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Secularism and the Deeper Questions of Religion and Society   

IAIN BENSON

In France over recent weeks the whole country has been debating the role of religion and the state.

France has, of course, a long history of struggling with this relationship. The current reason for the discussion has to do with concerns about Islam and, as it has manifested itself, the wearing of head coverings by girls from Muslim families. The scars of both the wars of religion and the attacks upon religion following the French Revolution are visible in many a French towns and village.

Crucifixes at the edge of many villages suggest that there is some religious presence that is publically tolerated. It is an uneasy relationship. The current questions about religious head coverings in public school have shown just how close to the surface are the deeper questions.

Here the separation of church and state, the spirit of what the French call “laicism” is very much alive. One cannot say “alive and well” however because one sees that all is not well with laicism. In the French debates, “laicism” means not only “not religious” but, in many ways, “anti-religious.” History has been viewed as a “contest” between religion and the state and it is commonly thought that the state won. Such an understanding, however, is under threat from various fronts.

Like many European countries France has a looming crisis of under population. One of the communities that are continuing to grow, and the French are very aware of this, is the Muslim community. The visibility of that community is an ever-present sign of the coming de-population crisis and the ongoing crisis of religion — in this case the religion of Islam, in relation to the French official anti-religion.

The recent debate has centred on whether French schoolgirls should be allowed to wear their hajabs, or veils, in public schools. A Commission headed by a Monsieur Stasi, reported to the government that all religious and political symbols should be banned from schools. This concept, bizarre to Canadian ears, seems quite normal to the French.

The other day in Le Figaro, one of the major French daily papers, there was an article on whether veils should be tolerated or banned because they are religious or because they represent oppression of women. A photograph of a classroom taken from the back in which a girl wearing a veil is prominently displayed accompanied the article. In the front row, blazoned across the back of a student’s sweatshirt, was the word “Reebok” in capital letters. No one is discussing the implications of corporate advertising on the bodies of students in public schools or the fact that when overtly religious beliefs are excluded from public schools, other beliefs must necessarily be welcomed in.

If the Stasi Commission recommendations are followed, Jewish yarmulkes, Muslim veils, Christian religious symbols (visible crosses or medallions) would all be banned as would “political” symbols of whatever sort. Not banned, however, would be the crasser and ubiquitous symbols of mass marketing. There is a blindness and conceptual confusion to this kind of distinction.

Nike, you will recall, was a Greek goddess of victory before she became known as a kind of winning running shoe. Let us think about the French recommendations for a minute.

Let us assume that one were to refound a cult worshipping the goddess Nike and as part of the reverence for her began wearing clothing emblazzoned with her name. This would, on the reasoning of the recent Commission be forbidden. However, if in the next seat was a person wearing the same sweatshirt of item of clothing, sporting the same logo out of mere fashion sense — this would be allowed. Pride in fashion is more important, it would seem, than pride (or humility) in religion. Nike, as a matter of fact, is all around us as is her brother god Reebok, but nobody seems to understand the significance.

Or, to consider another example, say that in that spirit of youthful humour all the non-Muslim girls began wearing Muslim headscarves, it could not be argued that they were wearing them for religious reasons but merely for fashion ones. Perhaps it could be said that their wearing of them was “political” and so they could be banned for that reason. But if it could be proven that the girls wearing them were too dull or disengaged in contemporary issues to be either political or religious, then, well, then they could be worn.

The French rules show a few things. First, that the French, like many Canadians in fact, do not understand the role of beliefs very well and have chosen, as the examples above show, to restrict religious beliefs along rather arbitrary lines but leave in place beliefs dedicated to perhaps even more base motivations than humility. If ones’ beliefs are restricted to merely fashion and being “cool” then, fine. But if it is more than that, then lookout, you have offended “laicism.”

For the wearing of a hajab by a Muslim girl is both a sign of her community membership and her humility before God. The French, it would appear, have fallen out of the habit of understanding habits.

The Chief Rabbi of France has recently said that he finds the banning of yarmulkes “anti-Semitic” and part of a French attitude that is anti-religious and he is correct. The banning of crosses and religious medallions, like the banning of Muslim veils is what happens when anti-religion goes mad. Like the forced wearing of religious signs, the forced removal of them ought to be a matter of grave international concern.

Forcing people to wear, say, the Star of David was, after all, the beginning of one of the most terrible attacks on a religion ever witnessed. Early Christians had to wear the fish as a symbol for their beliefs as the wearing of the cross became too dangerous.

The forced suppression of religious symbols is an equally terrible harbinger of anti-religion masquerading behind two veils: a veil of ignorance and a false veil of neutrality.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Benson, Iain T. “Secularism and the deeper questions of religion and society.” Centreblog (December 30, 2003).

Reprinted with permission of The Centre for Cultural Renewal and Iain T. Benson.

The Centre's blog is here.

The Centre for Cultural Renewal (formerly the Centre for Renewal in Public Policy), a non-partisan, non-denominational think-tank with registered charitable status in Canada and the United States, has been described as “the most credible organization in Canada addressing fundamental questions about politics, culture and faith.” For the past six years the Centre has been making a name for itself by hosting events that seek to articulate the relationship between the techniques and purposes of key areas of culture: law, medicine, politics, education and the arts. Iain Benson, a constitutional lawyer, is the Centre’s Executive Director.

THE AUTHOR

Iain T. Benson, a barrister & solicitor, is Executive Director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal in Ottawa. Iain Benson is a member of the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.

Copyright © 2004 Centre for Cultural Renewal

 

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