France – To What Extent can Laïcité be Considered a Civil Religion?

By Lucy Anns (2015)

‘Civil religion’ is a controversial and highly debated concept with no fixed definition. Many scholars have attempted to define it in several different fields including political philosophy and sociology. Two of the main accounts of civil religion have been by Jean Jacques Rousseau, a French enlightenment thinker, and Emile Durkheim, a Sociologist. Due to space constraints this essay will analyse whether laïcité is a civil religion according to whether it fits either of these accounts, by applying the features of both definitions to the policy of ‘laïcité’.

‘Laïcité’ is the French policy of secularism enshrined in the French Constitution since 1947. However, it is also a highly contested concept, much like civil religion, and therefore there is no overarching agreement among scholars as to what it entails exactly. The roots of laïcité can arguably be found in the 1789 French Revolution in which the power of the Catholic Church was broken, and France slowly became a secular republic. At first this principle was a pragmatic settlement of religious affairs (Saunders 2009: 70), but recently it has become much more important in both the eyes of the government (arguably since Jacques Chirac and the 2004 law banning ostentatious religious symbols in schools), and of French people, especially since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo (Jean-Louis Bianco 2013 cited by Leroy 2015: 47).

To what extent therefore can laïcité be considered a civil religion in relation to Rousseau’s and Durkheim’s definitions?

The first account under analysis will be that of Jean Jacques Rousseau. In the last section of his fourth book comprising the ‘Social Contract’ written in 1762, Rousseau states that there is a ‘…civil profession of faith…without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject…’ (Rousseau 1762) He calls this ‘civil religion’ and argues that its dogmas should be a ‘…mighty, intelligent, and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws…’ (Rousseau 1762). This definition clearly shows that some form of divinity is needed in order have a civil religion. This divinity is met in America. A nation which invokes a non-denominational God and derives its destiny from such a deity (Baubérot 2013). John Coleman, a Sociologist, advocates in an article on civil religion that one particular ‘theological note’ that came to typify American civil religion was that ‘…the nation is the primary agent for God’s meaningful activity in history…’ (Coleman 1970: 74). He also raises the point that every President in his inaugural address has mentioned God and spoken of his role in America’s destiny (Coleman 1970: 75). In this way, America can be seen as having a transcendental theology which surpasses national borders.

On the other hand, such a divinity is not found in the principle of laïcité. There is no divine power giving laïcité a specific purpose, and nor is a deity mentioned in the context of laïcité since that would contradict laïcité’s purpose. The principle was established in 1905 separating the church and the state, and thus signalling the process of secularisation in France. More recently, laïcité has been associated with the confinement of religion, and therefore God, one could argue, to the private sphere in order to preserve secular neutrality in the public sphere (Bhargava 1998: 8). This is evidenced in the banning of ostentatious religious symbols in schools and the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public, in the name of laïcité. Not only therefore is it not transcendental in the sense that its rhetoric does not go beyond national borders to an omniscient God, but also seems to minimise the visibility and influence of anything God-related. Laïcité then is solely concerned with the earthly realm, the nation state of France; thus the ‘heavenly sphere of theology’ does not ‘blend’, in this case, with the ‘worldly sphere of the civil’ (Bellah and Hammond. The Conditions for Civil Religion). As such, laïcité cannot be considered a civil religion from the perspective of Rousseau.

In contrast, Emile Durkheim’s account of civil religion takes a very different approach to Rousseau focusing on functionalist sociology rather than political philosophy. Can the policy of laïcité be applied therefore to Durkheimian civil religion?

