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Secular Americans

Understanding American "Nots"

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in Canada Secular?

Secularity in Great Britain

Läicité and Secular Attitudes in France

Secularism: The Case of Denmark

Secularism in India

The Secular Israeli Jewish Identity

Secularism in Iran: a Hidden Agenda?
















Läicité and Secular Attitudes in France

By Nathalie Caron

The American notion of “being secular” has no easy translation in the French language and context. Part of the difficulty stems from the ambivalence of the use of the term secular in the United States.

A second difficulty in defining who is secular in France is that although the adjective secular can easily be translated into French by séculier (from the Latin saeculum i.e., “century,” and then “world,” as in English) the translation that spontaneously although somewhat grudgingly comes to a French mind is laique, which associates the initial question “who’s secular?” with issues of läicité. Institutionalized and immortalized in 1905 by the law on the separation of Church and State, läicité is an essential component of French identity and exceptionalism.

 The French are all secular

As French political leaders like to emphasize, the French Republic rests on a secular ideal, called läicité. It is the “grammar which enables the different religions to talk to each other,” the “pillar” of the French model of integration, the “cornerstone of the republican pact.”[1] Article 1 of the 1958 Constitution states: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.” As a result, a French citizen is necessarily secular and is expected to appreciate the notion of laïcité as a value inherent in republicanism, which it enhances by ensuring the equal treatment of all religions and by protecting freedom of religion and of conscience.

The word läicité, coined in the 1870s, comes from the Greek “laos,” which designates the unity of a population: “The laic [layman] is a man of the people, whom no prerogative distinguishes or elevates above the others …. He can be the faithful member of a particular religious group, but also someone with an atheistic worldview, the founding conviction of which is distinct from that which inspires religion.” Läicité refers to an institutional system informed by a secular worldview that determines a civic and moral ideal, unifies the community, and legitimates sovereignty.

Scholars have distinguished between laicisation  and secularization and shown that laicisation aimed to reduce the social significance of religion as an institution by engaging political power, whereas secularization is the outcome of social evolutions to which political power adapted or in which it participated.

Läicité is a result of a historical process of laicisation which started during the Revolution when the old monarchical regime collapsed and with it the religious origin of sovereignty.  Napoleon’s Concordat in 1801 recognized the Catholic Church as the majority religion, while preserving the religious liberty acquired by the Revolution. 

In the 19th century, a fierce confrontation opposed the “two Frances,” a Catholic France and a republican France. Put differently, two different visions waged “a war of religion,” the vision of those who considered that France was the “eldest daughter of the Church ” (“la fille aïnee de l’Eglise”) and that of those who saw France as the daughter of the Revolution.  Religion was no longer taught in schools, but one school-free week day was made available for religious education.

As the relationship among church, state, and society became less strained, compromises were reached under the acceptance of a “secular pact” (pacte laique). Attitudes towards religion became more benevolent, less hostile, “more open.” Today, laïcité is widely accepted. Contrary to what is often said, the 1905 law had not confined religion to the private sphere, but it had privatized the institution of religion by giving religious groups the status of non-profit associations. Laïcité does not exclude religious expression from the public sphere, but respects all beliefs by establishing a distinction between an individual’s private life and his public dimension as citizen, based on the idea that “it is as a private individual that, in his personal life, an individual adopts spiritual or religious convictions, or does not, which he can of course share with others.”

And yet, France is a secular state with a Catholic culture as the persistence of the religious elements in French public life demonstrates. One striking example is the number of public holidays in the French calendar-—Easter Monday, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost Monday, Assumption Day, All Saints’ Day, Christmas—the Christian orientation of which comes under regular criticism by secularists or members of religious minorities.

Some are more secular than others

Despite, or rather because of, the compromises reached under the secular pact, laïcité became a hot topic of debate again when the left and then the right sought to reform the status of private, mostly Catholic, schools. In 1984, the left sought to unify the private and state systems of education and, in 1994, the right favored resorting to public funding for the construction of private religious schools.

As in other secular countries, laïcité is now confronted with issues of pluralism. The main change France is being faced with is the growing presence of Islam, which is now France’s second religion.  Other changes must also be taken into account, testifying, in the context of globalization and Europeanization, to the vitality of religion within the secular framework, namely the arrival of North African Jews in the 1960s who had a much more visible religious culture than the already existing Jewish population, the increasing visibility of evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism, the attraction of Buddhism, as well as the multiplication of “new religious movements” and its related fear of “cults.”


The French are obsessed by laïcité, but they know little about it and also about what it is supposed to protect, namely religions.They have reservations about religion in the world, but tend to ignore the evolution of private religiosity in France. Looking at the cherished French idea through American glasses at a time when it is challenged by the vitality of religion and confronted with pluralism provides useful insights into the transformation of French society. Conversely, probing into the uses, meanings, and interpretations of the term “secular” from foreign viewpoints should help assess the significance of the controversial use of the term in the United States.

1“ Republican pact ” has become a buzz phrase in French political rhetoric. It was popularized by General De Gaulle in the mid-1940s to refer to what united the French when the Fourth Republic was created following WW2.



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