Wednesday, December 14, 2005

France & Religion.

We should probably add a few more things to our previous post with regard to how the French tend to see religion

In France religion is usually seen as a hindrance to humanity’s freedom and so the state is supposed to free and protect the individual from the abuse of religion. It all makes sense in a society that was for so long polarized over the role of religion – for the individual or the institution – and in which the state was clearly on the side of the institution. This did not end so long ago – this year is the 100th anniversary of the official separation of church and state. The process resulted in the law called “loi sur la laicité” [law on secularism] which did not pass easily and divided the nation even back then. The French Catholic church was extremely conservative and opposed to social reforms and progress. Therefore, it does make sense that religion is viewed as a divisive force since the church divided France for such a long time – from the Religious Wars of the 16th century to the early 20th century. And in France it is the secular state that has liberated people from the abuse of a tyrannical church, and this is pretty much the opposite of what has happened in the US.

In the US, for example, religion is mostly perceived as a positive force that has liberated the individual against abuses of power, especially the government’s. Freedom of worship is seen as a guarantee of other freedoms. In addition, the emphasis on “personal faith” of the protestant theology has resulted in a greater appreciation for personal responsibility. This also makes sense for a nation built by people who sought to leave tyrannical governments in order to worship whatever religion they believed - and for which they were persecuted - and it is not surprising that many progressive leaders have been found in the church (one need only think of Martin Luther King). Despite what many Europeans believe, churches in the US have always played a major role in social reforms. The recent rise of conservatism in the evangelical world is a new phenomenon that is not representative of the history of Christianity in the US. The problem is that many Americans fail to take national histories into account in their analysis of the French secular state. Across the Atlantic, the problem is also that French people tend to confuse the church they learn about in their history books with religion, and God knows how history is an important topic in France. They actually know very little about faith and religion beliefs.

This is particularly true of the left-wing intellectuals who are very still very influential. What happened at the conference is a good illustration of the patronizing and condescending attitudes of many French intellectuals who believe that people should be “set free despite themselves” and that they, the intellectual républicains will enlighten people. Thus they cannot even conceive that a woman can “choose” to wear a headscarf for religious reasons. While I won’t deny that some women are forced into it by peer or male pressure, there are also those who choose to do it out of their own free will. The latter cases are often dismissed by many intellectuals who believe that either it simply can’t be true or if it is, that’s because they don’t know any better (unlike the intellectuals who DO know better concerning what’s really good for them).

This is in line with the philosophy of the Hussard de la République (nickname given to the teachers of the 3rd Republic in the late 19th century and early 20th). It is also similar to the patronizing philosophy that gave moral grounds to colonization. Many French intellectuals thus fail to see the positive role of religion or if they do, they tend to be extremely conservative – and thus remain skeptical of Islam in any case. What I find appalling is how much so many French and Americans fail to see that their attitudes towards religion are simply the product of their history and society and that neither is superior to the other. The French are very uneasy with American religious practice and do not see the positive aspect of religion in American society while many Americans think France is anti-religion. The treatment of the topic of the religious headscarf illustrated that divide.

I will admit that the French view of religion is both unique and complex, making it difficult to understand outside France even for other Europeans. And the same can be said about the US. Does Pat Robertson represent Christianity in the US? Most Americans know he doesn’t but that doesn’t prevent foreigners from seeing Pat Robertson as representative of American Christianity.


At 04:27, Anonymous kstrygg said...

I assume you that by the term 'tyranical church' you mean one that imposes its ethical system on people who don't subscribe to the same ideas.


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