Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité……..Laïcité

A programme by this name was aired yesterday on Radio 4 (you can still download it) and it set me thinking about the French position on religion. As we know the Enlightenment in France and the ensuing revolution, gave primacy to reason in opposition, as it was then seen, to the Catholic church’s obscurantism and its unfortunate closeness to the Ancien Régime. This was enshrined in the various Republics that followed, and ratified around a hundred years after the revolution in the 1905 act, which ensured the secular nature of the state. This caused a deal of conflict but the state held firm and, today we hear Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister stridently affirming “La laïcité, c’est le coeur de la République et de l’école!” in the wake of the Bataclan atrocities. This follows on from the laws passed in 2004 which banned the wearing of religious symbols and clothing in public. For all of this one has to applaud the consistency of the French state. It has nailed the revolutionary colours to the mast in no uncertain terms and stuck to them.

One has to ask, though, is the French position an enviable one? To be consistent the French have to say that supporting a climate in which Charlie Hebdo could show the Prophet Mohammed, along with Rabbis and the Pope being buggered in large cartoons on its front page or the Trinity participating in a graphic ménage à trois on the same front page is sensible and a positive and helpful thing. Of course, with our moral climate and political complexion, such things would never be allowed. Now, I would aver that our refusal to countenance this sort of thing is not due to a lack of moral courage or to being dictated to by fanatics. It is not that we are craven. It is simply due to a certain British realism; the same sort of realism suggested by George Orwell in his critiques of socialism in Animal Farm and The Road to Wigan Pier. Political agendas are fine as long as they take human nature into account, in other words. The French seek to exclude religion from the public forum by decree, which is a decision which has much to be said for it, except for the fact that it ignores human nature. I take no particular stance in this debate with regard to faith but feel compelled to make certain observations on the matter.

Whenever you see archeologists and anthropologists on television digging up ancient civilisations, one of the first signs of such civilization, apart from the desire to produce jewelry, is the production of religious artifacts. In some sense it seems to define what we are. Animals don’t do it but we do. We do it instinctively; it is, as they say, in our DNA. Perhaps there is some alignment with the fact that we seem to be the only ‘animal’ that has self-awareness and is able to reflect on its condition, its mortality etc. When Russian communism collapsed after 80 years or so, it was notable how quickly the Russian Orthodox Church re-established itself as a force to be reckoned with and how many Russians found their way back to it. As I say, I don’t comment personally on the rightness or wrongness of this and am well aware of the pungent modern strand of atheist secularism that seeks to blame all our woes down the centuries on religion, (carefully ignoring the fact that Hitler and Stalin were by no means driven by religion). I simply say that, to try and separate human nature surgically from religion as, perhaps, the French state feels compelled to do, given its history, is an extremely tricky and, perhaps, dangerous operation. It may be partly why France has come in for so much of the terrorists’ attention in recent times. French secularism is, by definition, militant and, perhaps, therefore, invites opposing militancies.

I’m not sure that there is an easy solution to this conundrum as, as Valls defiantly declaimed, “La laïcité, c’est la République.”

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