Sunday, 10 January 2016

"Laicite", "Faith", and "Religion"

This last week has seen the first anniversary of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, in which a number of the staff of the magazine were killed by Islamists. In passing, I heard a conversation on BBC Radio 4 referring to this anniversary, in which, under the heading of that specifically French notion "laicite", a distinction was drawn between "faith" and "religion".

Now, as the headline to an opinion piece in the Times of 9th January expresses it, "Charlie Hebdo took offensiveness too far". Satire is a literary/journalistic (and indeed political) genre that of its nature offers a degree of offense to those who are its targets. In Britain,  Private Eye is a publication that sits in exactly that tradition. Charlie Hebdo, however, set about its satire of religions with a deliberateness to give offense that was quite marked. Islam was the target which led to the attack on its offices; but the Catholic Church was at times on the receiving end of Charlie Hebdo's ire.

Nigel Biggar's piece in the Times argues that it is quite right that the law of the land should offer a publication like Charlie Hebdo a right to offend without fear of legal penalty. He is also very clear that the attack on their offices, and the killing of the staff of the magazine, was an outrageous atrocity, which called for the solidarity of the world that was shown in the large demonstrations in Paris in the days following the atrocity. But he does point out that what might be allowed by the law of the land is not always what people should actually do, and that there is a moral consideration that intervenes. Freedom is a freedom for and not just a freedom from; the exercise of satire should draw attention to a critical or neglected truth in a situation (which may also cause offense), and not simply set out to give gratuitous offense to those things which others hold sacred. According to Nigel Biggar, Charlie Hebdo's writers "knew and flaunted their legal right to offend; they neglected their moral duty not to".

If I have understood correctly, the conversation that I heard on Radio 4 intended to defend precisely the offensiveness of Charlie Hebdo. It did this first by referring to the idea of "laicite", that is, to the idea that there should be no expressions of religious belief in any aspect of the activities of the state. The anti-religious stance of Charlie Hebdo might be seen as a manifestation of this principle of "laicite". It then suggested that religions, as institutions of essentially political power, could be distinguished from the faith of the individual believer; and I implied from that an argument that it was legitimate to offend the political power, the structures of religion, as that does not involve giving an offence to the individual believer.

The distinction is quite false. Whilst the act of belief is specifically individual, it is nevertheless directed towards an object that is shared with others who profess the same religion. And the nature of the major religions is that their followers form part of a visible community. The distinction is dangerous, too, in that it opposes itself to the provisions of religious freedom contained in, for example, Article 18 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 does not admit of a distinction between the right to freedom of religion of the individual and the exercise of that right in community with others, that is, as part of an organised society or religion:
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
In the context of the journal Charlie Hebdo, the drawing of a distinction between "faith" and "religion" can be seen in its explicitly secularist intent. It is more subtly present when politicians or public figures here in the UK use a language of "faith" and are shy of using the language of "religion".

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