A French perspective on secularism

Par François Dubois (1529 – 1584); Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts

David Aubril is a French teacher, fond of didactics, literature, UNIX systems and free diving (with no order of preference). He follows with great interest contemporary debates on Gospel and Church matters, from across the Atlantic Ocean.

On the French version of the Church website, there is a video called “religious freedom brings balance”, with many excerpts of Elder’s Rasband last talk. As far as I can tell, there is no English version. I supposed it was especially made for French-speaking people, to make us aware of the dangers of secularism. How kind. Indeed, we have gone quite a long way with the principle of secularism in France. Maybe our experience can shed some useful light on the topic?

It might not seem so today, but France was once a very religious country. It used to be called the Roman Church’s ‘eldest daughter’. Because of those close ties between religion, society and politics, freedom was limited. There were many contentions, struggles, and even wars. Between 1562 and 1598, eight civil wars between Catholics and Protestants tore the Kingdom of France apart and led to many massacres. It is one of the darkest pages of our history. The Edict of Nantes put an end to the conflict, but only for a short period: contentions rose again between 1620 and 1629; a few decades later, Louis XIV initiated a policy of persecutions against the Protestants that lasted for about another hundred years.

Over two centuries, many Protestants fled the country because of these conflicts. Some of them found refuge in America or other places. But there were also many who stayed. They had to learn to live peacefully with their Catholic neighbors. They all had to find neutral ground on which they could build a community. That neutral ground is the whole point of the concept of secularism.

That concept appeared during the Enlightenment but became a constitutional principle after decades of violent struggles in France during the nineteenth century. The Roman Church was strongly opposed to democracy, science and socialism, and it used every means to weigh in on political issues in France and nearby countries. After years of tension and conflicts, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a law was enacted in 1905 separating the State and the Churches, ensuring that the State would remain neutral towards all Churches and all religions, and that everyone would be equal before the law, whatever their beliefs.

At that time, there were in fact different kinds of secularism: some were hostile to religion, because they wanted to get free of the Roman Church’s influence in public affairs, others, like Aristide Briand, the drafter of the law, were more in favor of a neutral position. He explained: “The law must protect the faith, as long as the faith does not claim to speak the law”. That 1905 law was a peacemaker in a divided county, embraced by the population, politicians and many of the French clergy, who felt that their first duty was to public harmony.

The religious wars and the power of the Roman Church during the nineteenth century left a very deep mark in our Nation. For many people here, religion has become a synonym of oppression. That is, in fact, still the case in many countries. For those people, secularism is a protection, and, because of our history, we are very sensitive to that. One can not understand the Laicité law without this historical background. Since 2004, in France, “the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly manifest a religious affiliation is prohibited [in] public schools.” The principle upon which that law relies comes directly from the Enlightenment era: school should be a neutral zone, free from all religious influences.

I understand that such laws, considered outside of their historical and cultural background, can lead foreigners to think that secularism is a threat to religious freedom. I’ve read Church materials explaining that people won’t be free to express their feelings and thoughts anymore. But religion is no ordinary topic that you can throw in a conversation like your last trip or your children’s accomplishments. It shapes people’s lives. And as diversity grows in our societies (think, for example, of sexual orientation), people are less and less inclined to let one’s religion enter into their lives if they don’t choose to. Secularism doesn’t prevent people from talking about religion. It prevents a religion from talking to people who don’t want to participate. 

Fighting against secularism isn’t fighting against atheism. Like in Aristide Briand’s time, there are many forms of secularism today. And most of them are not hostile to religion. In fact, I think secularism is a way to protect faith, by preventing politics from using it. You have witnessed in the United States the damage done: a recent survey, among many others, explains that “it could be that the increase in the number of atheists is a direct result of Christian nationalism” (Yonat Shimron, Salt lake Tribune, June 21, 2022).