The functionalist theory of religion developed by Durkheim in 1912 states that religion is a ‘…unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and surrounded by prohibitions—beliefs and practices that unite its adherents in a single moral community called a church…’ (Durkheim 1912, 2001: 46). However, the presence of a deity is not necessary for religion, Durkheim argues, since religion is only the expression of collective life (Gentile 2006: 9). He states that religion’s function is to ‘elevate people beyond themselves’ so that they can fully participate in the ‘collectivity’ (Gentile 2006: 8). It is shared beliefs and values which unite the collectivity and make reference to sacred entities and objects which can include flags, political organisations, and historical events. Debray, a French intellectual, defines the sacred as the ‘…indispensable “imaginary coagulant” in every social order…’ (Debray cited by Chelini-Pont 2010: 766) and states that all communities have ‘acts of sacrilege’ that are punishable (Debray cited by Chelini-Pont 2010: 766). These entities and objects are therefore sacred because the community will not allow them to be desecrated (Gentile 2006: 9). Annicchino, a Professor of Law, (Annicchino 2010) and Bellah, a renowned Sociologist, (Bellah 1967) thus interpret this definition of religion as also applying to civil religion. Annicchino argues that civil religion is a religious system since it performs the function of religion stipulated by Durkheim, that of national identity and solidarity (Annicchino 2010: 76). This religious system is also civil due to the fact that its sacred entities can be found in the state. Bellah defines civil religion borrowing Durkheim’s words on religion, ‘…a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalised in a collectivity…’ (Bellah 1967: 6).

Durkheim’s account of religion, also applying to civil religion, can, unlike Rousseau’s account, be applied to laïcité. The crux of Durkheim’s account rests on four major points, which together lead to the social integration of society: the lack of a deity; personal elevation; shared values, and beliefs, and protected sacred entities or objects, each of which are found in the policy and manifestation of laïcité. Since the lack of a deity has already been justified, the first point to analyse is personal elevation. Amelie Barras, a Social Scientist, argues that this is exactly what laïcité asks of its citizens. They are required to ‘transcend their particularities’ ensuring the neutrality of the public sphere which is crucial to a ‘…peaceful collective life dominated by universal commonalities…’ (Barras 2010: 233). In this requirement of personal elevation laïcité creates a common French identity and thus solidarity among its citizens. The French must ‘…identify themselves first and foremost as citizens of the Republic, an identity that trumps other loyalties, even ethnicity or religion…’ (Chatel 2012). The third aspect of Durkheim’s theory is shared values and beliefs. Arguably, the three main tenets of laïcité are the absence of a state religion thus creating a neutral public sphere, individual freedom of conscience of belief and religion, and equality before the state of all religions (Chelini-Pont 2010: 769). These are three core values of the Republic advocating neutrality and respect and tolerance for all religions. In a famous speech made by former French President Jacques Chirac in 2003 he stated that, ‘…it is in fidelity to the principle of laïcité, the cornerstone of the Republic, the bundle of our common values of respect, tolerance, and dialogue, to which I call all of the French to rally…’ (Annicchino 2010: 822). These shared values of respect and tolerance do not seem to have changed over the years. In Francois Hollande’s speech at the inauguration of the Observatory of Laïcité, he said that laïcité was the freedom of conscience and therefore religious freedom respecting the rights of all religions, and the rights for all beliefs to be practiced in a reciprocal manner (Hollande 2013. My own translation). The fourth principle of Durkheim’s account is protected sacred entities or objects. It is important to mention here that laïcité in itself is sacred to French people. In a survey by the ‘Institut français d’opinion publique’, IFOP, (the French Institute of public opinion) for a regional newspaper ‘Sud Ouest Dimanche’, laïcité was the most important republican principle (46%) (Sud Ouest 2015. My own translation). Blandine Chelini-Pont, a Professor in History, Law and Religion, argues that the French seek to defend laïcité ‘…at all costs against any interior or exterior enemy…’ (Chelini-Pont 2010: 766). However, laïcité also has its own sacred entities and objects. Blandine goes on to say that it is easy to point out laïcité’s symbols, texts, and commemorations (Chelini-Pont 2010: 768). Potentially the most obvious sacred text of laïcité is the law of 1905, its founding text, which separated the church from the state. The Berkley Center writes that laïcité after the 1905 law became increasingly entrenched in the fabric of French political culture…’ (Berkley Center) thus suggesting that this law is sacred since it produced an ‘imaginary coagulant’, as Debray calls it, uniting French people. However, more recently the charter of laïcité has also become increasingly important to French people. Originally it was only applied to the private sector but now it is also obligatory in all state schools thus suggesting that the charter will not be allowed to be desecrated much like a sacred text. In terms of commemoration, Francois Hollande has declared that a ‘journée de la laïcité’ (national secularity day) will be held every year on the 9th December, in remembrance of the law of 1905, in order to better transmit and honour Republican values (Guardian 2015). This national secularity day is therefore a commemoration of laïcité and an enforcement of its principles within laïcité’s main symbol, the state school. The school was a turning point in the revolution when, under the Jules Ferry education reforms in the 1880s, the clergy were cast out and the Republicans in 1882 established the first ‘free, secular, and compulsory’ school (Saunders 2009: 61). A famous quote during the revolution was ‘The Republic has made the school, the school will make the Republic’ (Ardant et al. 1996: 20. My own translation). Chelini-Pont argues that the school is the ‘…living symbol and the heart of the imaginary secular French individual…’ (Chelini-Pont 2010: 773). It is a symbol so powerful, she adds, that the Ministry of Education has first place on France’s budget list (Chelini-Pont 2010: 773). These texts, the symbol, and the commemoration day hence show that according to Durkheim’s functionalist theory of religion, which can also be applied to civil religion, laïcité can be considered a civil religion.

