How should we account for the apparent paradox that, although more and more people are describing themselves as non-believers, “religion” seems to be more present than ever in the public square?
That’s the question at the heart of a July report published by the French Observatoire de la laïcité, a Government agency that guides the French State in the implementation of secularism, the principle of strict neutrality towards religions enshrined in the country’s Constitution.
Driving the news
The Observatoire report was sent last month to French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, as Evangelical Focus reports.
The twelve-page document starts from the premise that “after 2010, many analysts described the Western as anchored in the secular age. To the contrary, current events seem to provide examples of an eventual return of religiosity”.
The Observatoire report cites controversies around Europe on issues such as the Islamic headscarf, male circumcision or Catholic opposition to euthanasia, among other polemics, as evidence for this apparent “return of religiosity”.
The Observatoire considers in its report six factors which are driving this seeming “return to religion”.
- “The installation in ‘Metropolitan France’ [French territories inside Europe] of religions previously seen as ‘foreign’ (Islam, Buddhism and certain expressions of evangelical Protestantism)”
- “The redeployment of religions in a deeply secularized society”
- A “retreat to religion”, particularly among disaffected youth in Muslim-majority neighbourhoods
- “The weakening of secular ideologies (liberalism, socialism, nationalism, etc.)”
- The “mixture of cultures” in the case of migrants, “that can have consequences on how one expresses one’s religious culture”
- The “refuge” religion offers “against the uncertainties of tomorrow (ecological, economic, social and political): for the Observatoire, “the most common and best known” factor contributing to the apparent increase in the visibility of religion
The big picture
These six factors lead the Observatoire to conclude that “we are not faced with a ‘return of religion’, but more exactly with ‘a recourse to religion'”.
The experts also blame “the unequal presentation of religious expression by certain opinion makers” for the “perception of a greater visibility of Islam” in particular.
The Observatoire report ends with a summary of the latest sociological findings on religious adherence in France.
Although almost 20 million people identify with Roman Catholicism, only 3% of the general population attends a church service once a week, the document says.
That’s compared with the 2.6% of the French population who say they are practising Muslims, and the 1.4% who declare themselves to be practising Protestants.