Secularism and Laicite

I have recently returned to France from England where I attended the Secular 2014 Conference which was held in London this past weekend. It was an incredible conference and I’m sure I will be referring to it quite a bit over the next few weeks. For now, I’m going to limit myself to one short subject since I wrote about it a week or so ago.

To summarize very briefly what I said, the word “secularism” appears to have two principle meanings. One is primarily a political concept, and is the way I prefer to use it, indicating the concept that the state should remain neutral in matters of religion. The other meaning is close to atheism or humanism. I also stated that the concept of state neutrality in matters of religion is so important to a prosperous, human state that comprises people of multiple views on religion that we really should have an unambiguous term.

At the conference, I was impressed by the unanimity of the Francophones in the resistance to the term “secularism.” I, myself, had always felt that it was an adequate translation of the French concept of “laïcité.” However, multiple speakers, including Caroline Fourest, Nadia El Fani, insisted on using the French word, which was accompanied by some grumbling on the part of Anglophones as well as Allophones. I might have been inclined to agree with the grumbling if I hadn’t just done some research on the use of the word “secularism” and found it to be disappointingly plastic.

The term “laïcité” is, at least in my mind, most associated with the political changes that followed the French Revolution and the ideas of the French Enlightenment that preceded it. However, the Wikipedia entry traces the term much further back into history than that.

In pre-Christian antiquity, there was no separation of religious and political power. Roman emperors were considered divined and played a role in the religion of the empire.

The teachings of Jesus are sometimes cited as examples of the principle of the separation of Chuch and State, for example in Mark 12:17: “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God that which belongs to God.” André Gounelle recalls that regarding the discussions about the law of Separation of Church and State, Aristide Briand refers several times to a passage from Luke and considers that certain Christians, along with Stoics, were among the first to deny “that the state had a role to play in determining the relationship between God and human beings.” (Source: Wikipedia. Translation: Mine)

In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius I wrote of the difference of temporal power and spiritual power, which is seen as prefiguring the Catholic Church’s concept of “Two Swords.” This concept is derived from a bull issued by Pope Boniface VIII in the fourteenth century which asserts that temporal powers are subordinate to the Church. At the same time, the concept of the Divine Right of Kings held that monarchs received their authority to rule directly from God. These concepts led to many conflicts between secular and ecclesiastical authorities in Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

Despite older origins of the word rooted in the latin word “laicus,” meaning the common people, our contemporary understanding of the word “laïcité” is derived from the Enlightenment and, like so many of our modern political concepts, can be traced to John Locke.

Although the freedom of thought, conscience and expression were strongly promoted by an array of Enlightenment thinkers, much like the English term “secularism,” the French term “laïcité” was not coined until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Unlike the English term, however, the French term arose in a more obviously political context, during the Paris Commune and during the Third Republic. In this context, the term “laïcité” takes on a connotation of a communal organization that allows for the coexistence of individuals belonging to different spiritual traditions. Although the Francophones did not adequately explain why they preferred the French term to its English equivalent, I suspect this association with peaceful coexistence accounts for part of their preference.

Jean Baubérot, a French historian and sociologist specializing in the sociology of religions, describes the concept of laïcité as comprising three ideas, a secular state, a guarantee of freedom of conscience and the equality of different religions.

A secular state most protects minority beliefs and, since atheists are a minority everywhere, it is unsurprising that we are everywhere associated with the advocacy of a secular state. However, as Ted Cruz found out while speaking to an organization defending persecuted Christians, religious people frequently support a secular state when they belong to a minority religion. Several of the speakers at the conference emphasized that they did consider themselves adherents of a religion. It is important to separate atheism from need for a secular state. It is clear that the English term “secularism” is vague to a great many people all over the political spectrum. As I suggested in my earlier post, if we cannot clarify the term, perhaps we should adopt another. With that in mind, I have been wondering the past few days if adopting the French term and Anglicizing it as “laicity” might be useful and effective.

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