However, Durkheim also argues that every group has a religious dimension (Coleman 1970: 69) and Bellah confirms this stating that ‘…all politically organised societies have some sort of civil religion…’ (Bellah in Richey and Jones, 1974, cited by Markoff and Regan 1981: 257). Emilio Gentile, an Italian historian, states in his book that ‘…any human activity from science to history or from entertainment to sport can be invested with “secular sacredness” and become the object of a secular cult, thus constituting a secular religion…’ (Gentile 2006: 1). If this is the case then it would logically follow that every organisation, society, or nation should have a civil religion. Conversely, Bellah, in seemingly complete contradiction to the statement above, and Hammond, a Sociologist, write that not all states develop civil religions (Bellah and Hammond. The Conditions for Civil Religion). They argue that ‘…only some create theology out of their political myths…’ (Bellah and Hammond. The Rudimentary Forms of Religion), and that the question of whether certain ceremonies should be regarded as rituals and ideologies as theologies is if a plausible reason can be given as to why they can be (Bellah and Hammond. The Rudimentary Forms of Religion). Bellah and Hammond therefore suggest that it is the theological aspect of the political myths that makes a civil religion. However, this then begs the question as to how one can define ‘theology’. If it is defined in terms of a God and a transcendental doctrine then there can be very few civil religions, and laïcité would not be one. However, if it is defined as the systematic development of religious beliefs (Oxford Dictionary), then since laïcité has already been granted the status of religion by Durkheim, the question becomes how developed and well entrenched the concept of laïcité is in France.

Three core elements of laïcité will thus be investigated to give evidence for the development and entrenchment of laïcité in order to see if it can be considered to have a theological aspect, and therefore be a true civil religion according to Bellah and Hammond. These three elements are laïcité’s history and origins, its distinctive symbol, the state school, and its observatory. Firstly its history and origins. According to Bellah civil religion has its own unique history and mythical origins (Bellah 1967 cited by Chelini-Pont 2010: 765). Chelini-Pont writes that when French people refer to laïcité they are not talking about good and worthy constitutional principles of a democratic nation, but about a ‘powerful founding myth’, which was the victory of reason over religion and ‘brought about the birth of the rights of man’ (Chelini-Pont 2010: 770). Along with this myth, she claims, are stories of freedom, secular schools, sexual equality, and culture (Chelini-Pont 2010: 770). Laïcité is a ‘…voluntary rupture, an act of creation, that the French owe to Montesquieu, Voltaire, d’Holbach, and other great philosophers…’ (Chelini-Pont 2010: 771). She goes further, using biblical language, to say that secularism is the French ‘promised land’, and the Revolution is the ‘…foundational act of “liberation,” of this Exodus from Egypt in which the King of France plays the role of Pharaoh…’ (Chelini-Pont 2010: 771). The use of the liberating language ‘victory’, ‘birth’, and ‘act of creation’, as well as the biblical metaphors to describe laïcité’s history definitely suggests that it has well developed mythical origins which it owes to certain ‘heroes’ such as Montesquieu and Voltaire. This history is also well entrenched if it is the main image the French conjure when referring to laïcité.

