TIME takes on French "secular fundamentalism"


This story from TIME is a nice look at the changing tone of secularism in France, which I think is a very under-reported story.

This story makes the argument that secularists in France are developing a "fundamentalist" orientation that is an important departure from the historical intentions of "laïcité".  The reporter starts out calling the new secularism "militant", which is probably where he should have left it: 

Whereas secularism — or laïcité — traditionally sought to create a wall between religious expression and the public domain, critics claim its defenders have become far more militant . . . France's secularists, who dominate public life and debate, are exhibiting a quasi-evangelical zeal in imposing the values of laïcité on the private observance of religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

I like the story overall, but I have to take issue with two things:

* There are no quotes in the story from any of the parties to the debate.  No Catholic, no secularist, no government and no Muslim voices are invited to speak directly to the question.

The key quotes in the article are good, but they come from an academic, Jean Baubérot, a professor and "expert on secularism" at Paris University's École Pratique des Hautes Études.  He says:

"Now we frequently see secularists urging the state to intervene in the private religious affairs or practices of people or organizations . . . Increasingly, secularity resembles what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a 'civil religion': the values and dogma of a state that individual citizens must submit to — or be made to respect."

I like academics.  I am one.  And raising the issue of civil religion in France (and blaming Jean Jaques Rousseau) is absolutely spot on and intellectually honest. 

But how about letting someone with a dog in the fight respond to that claim? 

I would be particularly interested in hearing what older Catholics (lay people or clergy) who lived in the years after the 1905 secularity law was installed - and who the story says were the initial targets of the law - think about what's going on today.  Do Catholics see any parallels?  Or is the secularity vs. Islam debate about new issues now?  

* The second problem I have is bringing the word "fundamentalist" into the debate at all.  We and our colleagues at GetReligion remark frequently on the very unique historical, U.S.-Protestant roots of that word and media's too-frequent misuse of it. 

Other than using the term to discuss early 20th Century evangelical thought, "fundamentalist" is one of the most out-of-context and inflammatory terms a writer could use. And, yet, here we go again: 

Green Party politicians in the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois aired concern in July over the city's decision to create meat-free menus in public-school cafeterias. The move, critics claimed, was fine for vegetarians but would look too much like acquiescence to Muslim parents who had requested halal meat in school lunches.

To some observers, such protests sound a lot like secular fundamentalism

But I get what the reporter is going for here with "secular fundamentalism".  He's just trying to say this new approach to secularism is "bad" and makes the secularists just as bad as, you know, the regular fundamentalists.

I agree with the point the reporter's making, though not the manner in which he makes.  Still, the topic of the secular advance and secular reactionism in Europe is a very important religion story, and I commend TIME for taking it up. 

Read the full story.