Discussions about the role of religion in public life are quite common here in the Hexagon. And that's a bit surprising when you consider that this is a country where church attendance is dropping (to the delight of the secularists and to the dismay of the Catholic church) and where other religions only make up a small percentage of believers. For all the concern about Moslems, they are barely 5% of the religously affiliated. The numbers are even lower for Protestant Christians (3%) and Jews (1%).
A solid majority of French (64% in 2009) self-identify as Roman Catholics compared to 81% in 1952. The number of those who actually attend Mass regularly (the messalisants) is down to about 4%; it was 27% in 1952. The number of individual sans religion has been slowly growing - it was 21% in 1987 and it was 28% in 2009.
You can read more about those numbers and what's behind them in this analysis from IFOP: Le catholicisme en France en 2009.
France is not the world. What happens here is not even necessarily representative of Europe, a region with enormous diversity. The most we can say is that France has some influence in the matter of religion versus the state and public life which one can see reflected in the current political fight over the proposed Quebec Charter.
I approach the topic of religion in France, in the United States and in the world with a great deal of curiosity. On one hand I am a believing Roman Catholic but I was raised in a country where Catholicism is not the majority religion. In my home country, the U.S. the separation of church and state (in many ways even stronger than in France) has led to a lively religious pluralism and a majority of croyants of many different faiths. In France that didn't happen. True, the religous landscape here is slightly more pluralist than in times past but this has not led to an explosion of faith among the population here. On the contrary, it feels (and this is a purely subjective feeling on my part) a lot like the choice is binary: Catholicism or nothing. A very limited religious menu.
And the question I had to ask myself, of course, was which country is the outlier: France or the U.S.? If we lift up our heads from our purely local view, do we see a religious decline or do we see a resurgence of faith in the world?
Peter Berger argues for the latter in his introduction a very nice volume of essays entitled The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Berger is a very well-known sociologist and he's written a number of books about the sociology of religion. After reading a MacArthur Foundation report about religious fundamentalism, Berger had an epiphany - this million dollar report which tried to shed light on religion and anti-progressive forces in the world instead seemed to show that religion was not only alive and well but actually growing in many parts of the world. Not just in places that were "backward" but in places that were fully engaged in becoming modern developed countries. The idea that somehow "progress" requires (or automatically leads to) a decline in religious expression is not consistent with the facts. Berger came to this conclusion:
"My point is that the assumption that we live in a secular world is false. The world today, with some exception to which I will come presently, is as furiously religious as it ever was, and in some places more so than ever. This means that a whole body of literature by historians and social scientist loosely labeled 'secularization theory' is essentially mistaken."
That may be going a bit too far. Jose Casanova qualifies this statement by pointing that there are three separate ideas that can be pulled out from the overall argument about secularization and modernity:
1. Separation of church and state. A legal framework that keeps religion out of the business of the state and vice versa.
2. A decline of religious belief and practices like church attendance or baptisms or marriages in the synagogue.
3. Attempts to remove religion from ALL public spheres so that it no longer is part of the public discourse whether we are talking about politics and/or the pressing moral questions of our time.
If what we call secularism is simply separation of church and state then, yes, most (not all) modern states do this and the U.S. is, in this respect, just as secular as France (perhaps even more so since the US, with one exception, does not permit religious holiday to be public holidays and does not subsidize religious schools).
It's the other two that are more problematic. Clearly, the separation of church and state in many countries did not lead to a decline in religious observance. Instead it created a world where there's a kind of marketplace of faith where people can and do change their religious affiliation as they please. It may be that because the churches must compete for members, they tend to be a bit louder and a lot more visible. It's not Mormon or nothing or Catholicism or nothing or Islam or nothing, it's a broad range of churches, mosques and synogogues with different ideas and dogmas. Is this religious pluralism exceptional? Not really. Looking at South America or Africa or even Asia what we see today alongside the traditional religions is increasing pluralism and a change in religious affiliation. Brazil, secular since 1891 in the church/state sense, was traditionally Catholic but now has many converts to evangelical and pentacostal churches. Something similar seems to be happening in Mexico. In Taiwan, the top 3 religions were Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity and 81% of the 23 million people on that island belong to one of these or other sects.
So what's up with Europe? Even here it's not entirely clear. Grace Davie (and her book Religion in Modern Europe is next up on my to-read list) takes a shot at interpreting some interesting data from the 1990's. What we can say is that Europe does have a common Christian heritage whether we're talking about France, Poland, Germany or any other of the 28 countries in the EU. Looking at the European Values Study she sees evidence that Western Europeans are "unchurched" and yet though their participation has dropped, they have not abandoned completely their religious inclinations. When asked about such things as belief in God, a soul after death, heaven and other things of a supernatural nature, a surprising number of Europeans (even in very secular countries) said they did believe in these things. In France 57% indicated a belief in a higher power - the lowest of all the countries polled but still a significant number. All the other countries ranged from around 60 to 90+%. However, France is an outlier in the sense that it does have a higher percentage of individual who are not affiliated with any religion whatsoever.
Is it because there is the large minority (and, yes, the unaffiliated are still in the minority) that calls for a more complete secularization of French society are so strident and so invested in removing all traces of religion from the public sphere? Maybe. But the argument that somehow all this is an indication that France is a more modern nation as a result, just doesn't hold water. Other perfectly modern countries are still quite religious and that doesn't seem to prevent them from being successful.
Other explanations will have to be found and one place I would look is in the area of religious pluralism. Starting from the fact that separation of church and state is pretty widespread in most modern democratic nation-states, why is it that France, unlike countries like the US, Canada and Brazil, does not have much religious diversity? Where is the marketplace of faith? That it doesn't exist here (and you can argue with that proposition) says that there is something different about this country. Exactly what, I'm not sure but it's worth thinking about.
One argument I've considered seriously is the conjunction between national identity and religion in France. What the unchurched and the Catholics here have in common (in my view) is the sense that being an atheist or being a Roman Catholic is compatible with a French identity while being a Protestant Christian or Moslem isn't. So my hypothesis would be: for the French who have a deep attachment to a French identity or who feel that this identity is threatened in some way, there are only two plausible socially acceptable religious options: be a Catholic or be an agnostic/atheist. All the other possibilities for so many I talk with are simply unthinkable.
I sense a very strong resistance to any sort of religious pluralism here which makes it very difficult for other religions to come in and "compete" in order to gain converts. If this is true then that says something about the neutrality opf French society and the state vis a vis organized religion. It's not religion per se that is the problem, it's other religions that are a threat.