Secondly, its distinctive symbol, the state school. The school does not seem to be simply a symbol but the cornerstone and foundational base of laïcité’s theology. This has been shown in various ways. Firstly, the charter of laïcité, which was made obligatory in all state schools in 2013, as mentioned earlier, and which sets out the 17 fundamental principles of laïcité that each school should abide by. Secondly, there is a new course on secular morality which will start being taught in state schools in 2015. Vincent Peillon, the former French education minister, stated that this new course will ‘rebuild’ secular values among France’s children (McPartland 2012). The pupils will be given “civic and moral lessons” as well as “media instruction” (Guardian 2015). However this course was quite controversial with Henri Pena Ruiz, a specialist in secularism, claiming that there is ‘…no point just aping religious indoctrination with secularist indoctrination…’ (McPartland 2012). The term ‘secular indoctrination’ thus suggests the entrenchment of laïcité in the school and hints at its theological aspect.Thirdly, the commemoration day of laïcité, the ‘journée de la laïcité’ was specifically designed in order to remind pupils how to sing the national anthem, what France’s tricolor stands for, and to celebrate and promote the values of the Republic (McDonagh 2015). These three elements certainly suggest the importance and the entrenchment of laïcité in state schools.

Finally, the Observatory of laïcité (L’Observatoire de la laïcité). In Francois Hollande’s speech at the inauguration of the Observatory of laïcité he called laïcité a pillar of the Republican pact, a common reference, and a collective framework (Hollande 2013. My own translation). He even reified it saying that to make laïcité come to life it needs to be given the means to evolve and to respond to society’s changes (Hollande 2013. My own translation). The four purposes he gives the observatory are: to inform, to transmit, to propose, and finally to observe (Hollande 2013. My own translation). This idea of having an institution specifically designed to not only promote but also transmit certain ‘laique’ (secular) values, as well as to propose new ways of adapting and enforcing laïcité shows how deeply the principle is entrenched in French society.

In conclusion, to what extent laïcité can be considered a civil religion depends on the definition of a civil religion. This essay has only been able to focus on two definitions of civil religion although arguably two of the most important, those of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Emile Durkheim. Since Rousseau’s theory of civil religion contains some form of deity laïcité cannot be considered a civil religion according to this account. In Durkheim’s account, on the other hand, religion, and in this case civil religion, means personal elevation, shared values and beliefs, and sacred objects. Evaluated from this perspective laïcité can certainly be considered a civil religion. However, Durkheim also states that every group has a religious dimension which suggests that every nation should have a civil religion, however as Bellah points out this is not the case. He seems to distinguish a civil religion by its theological aspect. This aspect can be found in laïcité’s history, its symbol of the state school, and its observatory. Therefore, the policy of laïcité can be considered a distinct civil religion if one combines the approaches of Durkheim and Bellah. However, France is facing new challenges, particularly from Muslim immigration. As French society becomes more divided with different values and beliefs, will laïcité as a civil religion remain a unifying force?


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One thought on “France – To What Extent can Laïcité be Considered a Civil Religion?

  1. Excellent analysis. The essay is very well researched, very well written, very well referenced, and demonstrates some very good critical thinking.

    In terms of how to improve it, the paragraphing could be a little more judicious, breaking down long paragraphs into the separate units of argument by which they are constituted. There could also be a little more signposting, such as an outline of your argument at the end of your introduction. The language can also be a little too journalistic at times, i.e. when sentences are missing verbs.

    The throwaway remark about Muslim immigration at the end is also a little frustrating: it would have been worth unpacking that a little further. For starters, many ‘Muslim’ immigrants find insulting the very proposition that they are not fully subscribed to the civil religion of laïcité. It’s also rather selective to see the main challenge to laïcité as coming from immigrant Muslims as opposed to, say, a resurgent evangelicalism or a galvanised Catholic conservatism. So there was lots to unpack in that particular comment, and unpacking that could indeed have led to an interesting set of closing reflections.

    In any case, this remains a very good, thoroughly researched and well argued essay which answers the question well.


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