Some cross-channel musings on secularism

I’m sorry for the long break. I was on holiday, my plans for posts just before leaving and just after returning turned to dust in the face of circumstances and the usual holiday packing and unpacking routine, and in the end I found it was quite restful to just leave the blog alone for once and get on with other things.

I’ve still got a huge amount of stuff I want to write about, but the thing I had to get off my chest now was an insight into the true practicalities of secularism, and how they differ from popular fears and propaganda. The source of this insight, and the subject of a potential case study, is (of course) France.

Wayside CrossAnyone making a list of countries with a strong secular inclination will mention France almost immediately. The concept of “Laïcité”, enshrined in article 1 of the French constitution and currently supported by a 1905 law on the separation of church and state, is fundamental to French identity. Unlike in the USA, where that separation is always under attack and honoured more in the breach than the observance, France is genuinely secular and proud of it.

So going by the sort of claims that are made about secularism, that means that in France, religion’s condemned, atheist propaganda is taught in every school, and churches have to meet in secret for fear of arrest. Or not.

What initially inspired me to write this was a sight that I saw over and over again on my travels – wayside crosses and especially crucifixes. They were a common sight at junctions, and on some roads, it seemed that every town and village had one. To a tourist, especially travelling around on a lot of D-roads, they were an arresting sight, as we were in a country with such a secular identity and reputation. It would be an exaggeration to say they were everywhere, but they were hard to miss.

Even as an enthusiastic supporter of secularism, and one who seems to spend a lot of time correcting mistaken ideas of what secularism implies, I was slightly surprised by these crosses. They didn’t easily fit my idea of French secularism, so they were quite jarring, although admittedly, part of my reaction might have been to something that’s very un-British.

This got me thinking about how secularism operates in France, and how not only are the common fears unfounded, but there are some distinct advantages for religion.

French ChurchAlong with the wayside crosses, it was also a common sight to see French churches towering proudly in the centre of a town, and occasionally in the middle of a field. But interestingly, these churches which continue to prosper are all owned by the state, which is responsible for maintaining them. How the Church of England would love that arrangement, with such a huge number of impractical and costly old churches sitting around and costing them money.

For those getting married, the French solution is to have all marriages officially registered by the state in a civil ceremony. No other ceremony has any legal standing, although couples are free to have a religious ceremony as well. This model appears strange and unwieldy at first, but it has the great advantage of allowing the couple freedom to do what they wish, and protecting religious bodies by separating them from the legal process, smoothing out any possible difficulty when civil and religious concepts of marriage differ.

I’m not sure that the French model is perfect, but for an arrangement which is so often viewed as antagonistic towards religion, it’s surprisingly inoffensive and even positive from a religious viewpoint.

Images courtesy of Ayla87 and piekes, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

7 responses to “Some cross-channel musings on secularism”

  1. Kevin says :

    I really like what I’ve heard of how France deals with religion and this post simply adds to that. It seems you’re pretty much free to practise your religion as you see fit, but without any support from or influence over the state. And with the way they deal with marriage you could – gasp – have same-sex marriage condoned by the state, but with religious groups left to approve it or not, as they wish. Where’s the downside?!

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      You noticed that same-sex marriage was in my thoughts. Yes, France has managed to beat us to it because the legislation is so simple. Just make it legal, and the churches can do what they like. Which they could do anyway. We’ve had years of wrangling and legislative tap-dancing, they had a stroke of the pen.

  2. Lana says :

    That’s really interesting. I wouldn’t want to have two ceremonies, though.

  3. mgm75 says :

    That marriage process does seem unwieldy but for their system, I don’t see any other way it could work. So what you’re saying is that the marriage-proper takes place in their equivalent of a Registry Office which could then be followed by what we call a “Church Blessing”?

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Yes, pretty much, although in my limited experience, it’s not always seen as “just” a blessing. I knew a couple who saw the civil paperwork as a legal hoop to jump through, but didn’t consider themselves married until the church service weeks later. That was when they celebrated, and the official bit was more like getting a passport.

      But different strokes for different folks. They were serious Christians, and I don’t know how much France shares our cultural idea that getting married in church is nice, whether you believe or not. There’s a danger of misunderstanding, just because their system is so completely different from ours.

      • mgm75 says :

        I understand. I was thinking of it from the position of the state, really. If the “Registry Office” job is what is legally binding (or whatever their equivalent of a registrar is) then the state in theory only sees a church ceremony as we in the UK see a “Blessing”?

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Yes, exactly. The state isn’t bothered about anything else, but obviously the people getting married can find value wherever they want. They’re just not legally married without the civil paperwork, just as they can’t leave the country without a proper passport.

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