Church leaders may also fear that secularism could hinder missionary work. But, as the Book of Mormon shows us, there is more than one way to do missionary work. Ammon never publicly preached; yet he was the most successful of all the missionaries.

France is often perceived as a country of atheists. There’s a cultural misunderstanding here. A recent survey (Observatoire de la laïcité, 2019) shows that 37% of French people are believers. If you add agnostics (15%), that’s 52%. One out of two French people is either a believer or a person in doubt. It’s way less than in the States, but way more than zero. But, in France, it’s rare and considered rude to talk about religion in public. With our historical background, you can easily guess why. That doesn’t mean that religion is not important, and that people don’t have a spiritual life. I am often surprised, when talking to colleagues and neighbors, to discover that they have very strong beliefs. But it is a very private, a very intimate thing. Does it make it less valuable?

Today, secularism is the principle that allows us, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in France, i.e. a religious minority, to live our faith. It is the principle that ensures that we do not suffer oppression or discrimination. It is not the enemy of religious freedom, quite the opposite. It is the very ground on which freedom and religion can coexist. And I think it is necessary to protect religion from conscienceless politicians. Fighting against secularism, for me, would be sawing off the very branch we’re sitting on.


  1. Latter-day Saints are not hugely affected by France’s secularism, but Muslims are borderline oppressed. A French court just passed off on local bans on long-sleeved swimsuits. Does that sound like freedom? Muslims cannot wear the hijab in many places. Can you really claim that your country is not suppressing religious liberty when you can’t exercise basic religious practices outside of your own home, effectively keeping the devout from participating in the public at all?

    You can keep religion out of government without suppressing religion in public.

  2. Raymond Winn says:

    Thank you for this excellent explanation of French secularism, which seems such a rational and desirable oasis of sanity in today’s religion-divided world.
    It does seem hubristic that an American – any American, even a leader of the LDS Church – would take it upon themselves to explain to the rest of the world how to balance religion and civic life, especially given this week’s Supreme Court releases.

  3. plvtime says:

    For me it is interesting how policies that are generally accepted in one country are battlegrounds in another. For example, in France nearly 20% of students attend Catholic schools that are mostly funded by taxpayer Euros. The government makes sure that none of its money goes to religious education and children in Catholic schools can opt out of the religious education. In some parts of France, (Alsace and Moselle) there is religious education in public schools (!) but it is regulated so it is not proselyting. But things like proselyting co-workers is forbidden by law and can get one fired, unlike in private workplaces where there is no government rule against it. So the lines dividing church and state are different in different countries, even in a place as secular as France.

  4. A fuller perspective on France’s history vis-a-vis religion, secularism, and violence might mention the fact that France suffered immense devastation in the Second World War not due to religion, but due to the secular ideology of Nazism. Expand the perspective from France to the whole world, and we see that secular ideologies (Communism and Nazism in particular) are responsible for the bloodiest conflicts and atrocities in history. But no doubt the association of religion with extremism and violence, and ignoring the potential of atheist/secular ideologies to do the same, is an accurate representation of the prevailing viewpoint.

    Minor quibble: It’s not accurate to say Ammon never preached publicly. See Alma 21:23.

  5. Geoff - Aus says:

    Travis, Many nazis saw themselves as part of a christian crusade to cleanse the world of jews and homosexuals. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30036426

    Might be an opportunity for other countries too.

    Australia is just publishing the results of last years census. Some interesting results. The LDS church website says “”As of 31 December 2019, the LDS Church reported 154,595 members in 308 Congregations in Australia which is the largest body of members and congregations in Oceania. This is an increase of 30,945 members since 2009 which is the largest increase of members in Oceania.”
    The church told members to put LDS on the census which says 61600 did in the 2016 census but 57868 in 2021.
    The proportion of Australians who reported being christian in 2011 was 61.1%, in 2016 52.1% in 2021 43.9%
    Islam 3.2%
    Hindu 2.7%
    Religion has damaged its brand by trying to impose its beliefs on others, and by abusing women and children.

