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'Religion: a private affair?' A rebuttal of a commonplace idea by Christine Delphy

Mike Watson17 February 2015

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The author of Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression and the forthcoming Dominating Others: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror interrogates the new French state secularism.

Among other forms of intellectual, ethical and political regression, since the massacres of 7–9 January we’ve seen a brutal and authoritarian neo-laïcisme [French state secularism] coming back into force. And let’s say it frankly: it’s targeted against Muslims. Indeed, this neo-laïcisme radically subverts whatever may have been emancipatory about secularist thought and legislation between 1880 and 1905. More particularly, today we’re again hearing the absurd refrain about the supposedly secularist need for religion to stay ‘personal’ and ‘limited to the private sphere’.

For all these reasons, we thought it opportune to republish a short but punchy history lesson, taken from a book whose title [Un universalisme si particulier; ‘A very particular universalism’] is, unfortunately, once again very much relevant...  


Though it is a constant element of laïcard [aggressively secularist, in an atheist key] propaganda, the idea that religion belongs to the ‘private sphere’ is rarely contested. No one ever defines this ‘private sphere’: the term ‘private’ has many different definitions depending on the context, including as regards law. The laïcards are anti-Muslim, and mask their opposition to this particular religion in claiming to be opposed to all religions.

Since they can’t do that too openly – religious freedom being written into all national and international conventions – they play on the idea of ‘conscience’.

In this view, religious freedom is a matter of ‘conscience’; and since your conscience is shut away within your brain, whatever’s within it must never come out. Since 1989 – the year of Badinter and Finkielkraut’s famous article attacking the Islamic veil [1] – we have constantly been exhorted to consider religion a ‘private’ affair or even a ‘personal’ one, which must only ever be expressed when you are by yourself. It’s a bit like going to the toilet in the privacy of your own cubicle.

This is obviously absurd: it would mean having the right to think whatever I like (within my own conscience) but not to say it. Which also suggests drawing an equals sign between beliefs – whether religious or otherwise – and practices that are somehow obscene, or at least indecent. But then again, that doesn’t go for all beliefs, since the belief that God does not exist (which happens to be my own) gets a big tick, and unlike other beliefs it gets a free pass – you can express it wherever you please.

The laïcards don’t attack freedom of expression, but defend it; and they would even be right to do so, if only they weren’t so selective. For them, this right is absolute when it comes to ridiculing Muslims and Islam, but not when you draw a policeman with a pig’s nose, which is a grave insult against the state – indeed, it’s close to blasphemous [2].

But how can they uphold this principle, at the same time as insisting that religion is ‘a private matter’? Freedom of expression means nothing if it is just the freedom to communicate with… myself. If other people can’t see or hear it, it would be materially impossible to prohibit it, in any case; and as such, it wouldn’t need protecting. So the freedom of expression we defend is always, by definition, freedom of public expression. The word ‘public’ has to be taken as a given.

The current misunderstanding about laïcité

Not only do French law and international conventions not say that religion is a private matter, but they say the opposite. The famous 1905 [French secularism] law has been the object of a complete misunderstanding ever since the Islamic veil affair. Some would have us believe that this law disapproves of religion, and even that it fights against it in the name of ‘reason’. This argument suggests a hidden synonymy between ‘reason’ and ‘atheism’: only atheism is ‘reasonable’, and if you want to stay on the side of reason then you necessarily have to become an atheist. This conception thus creates a hierarchy setting atheism above other beliefs, and as we have seen in France over the last decade and more, it ends up pleading for the underhand transformation of atheism into a state religion. This view of the need for everyone to believe the same thing dates back to the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when atheism had to defend itself against a royal absolutism that compelled everyone to be a Catholic. Those who were not Catholics were persecuted; and for that reason, they demanded the freedom not to have to believe. That’s why they were called ‘freethinkers’.  

Happily, that era is now long in the past. Even before 1905 Catholicism was no longer the state religion, but only some faiths (Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism) were officially ‘recognised’. The 1905 law was passed precisely in order to abolish the connection between religion and the state, which this preferential treatment still embodied. Historically, this connection had had grave consequences: during the French Revolution, Robespierre had abolished the monarchy’s state religion only in order to replace it with another, the cult of the Supreme Being.

