The Double-Edged Sword of French Secularism | Georgia L. Gilholy


I am not French. I do not speak French. I have visited France, but only a handful of times. The France I have explored most is one that no longer exists, if it ever truly did. The decadence of Fitzgerald’s fictionalised, smokey hotel bars (OK, the smoke is definitely still around) and litterless beaches. The glamourous stage set of Amanda and Elyot’s soon-to-be-smashed-up Paris apartment. These are all, of course, fictional impressions. Although these writers painted periods in France that did exist, there is an inherent glamour in the imaginary. The 1920s Paris or Marseilles of a play or novel does not have to be precisely representative to be good. Fiction is supposed to be an escape. Still, we all know that French-ness today remains vested with some semblance of romance and glamour, if not without its problems.

Yet there is a France I do know once existed, over a century or so before the invasion of these anglophone writers. The France of revolution. Of course, like the elite scenarios envisaged and oft-satirised by the twentieth century literary circles, many aspects of the revolutionary period were not immediately experienced or understood by the majority of the population. Nor are they today, especially outside of France. In the words of Jaspreet Singh Boparai, for many historians, the French Revolution is not so much a research topic but an origin myth—the heart of their secular faith’s cosmology. It is the foundation of secularism and leftism. It is the very genesis of the French Republic. It is crucial to what France was and what the West itself is today.

The revolution was- in various ways- an answer to real grievances: clerical abuse, monarchical and aristocratic incompetence, economic hardship. Yet the particular way in which it erupted was undoubtedly a culmination of a French enlightenment that had been brewing for over a century. The enlightenment overwhelmingly relied upon the biblical concepts that had defined medieval and early modern thought until that moment. Men were created in imago Dei and were therefore equal. In Britain and America especially, religion remained coupled with enlightenment throughout the period. In France, the Church quickly became the enemy. Voltaire declared the evils, not just of clerical misdemeanours, but of religion as a moral infrastructure itself, and sought to supplant l’infâme of Christianity with a “truly” virtuous republic of reason and liberty. The “reason” of individual minds would begin to decipher what was really moral, and tradition was to be put aside for this brave new world. 

It was assumed that all that was worth knowing might be found by the observance of natural phenomena and that society could be restructured accordingly from its lessons. Reason itself became dogma. Naturally, when reason as a concept becomes vested with the status of creed, it breeds tyranny. In the republic of virtue, truths discovered by reason must be enforced. Thus, there is no room for the concept of human dignity or liberty. If I wish to go and worship in a church, but the state decides religion is an untruth, I will not be permitted to do so. The idea of “free-floating” reason separated from its historical foundations in biblical morality, became the blueprint for both calculated tyranny and the murky confusion of moral relativism.

“We must apply reason in all matters because man is not only an animal but an animal who reasons” and therefore “that the person who refuses to search for (truth) renounces his human condition and must be treated by the rest of his species as a wild beast” and as “an unnatural being.”

Diderot on Natural Law

This energy of the authoritarian and relativist impulse, that has wriggled its way from Diderot through the horrors of the twentieth century, is in no place to tackle the threat of radical Islamism and Leftism in French society.

Like the United Kingdom, French cities have been the focal point of several high-profile Islamist terror attacks in the past decade or so. 2015 witnessed attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices, a Kosher supermarket, an Eagles of Death Metal concert in the Bataclan theatre, along with several accompanying incidents on streets and in restaurants. Subsequent years have seen hundreds of stabbing and shooting attacks. The incident currently fresh in everyone’s minds, of course, being the beheading of Samuel Paty by a Chechen refugee. Paty was a middle school teacher who had recently held a class on freedom of speech in which he showed caricatures of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Paty let Muslim students know that they were free to leave the classroom if they felt offended. Paty was acting out the secularism characteristic of French culture, without coercing students and was killed for doing so.

In schools that are largely Muslim, Chalghoumi tells TIME, many teachers now avoid discussing the Holocaust, despite it being part of the government curriculum, fearing the reaction from their students. “The moment you talk about the Holocaust they say, ‘it is for the Zionists,’” he says. “And it is impossible to talk about Charlie Hebdo in the banlieues.” After that attack in January 2015, he says, “many kids did not observe the minute’s silence in school.” He doubts that students will observe a minute’s silence for Paty either; the government has called for schools to mark his killing on Nov. 2, when students return from a two-week break.

An excerpt from TIME Magazine October 2020 “The Beheading of a Teacher in France Exposes a Cultural Schism That Threatens President Macron’s Future”

Vague appeals to the ideas of free speech and liberty are not enough. We need to know what these things are, where they came from, and why we might believe in them. Subjective notions of reason detached from definitions are not enough to counter the deeply held absolutism of political Islam for which many are willing to martyr themselves. It is no surprise that progressive circles are so often opponents rather than allies in this context. In trendy leftist spheres in France and beyond, it is an accepted “truth” that the West is terrible, racist, colonialist and Islamophobic and thus as Diderot suggested, those who think otherwise, like Macron and Paty perhaps, are correctly denounced as “unnatural beings” and come what may to their personal safety.


Photo Credit.

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