France: Religion, Violence, and Secularism

This is a nice lively dialogue and as I am someone who is decidedly secular (agnostic in theory, atheist in practice) and as I have written about France and frequently lived there, I am tempted to comment.

First, the link between France and Christianity is very deep, from King Clovis to Joan of Arc and beyond, France was, more than other countries, a joint creation of the kings and the Church. So, in a way, the French have “been there, done that.”

Second, to my sensibility at least, there is something deliciously naive and provincial – not to mention presumptuous and ghoulish – about setting off to some foreign country to convert people to ‘true religion’ because they have recently suffered mortal loss.

Third, I am not sure how many converts this exercise will produce. The French have a sense of history, and deep memories; and they tend to be very realistic about human nature, which English-speaking people often confuse with Gallic cynicism.

After 1,300,000 deaths and 2,500,000 injured and mutilated in, say, the First World War, or 600,000 in World War Two, and no signs of a religious revival then, I somehow doubt that a machine gun attack by some Islamic religious fanatics — and losers — will convert many to religion.

In addition, France had in the 16th Century, a little bout with the wars of religion, Catholics versus Protestants, which killed, what with slaughter, famine, and disease, between 2,000,000 and 4,000,000 people. This was out of a population of about 20,000,000, so between 10 and 20 percent.

And, more recently, the Catholic Church — with a few courageous exceptions — promoted anti-semitism, as in the Dreyfus case, and backed Vichy France, its alliance with Nazi Germany, and its complicity in the Holocaust.

So, for various reasons, many French people are ‘inoculated’ against religion; and the French State has a number of very good motives for ‘keeping religion in a box’, keeping it out of official political life — and insisting on its ‘private’ nature.

And, speaking of religion and violence, the motives of individual terrorists are of course complex — alienation, sometimes poverty, family problems, identity crises, an inner cultural conflict, feelings of inadequacy, reactions to perceived injustices — in Europe or in the Middle East — experiences of prejudice and racism, etc., but religion, in particular in the Wahhabi and Salafist sects of Islam, is, alas, at the heart of this new form of evil.

Now, of course, you can say this is not ‘true’ religion. But ‘true’ religion is pretty subjective, depending on your reading of the sacred texts.

And religion, whether ‘true’ or not, has been used, as have other ideologies, such as the secular ideologies, very similar in their psychological structure to eschatological religion, of Nazism and Communism, to promote and justify the worst forms of barbarity and cruelty.

So France and the French have seen a lot. They are quite wise in the ways of the world, and quite aware of the crimes of those who speak in the name of God. So ‘turning to God’ may not mobilize the masses.

But, if people do find secour in religion, all power to them!