The French have managed to create one of the most glorious civilizations in the history of human societies. French literature and art are sublime, the countryside is almost impossibly lovely, the cities are endlessly charming, the food and wine are without peer. I’m part French myself, on my father’s side, and my Great Uncle, Andre Heintz, who is still living, was a prominent member of the French Resistance in World War II.(1)
In short, it breaks my heart to find myself so critical of what I view as French religious bigotry that is both an ingrained characteristic of the society and a deep threat to it.
In my recent posts I’ve tried to show how truly odd the French response to the Charlie Hebdo killings was. I’ve argued that it had little to do with freedom of expression and a great deal to do with French fear of the consequences of their trivializing attitude toward religion.
I’ve also tried to trace the history of that attitude, from republican loathing of Catholicism (the religion of the French kings) down through French socialism and Communism. I pointed out that France – and much of Western Europe – now finds itself in some very dangerous crosshairs because something like 6.5 billion human beings are religious, many devoutly so, and they don’t take kindly to widespread ridiculing of their beliefs by the French in general and by obscene belittling of it by the likes of Charlie Hebdo in particular.
Finally, I argued that the French attitude, although historically understandable, is based on a serious ignorance of the importance of religion in human affairs for as long as there have been humans.
The most characteristically French view of religion I’ve come across recently was penned by the preposterous Bernard-Henri Lévy in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. In an op-ed entitled “A France United Against Radical Islam,” the key passage reads as follows:
[R]eligions are systems of thought with no greater or lesser status than that of secular ideologies – and … the right to doubt them, debate them and laugh at them, like the right to join or leave them, is the inalienable right of every citizen.(2)
Hello? Religion is entitled to no greater status than secular ideologies like, say, Nazism? Environmentalism? Antidisestablishmentarianism? Lévy’s remark is so absurd we have to assume it’s feigned – this is Lévy, on behalf of the French generally, spouting nonsense to show he’s not intimidated.
It’s probably difficult for most Americans to get their arms around the importance of Islam, so let’s confine ourselves for the moment to Christianity. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but prior to the Christian era the world was a very static place. Traditional Greco-Roman polytheism, typified by Stoicism, launched in Athens in the Third Century BCE and persisting through the height of the Roman Empire, viewed the world as a fixed and perfect place. This implied that the 99.9999% of people who were low-born, or slave-born, would remain so down through all the generations.
But Christianity turned Stoicism on its head. The Christian God, unlike the Greco-Roman gods, was interested in each person for his or her own sake, regardless of the person’s earthly status. Each human person created his own worth in the eyes of God through that person’s own actions, not through some accident of high birth, not through the color of his or her skin, not even through great intellect. Indeed, Christianity valued not the arrogance of the Stoic philosophers, who believed that intellect was supreme, but humility. The humblest among us was as beloved by the Christian God as was the Emperor of Rome.(3)
These were heretical and, in fact, incredible ideas when they were first broached by the early Christians, and even the greatest of the Romans – Marcus Aurelius, for example – massacred Christians because of the threat their ideas posed to the settled order of things. But the ideas of the Christians were so powerful that polytheism, which had dominated the world for six centuries, collapsed in the blink of an eye, essentially within the Third Century CE.(4)
And these ideas, and others either first introduced into human consciousness by Christianity or borrowed by it because of their harmoniousness with Christian thinking, also represent the essential foundation of our modern notions of human equality, human tolerance, human individuality. The French Revolution, just to mention a random event, would have been inconceivable without these ideas.(5)
Yet, this is a religion that is entitled to “no greater or lesser status than that of secular ideologies.” This is one of the three religions – the others being Judaism and Islam – that are obscenely demeaned by a publication celebrated in the streets by three million chanting Frenchmen. If bigotry relies on ignorance to feed it, there is enough ignorance here to sink an entire society.
Although the original target of France’s anti-religious fervor was Catholicism, the brunt of it over the years has been felt by the country’s small Jewish community, representing less than 1% of the population. France’s difficulties with anti-semitism are well-known, but less commented-on is how thoroughly the problem is compounded by anti-religiosity. The narrative in France is not, “They are Jews, and therefore to be despised.” The narrative is subtly different: “They are devoutly religious – Jews, as it happens, but no matter – and therefore to be despised.” France’s anti-semitism is almost never directed at secular Jews, who often rise to high office in French society.
But of course, in more recent years the main target of anti-religious bigotry has been the growing Muslim population in France. Unlike the tiny Jewish community, nearly 10% of the French population is now Islamic and the numbers are growing rapidly. Islam, as I’ve noted, is the highest profile target of Charlie Hebdo. And unlike the Jews, the Muslim community tends to be economically marginalized and culturally isolated.
It can’t be said often enough that there is no excuse for the dreadful crimes of the Kouachi brothers, and Muslims in general have a lot to answer for, especially in their broad failure to denounce terror and religious-inspired murder and their refusal to disavow the more violent, anti-modern parts of the Quran. But let’s not forget that there is a reason the Kouachi killings happened in France. The country has gone very far down an ugly path, a path that gets narrower and darker every day. The travesty of “Je suis Charlie” should be a wakeup call, but I doubt that anyone in France will awaken from this particular nightmare. France has lost itself in the wilderness of irreligion, and there is no obvious way out.
(1) See my posts dated 7/3/14, 7/10/14, 7/17/14, and 7/24/14.
(2) Wall Street Journal, 1/8/15.
(3) The idea of humility is at the core of the wisdom of the greatest Christian thinkers, including St. Augustine (especially in The City of God, where the arrogance of the Stoic philosophers is contrasted with the humility of Christ) and Pascal (especially in the Pensées, where Pascal demolished Stoic philosophy so as to lead the nonbelievers to despair and to embrace Christianity). Note that the original title of the Pensées was Defense of the Christian Religion.
(4) Modern historians continue to be nonplussed by the swift collapse of Stoical polytheism in the face of a religion that had no army. But it seems clear to less arrogantly secular observers that the collapse was inevitable in the face of the power of an idea that appealed to everyone except the elites.
(5) Incidentally, I’m not talking my own book here. The last time I voluntarily attended a church service, JFK was still in the White House. But you don’t have to practice organized religion to recognize the enormous, transformative power of religious thought and belief throughout human history.
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