Secularism is not the Answer

NOTE: This is not a post about Islam. Although the story that inspired this post was about opposing Islam with secularism in France, this is not a commentary on the validity of various forms of that religion.

I listened to an NPR story the week before Christmas that piqued my interest. The story was about an important issue in light the contemporary debate about religion, terrorism, and the public square. It dealt with an attempt by one French woman to promote secularism to young Muslims in France. 

The whole thing is about four minutes long and is worth a listen.

While the author of the article, Eleanor Beardsley, doesn't provide overt commentary on the woman's activity, this is an article that is promoting a particular view of religion. The activist, Ziaten, is promoting secularism and Beardsley is implicitly lauding it.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript that illustrates the argument:

Amand Riquier, the principal of the high school Ziaten is visiting in the northern suburbs of Paris, says so far, no students have radicalized. But teachers are always looking for the signs, such as a sudden and zealous display of religiousness.
Secularism is one of France's most important values, up there with equality, fraternity and liberty. In French schools, neither students nor teachers can come to class wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim veil or the Jewish skullcap.
Riquier says Madame Ziaten's visit is important.
"She'll be able to explain to them that secularism in schools is not meant to constrain their faith, but is a necessary principle for us all to live together in harmony and equality," he says.
Ziaten tells the students how she moved to France from Morocco at the age of 17. She tells the kids this country gave her — and her French-born children — every opportunity.
She says boys like Mohamed Mehra, and those who attacked Paris this year, were abandoned by their families and society. She says they are utter failures who know nothing about Islam.
Islam is not at war with Europe, Ziaten emphasizes. She tells the students that some are trying to turn Islam into an identity. But it's a religion, she says, and it's a private matter.
"Your identity is French," she says. "And you have a future to build in France."

Enforced Secularism

Based on this worldview, religion is a private matter. It doesn't belong in the public square. 

The argument here is that banning religious expressions in public is necessary for living together. The signs of trouble are when students begin to live religiously.

Used in unaltered form via Creative Common License:

Used in unaltered form via Creative Common License:

In other words, religion is ok unless you actually live like it's true. The only forms of religion that are acceptable, by this standard, are those that don't make a difference in the way that you live.

Unfortunately, that defies the very nature of religion. Every meaningful religion makes demands. Sometimes those are consistent with the standards of the world and at other times they are not. Telling people they can't live out their faith is telling them that their faith does not matter, and that their religion isn't true. That is problematic.

In this case, it makes the assumption that the values of secularism are superior to all other religions. 

The Values of Worldviews

There is no such thing as a neutral worldview. Every worldview has values.

Beardsley acknowledges this in her article, "Secularism is one of France's most important values, up there with equality, fraternity and liberty."

The naked public square isn't naked; it's filled to the brim with values that make totalizing demands on life. In this case, one of the most significant values is 'secularism,' which in this context appears to mean denying the significance of religion.

So secularism is making religious claims, but without the argumentation. This doesn't promote liberty, it promotes a tyranny of the mind and soul. It makes absolute claims on every part of life, but without the warrant for it.


I've heard it said that Europe is usually a generation ahead of the US culturally. Many people make moral arguments based on what Europe does, especially about social policies. The assumption appears to be that they are doing it right and the US is dragging behind. However, before we support the tyrannical secularism that France has, we need to consider whether true religious liberty should be sacrificed for that purpose. Not allowing people to practice their religion openly and being overtly hostile to public demonstrations of faith may make it easier to live together, but it may make it harder to live.

While France's anti-religious policies may limit the radicalization of Muslims in public, it may also override the basic right to a freedom of conscience. That seems a high price to pay for peace.