Notre Dame and the Two Kinds of Secularism

Notre Dame and the Two Kinds of Secularism April 22, 2019

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is iconic for lots of reasons.  Modernism began, according to Tom Oden, when the French revolutionaries in 1789 stripped the cathedral of its religious art and turned it into the “Temple of Reason” by installing in the bishop’s chair a prostitute symbolizing the “Goddess of Reason.”  So it’s hard to resist seeing the burning of Notre Dame–evidently caused by contemporary technology with an electrical short circuit compounded by a computer glitch–as likewise heralding a new age:  the elimination of religion altogether.

France has been especially aggressive in its embrace of secularism, to the point of forbidding not just teachers but students from wearing religious symbols–whether Muslim headscarfs or Christian jewelry–in public schools.

And yet the French are pouring out their hearts lamenting the Notre Dame fire.  It’s ironic that they are willing to do without Christian beliefs and promote expunging the Christian presence from the public square, yet are so heart-broken at the near loss of a Christian building.  Surely Notre Dame, with its towering spire–now fallen and destroyed–in the heart of Paris was more prominent than a little girl’s cross necklace.  If a Christian t-shirt is offensive, why not the Gothic cathedral that dominates the skyline?

President Macron has vowed that Notre Dame will be rebuilt.  It took generations of Christians to build Notre Dame–construction started in 1160 and was completed in 1260, though additional work continued for centuries–but the plans now are to rebuild it in 5 years, in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024.  But can secularists build a cathedral?  Do they have the worldview for it?  Won’t a secularist “temple” look more like the Pompidou Center?

Yet French citizens of all faiths and no faith have been contributing millions of Euros to rebuild Notre Dame. “I’m an atheist,” one fundraiser said, “but this is beyond religion.”  What is it, then?  Beauty? Culture?  The quality of being French; that is to say, Nationalism?  Usually, what you consider “beyond”–that is, what transcends the mundane–is your religion.  Beauty or culture or France might be this atheist’s religion.  In his mind, Notre Dame is a temple for that.  But such material things are not “beyond” anything–unless, that is, there is a truly transcendent realm that gives them their meaning.

It’s healthy that the French are so attached to their cathedral, even though so few of them worship in it, or in anywhere else.  Notre Dame is part of French history and culture, and so is Christianity.  People have taken both for granted.  Just as the French would find the loss of the cathedral painful, they will find the loss of Christianity painful.

The cathedral, it turns out, was not completely destroyed.  The basic structure survived.  The same can be said of Christianity in France and the rest of “secularist” Europe.  Ironically, one effect of the fire has been a resurgence of worship, praise, and expressions of faith.

Meanwhile, French-speaking Quebec is considering a law banning all religious symbols for “public workers” in positions of authority.  Journalist Tracey Lindeman says of the ensuing controversy in Canada, “The debate also pits two ideas of secularism against one another: A stricter European interpretation and a North American version that embraces the idea of religious freedom.”

The European secularist impulse, she explains, is to expunge religion.  The American approach is not for the government to establish a religion but rather to promote religious liberty for everyone.  I would say that a society with religious liberty in which large numbers of individuals embrace a religion is not, strictly speaking, secularist at all.  But the distinction does explain the difference between the American “separation of church and state” and the French policy of laïcité.

Some American secularists, ironically, would like to take the European approach.  But perhaps Europe could learn to adopt the American approach, even though religious liberty tends to produce more religion rather than less.  Perhaps the burning of Notre Dame could mark the beginning of that era.


Photo by Antoninnnnn, his own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


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