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Laïcité and Secular Attitudes in France

Laïcité and Secular Attitudes in France

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Laïcité and Secular Attitudes in France

Author: Nathalie Caron
Laïcité and Secular Attitudes in France

Author: Nathalie Caron

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10/07/2013

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 Varieties of Secularism
 
113
9.
Laïcité 
and Secular Attitudes in France
Nathalie Caron 
T
he American notion o “being secular” has no easy translation in the Frenchlanguage and context. Part o the diculty stems rom the ambivalence o theuse o the term secular in the United States.
1
Under the infuence o politics andculture wars, the words “secular,” “secularist,” and secularism” are undergoing asemantic shit that tends to narrow and polemicize their meanings. The situationhas lately been exacerbated, possibly by the tragedy o 9/11, undoubtedly by theso-called “religion gap” that determined voting patterns in the 2004 elections, as well as by recent controversies over the nature o American identity in a changingsocial and political environment.
2
 While retaining their original sense connecting them to the broad conceptiono an autonomous society independent o religion, the words secular, secularist, andsecularism have taken up new meanings. As an increasing number o Americansare “[working] themselves out o a religious rame o mind,” sociologists haveused the terms to reer to individual postures on matters o religious choice, whileamong religious conservatives they have become synonymous with irreligiousand irreligion, godless and godlessness, Atheist and atheism.
3
 A second diculty in dening who is secular in France is that althoughthe adjective secular can easily be translated into French by 
séculier 
(rom theLatin
saeculum 
i.e. “century,” and then “world,” as in English) the translationthat spontaneously, although somewhat grudgingly, comes to a French mindis
laïque 
, which associates the initial question “who’s secular?” with issues o 
laïcité 
. Institutionalized and immortalized in 1905 by the law on the separationo church and state,
laïcité 
is an essential component o French identity andexceptionalism, to which there is no satisactory linguistic equivalent inthe American English language, and which is also complex and polysemic.
4
 Reerring to
laïcité 
, however, is unavoidable when discussing who is secular inFrance since, whether as a cause or a consequence,
laïcité 
creates the conditions

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