerful headphones blocking out the call of the divine in suffering. Do the heavens declare the glory of God to those who can’t see them? The city of light overshadows the heavenly billboards and her ugly grey polluted step-sister veils the endless blue with a flat, immanent here and now.

But the beyond that this world and its inhabitants were created for can’t be entirely obscured.

There is no heaven on earth, even in France, the centre of world tourism. An economy gagged and bamboozled by bureaucracy and globalisation, families frayed by surging individualism, hedonism and weakening tradition, citizens confused by an evaporating national character, communities hollowed out by the evacuation of foundational values, people rendered brittle and unstable by looking within to build their identity on an internal churning Thermomix of feelings and insecurities, consuming ever more quantities of anti-depressants.

Thankfully nothing can stop the lightning bolts of transcendence that Paris is shot through with; great dazzling rays of sunlight scything through the late afternoon, illuminating swirls of yellow leaves, glistening off raindrops and the whirling Seine, warming ancient sandstone; a thrilling reminder of the deep enduring otherworldliness that once suffused the thoughts and dreams of her inhabitants. The secular worldview cannot ultimately stand against the mustard seed of the kingdom. Christians carrying within them the reign of heaven will need to let their weirdness shine; their time-consuming religious habits, their inconvenient commitment and love of others, their solidly unspectacular contentedness, and their embrace of weakness that allows the power and grace of their servant Lord to glow.

The front line of secularism is here, but the resistance has begun.

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