GUEST POST: Religion in France by Patricia O’Sullivan

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!

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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.

 

 

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12 responses to “GUEST POST: Religion in France by Patricia O’Sullivan

  1. I remember being in Avignon, France, on Easter weekend last year. I was worried that no shops/restaurants would be open and what would we eat? We hadn’t planned ahead and bought any groceries to munch on in our hotel room. My worries were unfounded. The farmers market was open as usual and it was busier than ever, folks buying items for Easter dinner. We had the same experience in Girona, Spain. There was a bakery I wanted to go back to because they had pecan tarts to die for:) But I figured it would be closed on a Sunday morning. Nope! I was happily wrong. It was business as usual. They might close early because of church or because of the holiday, but they’ll be open to serve their customers. Europe’s more ‘balanced’ view of religion is one reason I would love to live there.

  2. Patricia O'Sullivan

    Trishia, I love Avignon! You make a great point about Europe’s more ‘balanced view’ of religion. That balanced view has been a hard lesson learned. Europe was racked by religious wars throughout the 17th century, 50,000 suspected witches were burned to death or hanged between 1500-1800, and during the Inquisition and WWII, millions of Jews were hunted down and killed by their Christian neighbors. More recently, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Poland, realized that their priests were abusing their children, and the church was protecting the perpetrators while blaming the abuse on the children. A lot of the secular laws you see in France, as well as many other European nations, have come about because of fears of a growing Muslim population in Europe. Many Europeans see religion as a threat to civility and progress.

    • I”…a nation can hold onto its cultural and religious identity while truly allowing people the choice to believe or not believe.” – yes, it is admirable, and I think you are also right about the way religion is seen as a threat in some European countries. In the UK however, there has been a different reaction to the growth of Islam; successive governments have allowed publicly funded religious schools to open, and of course many religious groups are taking advantage of this.
      The Prime Minister has begun referring to Britain as a “Christian country” and fraternising with religious leaders, and politicians in general seem keen to keep religion in our schools.
      Unlike in the USA religious worship an RE is compulsory in schools here, and some educational consultants seem to want even more teaching “about” religion.
      I like the French idea that teachers should be banned from speaking to children about religion.

  3. Religion has certainly been a threat to civility and progress here. The rights of women are regressing, especially here in Texas where women have to travel so far if they choose to terminate a pregnancy.

    Patricia & Trishia – When I read “Portrait of a Lady,” I really wanted to go to Italy. (And did.) Your descriptions now make me want to go to France! (Hopefully sooner rather than later!)

  4. Hope we don’t have to be as old as France before we get that much from religion.

  5. The hypocrisy or the pious is so blatant that it´s almost funny. The arguments they use (like keeping God out of classroom being harmful) are as useless as can be – and the irony is totally lost in them.

    I am so glad that I live in a very secular nation. The majority of people here are members of Lutheran Church in a fashion that they might be members of a swimming club ie. the membership doesn´t in fact affect their lives just about at all.

  6. Wow! Send me to France! I love the holidays, but the way we celebrate them in our house has absolutely nothing to do with religion.

  7. Hi Patricia, That was a great post but I had some concerns from one small part of it. You stated,
    “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.”
    What is that all about?

    • Hi haydendlinder – Patricia can answer this much better than I can, but I think it’s because 1. there’s been an increase in Muslim the population, 2. there are bad feelings over the Israel-Palestinian conflict and 3. problems with the economy made life worse for minorities.

  8. Patricia, I enjoyed reading of your experiences in France. My family and I moved back to the states last summer after having spent 4 years living in Germany (my husband is in the military). However, while you had the experience of many places to be open on Sundays and holidays, not so in Germany. All shops were closed-same with holidays (and they celebrate MANY more than the U.S.!–and on a side note: they celebrate on the actual dates, whatever day of the week that falls on-they’re not all moved to Mondays!). I had been told by so many evangelicals over the years that “Europe is dark spiritually”, blah blah blah, so I was very surprised to see how much more seriously religion is taken (as a culture, if not by every individuals) in this country. Every village seemed to revolve around the church-not just architectually , but often in day to day life. Unlike in the U.S., though, it is not in-your-face about it. After awhile, we realized that even the Sunday closing of everything wasn’t even about religious observance; it was about spending time with family, which very often involved being outdoors hiking or exploring; a tradition I would love to see become ingrained in our country. P.S. Deborah, I have been reading this blog “faithfully” since your CNN article, and it has meant a great deal to me. I was raised in a deeply evangelical family (though never felt like I was a “committed”-enough Christian) but, over the last few years have come to embrace calling myself a humanist/freethinker/agnostic/non-theist (the choices are limitless!). I recently read your book and found it to be a great help in dealing with many aspects of my new “godless” life. Now that I have finally worked up the courage to add my two cents here, you may be hearing a lot more from me! ~Jill

  9. Hi Jill–Thanks for your comment and insights. Also, thanks for letting me know that you’re out there! I’m so glad the book was helpful. We can only make an impact as a group. This blog is for our community, so feel free to comment–or guest post–any time.

  10. More recently, Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Poland, realized that their priests were abusing their children, and the church was protecting the perpetrators while blaming the abuse on the children. A lot of the secular laws you see in France, as well as many other European nations, have come about because of fears of a growing Muslim population in Europe. Many Europeans see religion as a threat to civility and progress.

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