Secularism and the Deeper Questions of Religion and Society
France over recent weeks the whole country has been debating the
role of religion and the state.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.