Patricia O’Sullivan, as many of you know, is a regular part of our conversations here on this blog. (She’s also a novelist.) She has written an interesting post about the religious environment in France. I don’t see the U.S. approaching the level of secularization that France has achieved, but I think most of us hope for this.
Thank you for sharing your experiences, Patti!
In the summer of 2013, our family moved to France for a year. Although we are not religious, we enrolled our children in Catholic schools that had experience dealing with international students. A few months into the school year, I overheard my kids discussing how there was less talk of religion at their French Catholic schools than in the public schools they’d attended in Mississippi. How could this be possible?
All schools in France must teach the same curriculum as set by the ministry of education. Religious schools are no exception to this rule. Thus, classes in religious education are outside of the curriculum. Younger children in religious schools are often required to participate in religious education, but my children, one in middle school and the other in high school, had the choice to opt out.
In 2004, France’s National Assembly voted to ban religious symbols at school, namely those students and teachers might wear such as a cross, a Star of David, or a head scarf. Nine years later, the minister of education implemented a secularization charter, reaffirming France’s commitment to secular education and a secular state. The charter bans teachers and staff from talking about religion to students and opens up all course subject matter to “scientific and pedagogical questioning.” Students may not be excused from lessons that question the teachings of their religion (such as evolution and sex education), teachers may not refuse to present lessons that do the same.
Because the charter was approved while we were in France, I posted an article about it on social media to share with friends and family back home. Their responses, most of them negative, really surprised me. Some of them, written by people who either work in public schools or have children in public schools in the U.S., expressed shock at the ‘religious repression’ in France. I explained that the French viewed the policies as a way to protect the integrity of education and to protect children from unwelcome attempts at proselytization, but the folks back home didn’t buy it. In fact, one friend wrote that keeping God out of the schools was harmful to children.
Many Americans are familiar with the concept of ‘cultural Jew’, a term used by Jews who don’t attend synagogue or even believe in God, but who take part in select traditions as a way to remain connected to their heritage. France is similarly ‘culturally Catholic’. Church bells ring out on Sundays, many holy days are also bank holidays, and bakeries do a swift business selling special breads and pastries associated with Catholic saint days and other holy days. From mid-December to early January, town plazas are decorated with Christmas trees (but not nativity scenes) and the sidewalks and pedestrian malls are crammed with hundreds of colorful booths where one can buy foods, crafts, and gifts for Christmas. In addition, many of the most popular tourist attractions in France are Catholic churches, abbeys, and shrines. However, over a third of the population of France is not religious, and of the 40-50% who are Catholic, only 4.5% of them attend mass regularly, and fully half of all self-identified Catholics in France say they don’t believe in God. The French have somehow figured out how to keep the holidays, the foods, and the monuments to religion while getting rid of all the rest.
Muslims in France (the next largest religious group) are much more likely than Catholics to maintain their religious beliefs, but they get little support from the government in this. Neither of the two Eids are bank holidays, civil servants may not wear religious clothing (like a headscarf), and women are forbidden from wearing face-covering garb in public.
Before WWII, France had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. In recent years, rising anti-Semitism in France has resulted in a growing Jewish exodus from that country to more welcoming countries, particularly Israel.
There are so many ways I could conclude this post, but I’ll focus on two points: It would seem from the example of France that people like cultural traditions, but dislike religious authorities telling them how to conduct their lives. And when people don’t feel coerced to put up a religious front, many of them abandon religion. On the other hand, there are those who feel the pull of religion despite a lack of cultural or state support for it. The thing is, when people are allowed to choose, their belief, or unbelief, is a more honest reflection of who they are. I’m not holding France up as a religious utopia (particularly for non-Catholics), but I learned to appreciate there how a nation can hold onto its cultural and religious identity while truly allowing people the choice to believe or not believe.
Patricia O’Sullivan is a teacher and novelist who lives in Mississippi with her family.