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Invisible Religion

Did you know that today is Pentecost? Do you think anyone you know who is not Christian knows it?

I can guarantee you almost every French person, Christian or not, knows that this weekend is Pentecost. Why? Because the day after, called Pentecost Monday, is a bank holiday in France. 

France has, in addition to Pentecost Monday, five other Catholic bank holidays in the calendar year: Christmas, Easter Monday, Ascension Thursday, the Assumption of Mary in August, and Toussaint in November. Any tourist visiting France can also plainly see its ties to Catholicism in its magnificent cathedrals.

And yet, in spite of this visible Catholic tradition in France, one of the most paradoxical things about living here is the effort the state makes to erase any signs or references to religion.

Officially, the French state is laïque, a term which can be roughly translated to the (enforced) separation of church and state. Laïcité is technically a term used in the French constitution, whose goal is to protect the government from “involvement in religious affairs, and prevent the involvement of religious affairs in government affairs”[1]. This basically translates to the absence of religion in the public sector in France, obviously in the government, but also in schools and any other public places.

There’s even now a part of the government cabinet devoted to making sure that laïcité is observed, called the Observatoire de la laïcité. The job of this cabinet, headed by the prime minister, is essentially to teach people how NOT to talk about religion, or for a more nuanced explanation, to help civil servants and state workers understand how to respect the policy of laïcité.

Photo credits: see bottom of page

But a negative definition, in other words saying that religion is simply absent from the public sphere, is a hard policy to keep. Like other issues in France, laïcité, rather than effacing religion from the public sphere, in my opinion, only makes it more glaring.

Take the controversy of Muslim headscarves worn in public school as an example. Allowing girls to wear religious headscarves or veils, or allowing them other “special treatment” such as not participating in physical education, were seen as forms of discrimination favoring their religion. And so, all religious symbols were banned in the interest of keeping the public space of schools free from this type of discrimination.

This example also represents the increasing number of children from immigrant families coming from countries where Islam is the dominant religion. I recently had a conversation with a public grade school teacher who told me her students (at least two thirds of whom are from families of North African descent) asked her if she observed Ramadan. She responded to them that she couldn’t answer because it would indicate her religion, and added that France is a laïque state in which this type of conversation cannot take place in school.

Having such a serious conversation with grade school children seems a little extreme to me, but I think it also illustrates how early laïcité is taught, it’s something all children see at school and understand that it’s a core value of their French republican state.

To understand the call for laïcité, you have to know a little about French history.
At the time of the revolution in the late 18th century, religion and the state combined were seen as a threat because of the corrupt monarchy, which claimed its legitimacy from God and the church. Extreme measures were taken to dissociate religion from the newly established state. Thus was born what has evolved into the term laïcité.  

It’s understandable, then, that Americans and the French do not see eye to eye on religion, and I would argue, have a hard time conceiving one another’s system. The French system, to me, sometimes seems overly alarmist with this issue of religion.

After all, I come from a country where the newly elected president often swears on the Bible. Where on our money it is written ‘In God We Trust’. Where as a child I recited the “Pledge of Allegiance” everyday at school. It’s pretty easy, as an American, to think, “What’s the big deal?”

All of the examples I gave above are commonly known, stereotypical artifacts about the United States, and they baffle French people. You have to imagine, I suppose, little French children being raised from their youngest years hearing in school that religion is separate from the state. Probably 80 percent of French people I know are self-professed atheists. Most of the church-going or religious people I know are over 70 years old and I barely know any young people who would admit to believing in God.

My sense is that the general accepted discourse in France is one of anti-religion, as in the French will openly talk about the fact that they don’t need religion, or that belief in a religion (especially a Christian denomination) is for the feeble minded. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t religious people in France. It just means that, in my opinion, it’s not as socially accepted to talk about religion and religious beliefs in an open way. The former president, Sarkozy, was apparently Catholic. I only learned this last year, even though he was president until from 2007-2012.

I would say this is in stark contrast with the US, where, on the contrary I generally see religion, particularly Christian denominations, as a cultural phenomenon. God is implicitly represented in our government and its foundation. And it’s also, I would say, culturally acceptable and positively viewed to talk about God and church.

So in short, France chooses a route of absence of religion in public life. This task is complicated given its strong ties and history of Catholicism, and the challenges faced with the integration of its increasing immigrant population, which is often not Christian but Muslim. In the US, the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the government cannot establish a national religion. But the fact of the matter is that the US has a strong Christian tradition, and culturally, it’s all over the place. Unlike France, we don’t have nearly as many qualms expressing it.

This is what I’ll be thinking about on Pentecost Monday, on my day off. 

Photo credits: Rursus, Religious syms, 8 June 2014,


  1. Hi! I like your blog. As a french woman I can"t understand religion in the USA. Imagine if your president, someone who should represent you, talk about allah instead of god, is there is an islamic sentence on your monney..etc.. you woold probably feel forgotten or think it is unfair... That's french point of view. Everybody should whose a religion or not and we think a politician have not the right to ask you to pray if you don't want to..

  2. Thanks, Hélène, it's always interesting to see a French point of view on religion in the US. And in the same way, it's often difficult for us to understand why other countries don't do things like we do!


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