    We have just had a federal election where neither abortion or gay marriage, or universal healthcare were issues. Climate action, womens rights and equalty, the minimum wage $20.33/hour or $772.6/ week, and unequal distribution of wealth, were the issues. The conservative LNP government were thrown out and replaced by Labor, but there was a big change of professional women standing in safe LNP seats saying the LNP no longer represent us, and replacing males including the treasurer. (This could be a model for American women after RvW.

    There are 150 members in our parliament so 76 to win. The governing Labor party has 77(35 women), the opposition 58 (9 women), minor parties 6, and big change teal independents 10 (young proffesional women).

    No one talks about being secular society, more a moral one.

  6. To Dsc : France was once a great colonial empire in Africa, especially in Maghreb. When those countries sought freedom after WWII, there has been violent conflicts. Since France does everything it can to keep very close ties with its former colonies, even after their independence, things can still get tense today with those countries. And in the same time, that’s where most of our immigration comes from. So yes, it can be complicated for Muslims. I wouldn’t say that they are oppressed, but there is for sure a distrust of part of the population regarding Muslims. If I may, was it different after 9/11 ?

  7. To Travis : I agree on numbers. Secular ideologies have caused much more death and destruction than religious ones. But in our culture, it didn’t have the same impact. People see religions as a very powerful thing, linked to very deep emotions, even passions, something that you can’t control. In a ironic way, French people give much more power to religion than secular ideologies.

  8. thechaostician says:

    I recently wrote about the difference between French secularism and American religious liberty here: http://thechaostician.com/public-secularism-religious-liberty/ Here are my thoughts on this post:

    (1) The historical background for French secularism is much more closely tied to the Cult of Reason than the Huguenots.

    (2) “I’ve read Church materials explaining that people won’t be free to express their feelings and thoughts anymore. … It prevents a religion from talking to people who don’t want to participate.” It sounds like there are legal responses that can be used to shut down someone’s religious speech. Which is pretty chilling to people sharing religious feelings and thoughts.

    (3) Ammon did preach publicly and especially in government offices. Ammon’s missionary work would have been illegal in France. It was illegal in the Lamanite society too, as his brothers found out, so he probably would have preached anyway.

    (4) “Today, secularism is the principle that allows us, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in France, i.e. a religious minority, to live our faith.” Partially. The Church is not immediately trying to build Zion (the economic / social Christian utopian society) like it was in the 1800s. Building Zion would be illegal in France. The work of full time missionaries could be shut down by bans on conspicuous religious symbols or by bans on preaching in public. It’s not only because France does not enforce its laws about secularism consistently. Building the Paris temple took 40 years, because it required finding some place with “the support from the city hall and the mayor” (https://latterdaysaintmag.com/why-the-paris-temple-was-40-years-in-the-making/). The temple ended up getting built in one of the most Catholic areas near Paris, not one of the most secular ones.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has not faced significant pressure from French society. But that is not because secularism provides strong legal protections for religious minorities. Ask Muslims in France if secularism protects them. Instead, it is because neither the atheists nor Catholics currently see this Church as a significant threat. Religious liberty is a much stronger defense for religious minorities than secularism.

  9. C. Keen says:

    David: Are you really saying that colonizing other countries for centuries is an excuse for being suspicious of people from those countries, just as if terrorists from those countries had perpetrated an attack that killed thousands of citizens? That sounds completely unhinged. Maybe you want to walk back that comparison.

    And for what it’s worth, no, it wasn’t just the same after 9/11. GWB may have been a terrible president in many ways, but he made it absolutely clear that Islam was not the enemy.

    For what it’s worth, the rest of the world finds the French approach to secularism about as appealing as the American approach to firearms.

