Oct 112009
(asked by anonymous from somewhere)
What is the general attitude towards religion and spirituality in France — especially among young people in their 20s - 30s? I get the impression that French people tend to think of religion in a pretty traditional and simplistic way (à la traditional organized religion) and have a pretty negative reaction to it. Is this true, or is it just the people I know?
To answer briefly, the general attitude towards religion and spirituality in France -especially among young people (but there isn’t a big difference between generations)- is that French people don’t care that much about them, or are even hostile to them, and in most cases, think strongly that religion is a private matter and shouldn’t spread in the public sphere.
To answer in more details:
Let’s start with a bit more than two centuries ago, before the Revolution. Then, France was a Catholic country; it was the State’s religion, and pretty much everybody’s religion in France. There were a few Protestants and Jewish people, that were more or less tolerated, and that’s pretty much it (I’m talking 18th Century here, I’m not going to tell the whole history of religion in France as what happened before is not that relevant for today’s question).
At the time France was even called “the Church’s Elder Daughter” as it was basically the most powerful Catholic country in the world.
Then, the Revolution happened, and you must understand that the Revolution was basically against inequalities and privileges held by not one but two classes among the population. The aristocracy, but also –some people tend to forget about it- the clergy.
As a consequence, the whole 19th Century was among many other things a struggle between the Church and the State to have control over France’s social fabric. In 1905, the State won with the law of Separation of Church and State.
Let me underline that in France this law is a real thing, not like in some countries that won’t be mentioned where there’s a supposedly such a separation, except that one can find “In God we trust” on coins, where having any religion is accepted but having no religion is regarded as suspicious by many, where a non-Christian President is a quite impossible thing, etc.
So, in France this separation is real and taken very seriously by most citizens.
As a result, religion is tolerated in France but it is and must stay a private matter that should have as little influence on social life as possible.
And don’t believe some statistics that say that a large majority of the French population is Catholic. If it is technically true (or it was until a few decades ago), in practice, Catholicism in France is more of a tradition than a religion. Sure, the majority of French people will get baptized, get married in church and get buried there too, that will most likely be the only three times they’ll go to church in their life (well, one must add other people’s baptisms, weddings and funerals that they will attend of course).
Sure, most official holidays have Catholic names, but their religious meaning has disappeared for most of the population. For example, Christmas is about getting together with the family, eating a lot and exchanging presents, it’s not about celebrating the birth of a guy that was born 2013 ago, we’re not even sure what day exactly. To the point that a lot of non-Christian but religious French families (Jewish or Muslim) celebrate Christmas too. Actually I was really shocked when I learned that non-Christian families tend to not celebrate Christmas in the US. That too show you how non-Christian Christmas has become in France.
So today, the situation is that most French people don’t care about religion at all. A bunch of them will consider themselves Christians (Catholic) but almost all of them will think that it’s a private matter that should not spill in the public sphere. And yes, most French people, even those who consider themselves Christian will be defiant and mistrusting of the Church, which is seen as a reactionary, conservative and outdated institution. And who in their right mind could disagree with them when one hears what the Vatican has to say among many contemporary issues? And if the French knew half of what Protestant Christians think in the US, the reputation of the country would be even worse.
Nowadays the situation seems to be getting a little more complex as fundamentalism seems to be on the rise everywhere including in Western countries, and I have the feeling that some young people are more and more religious. For example, while first generation Muslim people are pretty much as religious as French Catholics can be (remember, they celebrate Christmas), second and especially third generation Muslims seem more religious. But I think that instead of starting to link that to Muslim fundamentalism right away, one should see that as a social and identity issue more than a religious one. They’re second and third generation, so they are French, as French as me or any other French citizen, but still they feel like (and are considered by many as) second class citizens and we all know religions love to prey on the disenfranchised.
But it’s not only a Muslim thing. I have the feeling that I see more and more Orthodox Jews towadays (but that just may come from the fact that I live now in Paris, and that there are almost no Orthodox Jews out of Paris, and especially not in my home area).
And even Christian fundamentalism seems to be on the rise. I have heard of a protest against abortion and a few other women rights recently in Paris. Something scary indeed and unbelievable a few years ago.
But maybe it’s just a feeling that comes from constant media emphasis on the loud minority that makes you oblivious of the silent majority, because I don’t know about mosques and synagogues, but churches keep one getting emptier and emptier every day.
What about other organized religions? They’re pretty much negligible in France (well, there are actually more Protestants than Jews in France, but they have less influence and I guess are more quiet).
What about non-organized religions? Most French people consider them to be either BS or a joke.
A few more or less random numbers about religion in France (straight from Wikipedia):
In a 2003 poll from Le Monde newspaper:
41% consider that the existence of God is excluded or unlikely.
51% consider themselves as Christians.
In the same poll, people consider themselves as:
62% Roman Catholic
6% Muslim
2% Protestant
1% Jewish
2% other
26% no religion.
As you see there are discrepancies in the same poll.
It’s because some people consider themselves Catholic but don’t really believe in God. Remember, tradition, not religion.
In a 2006 poll by Harris Interactive, the French are:
32% Agnostic
32% Atheist
27% believed in some sort of God or a supreme being.
In a 2007 poll mentioned by the US Department of State:
51% are Catholic.
31% have no religious affiliation.
8 to 10% are Muslim.
3% are Protestant.
1% is Jewish.
1% is Buddhist.
8% of Catholics attend mass weekly, 33% of them attend occasionally, and 46% of them attend only for baptism, weddings and funerals. And 52% of Catholics believe God’s existence is “certain or possible”.
Among Muslims, only 36% observe regularly traditional rites and practices, but 88% of them observe Ramadan.

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  2 Responses to “What is the general attitude towards religion and spirituality in France?”

  1. We've had at least one openly non-Christian president in the US: Thomas Jefferson, who had only very nasty things to say (in public) about Christianity. He is also one of the most beloved and esteemed of our former presidents. Odd for a country that supposedly can't stand non-religious people.

  2. Not that odd I think.
    The Founding Fathers and the first Presidents are more symbolic figures than historical ones nowadays, and the trend will continue this way in the future.
    I don't criticize that fact, every nation has (and needs?) symbolical figures whose depiction and "legend" is more or less far from historical facts (just like Vercingetorix, Joan of Arc or St. Louis in France for example).

    What I mean by that is regardless of historical facts (and I also seriously doubt that other prominent figures of the time were hardcore Christians) those characters are seen the way one wants to see them, and a hardcore Christian today will conveniently forget that they were not.

    Finally (and that was my main point really) is that I doubt that a non-Christian President could be elected nowadays. I should have be more clear on that, but as it's borderline off-topic, I didn't see the need, and didn't except anybody to comment on that detail (as it's off-topic)

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