The 1905 bill put everyone on an equal footing: it did not privilege any particular faith, and there were no longer ‘recognised religions’, i.e. implying that the other non-recognised ones were illegal or illegitimate. (Though the idea of the importance of distinguishing between legitimate religions – very curiously, the ones recognised by Napoleon’s Concordat – and illegitimate ones – Islam and the sects – did endure.) In practice, it favoured religions over non-religious ideas, or at least provided a specific framework for them: their gatherings, masses and processions had to be organised in coordination with the public authorities. Hence the Minister of Public Worship (who is also the Interior Minister) and the Central Bureau of Worship, both created by the 1905 legislation. Religions also received a measure of preferential treatment, just because they were religions. With the 1905 law the French state took ownership of religious buildings, but this meant that their upkeep – or in any case, the maintenance of a few hundred thousand Christian churches and chapels – was now the responsibility of the state and of local councils. And moreover, it is the state who pays the wages of Protestant, Catholic, Jewish – and since 2005, Muslim – chaplains for soldiers and prisoners.

If religions – or in any case, those with real estate capital before the 1905 law – thus received a gift from the secular state, on the other hand all views now enjoyed freedom of expression. The state did not favour any one belief and none could be mentioned on individuals’ personal documents – whether they believed in astrology, the lottery or reincarnation. The law gives freedom to all views, apart from the restrictions mentioned above, insult, slander and defamation.

A sad but temporary conclusion

Freedom of conscience – together with the right to life and the right not to be arbitrarily detained – is the keystone of what we call fundamental freedoms (or human rights, or individual freedoms, or civil liberties). Freedom of conscience, which the 1905 French law guaranteed, is further guaranteed by every Constitution and by all international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the UN voted through in 1948 and which France, too, ratified. It would have no practical meaning if it didn’t also include freedom of expression.

Indeed, religious freedom follows from freedom of conscience, and this latter presupposes freedom of expression. That is why international conventions guarantee the freedom to practice your faith, and practice it publicly – just like how you can publicly voice your views on politics, philosophy and aesthetics. And the freedom for all religions to exist in the public sphere is one of the foundations of France’s 1905 law separating church and state.

The extract that follows is from Didier Leschi’s (head of the Interior Ministry’s Central Bureau of Worship) submission to a 2006 French parliamentary hearing. It clearly shows that the public character of religions is still written into law, however much that may displease the fundamentalist atheists. And, indeed, it shows that one of the state’s tasks is to guarantee respect for this principle. It would be absurd if the law had just been turned inside-out, with the perverse effect that after having won the right not to believe (in God), we today had to win the right to believe! Is this country doomed to stumble from one form of intolerance to another? Will atheism become a new state religion, while those who believe in a god or gods will become the new ‘freethinkers’ – hounded, persecuted and imprisoned?

Extract from Didier Leschi’s submission at the Assemblée nationale hearing, 17 October 2006:

Honourable members,

I thank you for having sought my contribution as part of your proceedings. I hope that this submission will allow me to answer some of the questions on the Central Bureau of Worship’s administrative practices dealing with religious sectarianism.

1. The Central Bureau of Worship[’s attitude] toward the question of so-called sects and children’s physical and mental well-being.

I think that for the sake of understanding this question it’s important that I tell you about the normative framework of my administrative practice, which your commission wishes to inquire into. This is a practice that concerns the protection of freedom of conscience and how that ought to be combined with protecting minors.

A. Freedom of conscience, the foundation of the law on religion.

As you know, our legal system’s rule on religious worship is freedom of worship. Its foundation is the 1905 legislation, whose first article states that ‘the Republic guarantees freedom of conscience …  with the only restrictions being those demanded by the interests of public order’.

This system’s second main notion is the fact that religious activity is public. This is the idea of freedom of public worship. That is to say, the fact that while the 1905 law privatised worship insofar as it put an end to the system of ‘recognised faiths’, it also specified that believers had the right to practice their religion in public – and not in the private sphere alone – as the third and fifth sections of the 1905 legislation in particular make clear. That is why in order to enjoy tax breaks religious buildings have to be places of worship open to the public.


This text, which initially appeared in the L’Indigène de la république, was republished in Christine Delphy’s book Un universalisme si particulier (Éditions Syllepse, 2010), which we highly recommend.


[1] An article in the 2-8 November 1989 Nouvel Observateur, entitled ‘Profs, ne capitulons pas!’.

[2] On 18 January 2007 one such caricature that the cartoonist Placid drew for a book published by the Syndicat de la magistrature earned its author a €500 fine, following a complaint initiated by the then Socialist Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant [Note by the Collectif Les mots sont importants, from whose website we took this piece.

By Christine Delphy

Translated by David Broder.

Originally published in French here.

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