  10. Whoa. Things get intense here. I think there’s a couple of misunderstanding, probably my fault.
    1) I don’t say that Church members are being oppressed in France. Just that secularism was thought as a neutral ground allowing everyone to live together, believers or not, and that it shouldn’t be considered as a bad thing.
    2) Yes, French secularism has gone too far in some occasions. But the principles thereof are important. And, -it was the point of the post-, it is not opposed to religious freedom, quite the opposite.
    3) C. Keen. Of course I don’t justify colonialism, and I’m sorry if it sounded that way… France has done many terrible things in its colonies. What I was trying to say is that there is some tension in French society, but it is more a immigration problem than a religious one. And yes, there are many countries that don’t like French secularism, I understand that. But you can’t understand it without its context.
    4) thechaostician. Thanks. Very interesting article.

  11. C. Keen. I realize that my comparison might have been offensive. I was in fact referring to the war that occurred between France and Algeria in the 60’s. But it wasn’t obvious. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  12. wbstout says:

    I remember reading a few years ago that some major French politician (I forget who) said that “freedom of religion” means “freedom from religion”, that is not having to see any public expression of religion, including personal passive things like wearing a cross or hijab. I considered this an intolerant sophistry, and it is an obvious example of the hostile brand of secularism mentioned above.

    David, I appreciate your mild, considerate response to those who have disagreed with you.

  13. thechaostician’s article is very interesting, very accurate. He has a point : I could have put more references to the XVIIIth century. Voltaire and the encyclopedists fought against obscurantism and fanatism through their writings and public cases like the Calas family or the Chevalier de la Barre. The point is : there is a ongoing line of conflicts/persecutions/tensions going from the religious wars down the beginning of XXth century that shaped our society. It seems to me that French society was very polarized, as we say today. And secularism was, for us, a peace-maker. I do not say it’s perfect. It was probably the less worst of the options. Maybe -who knows- the United States will move in such a direction one day.

  14. Loursat says:

    Thank you, David Aubril, for this post.

    The learned authors of the American Constitution were deeply familiar with religious wars, but the political life of the United States has never suffered from wars of religion. This distinguishes the American from the European experience. For Americans generally, the problem of religious war is only theoretical. It’s not something we feel deeply in our history. That’s one of the reasons why many Americans find it easy to forget or ignore the primary purposes of the U.S. Constitution’s Religion Clauses.

    Those purposes are, first, to reduce the likelihood that religious disagreement will lead to violence, and, second, to protect the authenticity and diversity of religious experience. Taken together, those purposes amount to religious liberty. The Constitution’s scheme works not by first guaranteeing that everyone can do what they feel that their religion requires them to do. Instead, the first protection under the constitutional scheme is to separate the power of the state from religious practice. Only then can we be secure in our religious practices and beliefs.

    In the United States, we are well along in the process of forgetting this basic principle of religious liberty. In legal terms, the Supreme Court is now working on the project of demolishing the Establishment Clause. Without the protections of the Establishment Clause, government will increasingly subsidize religion, and the most popular religion(s) will inevitably wield coercive power.

    French laïcité has a lot to teach us in America. It is not easy to strike the right balance between the competing requirements of our Establishment Clause and our Free Exercise Clause. The balance continuously shifts as our society evolves, so the work of finding the balance never ends. The American and French legal regimes pertaining to religion are enormously important because our two countries have formalized and developed these legal principles more deeply than any others. In my view, the current version of laïcité has moved too far in the direction of limiting religious expression. But it would be ruinously arrogant for Americans to dismiss the French experience because of that. We Americans are rapidly moving too far in the direction of establishing religion. Americans and French need to learn from each other if we are to correct our courses.

    As a postscript, I note how dismaying it is to see the LDS Church’s current vague endorsements of “religious freedom.” Instead of being serious about the momentous principles that “religious freedom” invokes, the Church is using that that phrase as a motto and a euphemism for its political policy goals. That’s a sure-fire formula for trivializing actual religious freedom. And when we trivialize it, we lose it.

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