The French Constitution defines France as a “République laïque’ a lay republic, and the French generally consider laicism to be a ”French exception.” This aspect of singularity was recently reinforced with the passing of a law in March 2004 banning ostentatious religious signs in public schools. But it is impossible to simplify laicism in terms of this particular law. Laicism is also a possible means for relationships between the state, religion, society, and every human being. Such relationships can function only if there is flexibility and adaptability to all situations present in society.

Classically, sociologists dealt with the notion of secularization as being the decline of the influence of religion on modern society. For example, according to Peter Berger, secularization is ”the process by which the sectors of society and culture are freed from the authority of religious institutions and symbols.” Nowadays, not only is it obvious that the decline is incomplete (for Berger, the turning point of the twentieth and twenty first centuries was ”furiously religious”), but also such a notion of secularization can be criticized as being too broad. For a better understanding, a distinction can be made between two long term sociohistoric processes, a cultural process of secularization and a political process of laicization.

When the cultural process of secularization is predominant compared with the political process of laicization, the relative decline of a religion’s influence takes place in the form of cultural mutations, with no major tensions between religious and political or other social forces. Certainly, religious changes, as well as economic and political changes, may produce internal tensions. But triumphant forces participate in the same cultural and social dynamic. Therefore, there is no important clash between the changes within the religious sphere and other social changes. This is the reason that Scandinavian countries are seen as exemplary of a secular state. The switch to Lutheran Protestantism, particularly linked to the Bible’s translation, has favored the development of a national culture. Theological arguments have prevented the autonomy of the nation state toward religion from provoking important conflicts. Moreover, a joint and progressive democratization of state and church has taken place.

In Scandinavian countries, and in other countries like the United Kingdom, religion contributed in various ways to secularization and particularly to the development of democratic sociability. In certain cases, the development of secularization that occurred in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is described by the paradoxical term ”religious secularization.” It is feasible, then, that a national church can continue to be the symbol of the identity of nations that have been culturally secularized.

Laicization is a process in which there is a double movement at the end of a political ”theocracy,” a movement of institutional differentiation between the political and the religious sphere, a movement of emancipation of the nation state and the institutions toward religion. When the political process of laicization is predominant compared with the cultural process of secularization, the tensions between various social forces generally take on the aspect of an open conflict where religion becomes a politico cultural stake. For example, the symbolization of the national culture is controversial. Either the state imposes religion on society (clericalism) or refuses that religion should continue to be the symbol of national identity (laicization). The French case is the main example of such a process.

In 1789, religion pervaded French society. From the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), the monolithic Roman Catholic faith was made compulsory for the French. Communion at Easter and confession were imposed on the people. The clergy was the first of the three ”orders” of the kingdom. The monarchy possessed religious justification, given the theory of the divine right of kings. The king possessed politico religious power, and one of his basic duties was to defend Catholicism. Gradually, the monarchy also established widespread autonomous political and administrative power. A Gallican movement emerged, which developed the idea of a French Catholic Church that would be autonomous from the pope and protected, as well as partly controlled, by the monarchy. An anticlerical dimension appeared in the French philosophy of the Enlightenment that had permeated a part of the nobility and bourgeoisie. This spirit differed from the English Enlightenment or the German Aufklarung. The latter appeared as a confrontation within a diversified Protestantism wanting ”enlightened religion,” the former directly attacked the Roman Catholic Church.

The French Revolution removed the privileges of the clergy and confiscated the church’s large property holdings. Revolutionaries worked to ”emancipate” civil and political society from the influence of the church, particularly in social matters relating to marriage, divorce, and education. The Declaration of Human Rights of 1789 proclaimed the principle of religious free dom. In 1791, the Constitution divested the monarchy of its religious features, and it was implemented the following year. The republic was established, although rather conflictually. However, it was not clear that the founding of the republic was considered as the first day of the new era (as is the birth of Christ for the Gregorian calendar). In 1793, the institutions of revolutionary cults (”Eternal Reason,” ”Saint Liberty,” or the more conciliatory ”Cult of the Supreme Being”) struggled violently against all revealed religions. The significance of the new forms of religion was represented by ritualized gatherings of the community around common values that were socially fundamental and regarded as sacred (cf. Emile Durkheim). It was a conflictual and, eventually, impossible laicization.

Napoleon Bonaparte inherited a chaotic situation. In 1801 he signed a concordat with the pope: the Roman Catholic Church was proclaimed the ”religion of the great majority of the French,” but without the status of a state religion. In 1802, the plurality of religions became official: Lutheran and Reformed churches and, later, Judaism were recognized. In 1804, the Civil Code made no reference to religion.

It is possible to evaluate the situation using the abstract notion of the first threshold of laicization (constructed on the basis of Weber’s ideal type). It is marked by three characteristics:

  1. Institutional fragmentation: Roman Catholicism was no longer an inclusive institution. The clergy had to confine itself to its religious activities, which were clearly distinguished from profane activities. Educational and health needs assumed gradual autonomy, related to religious needs, and were provided for by specific institutions that underwent progressive development.
  2. Recognition of legitimacy: The French Revolution did not destroy religious needs, which continued to exist objectively and within the general society. Religion was a public service and the state paid ministers of recognized religions. Religions were politically recognized as a foundation of social morality.
  3. Religious pluralism: The state recognized several but not all religions; it protected and controlled them since they could satisfy the religious needs of their followers and develop moral values. Other religions were more or less tolerated. Relative freedom was even granted to those who decided to do without the ”help of religion.”

This profile delineates a logic that dominated for a century. But the situation was not static or rigid. This was due especially to the fact that, for a long period, a number of aspects of the first threshold of laicization were not entirely evident; other institutions were not sufficiently developed to become totally autonomous. Then there was growing conflict between those who regarded France mainly as a Roman Catholic nation and partisans of the liberal values of 1789. Similar conflicts also rose during the nineteenth century in other countries where Catholicism continues to predominate today, among them Belgium, Spain, Italy, and Mexico, whilst in the 1870s a few countries, such as Germany with the Kulturkampf movement, held firm against Catholicism. But, at present, there is not necessarily any conflict between church and state in predominantly Catholic countries. Catholicism can represent a national sentiment (as, for example, in Ireland under British rule, or in Poland).

Conflict grew in the nineteenth century between “clericalism,” that is, a religion’s political dominion over a country, and ”anticlericalism,” which actively fought this claim. Rooted in scientific ideology, radical forms of anticlericalism perceived religion as an outdated explanation of the world that offered only a backwards orientation, irrelevant to the context of modern democracies.

In France, the founding of laicism was rooted in the political victory of the anticlerical movement. The impression prevailed that the republic (established again in 1870) was threatened by clericalism. A 1901 law excluded religious congregations from the right to free association. A new law passed in 1904 (and in effect until 1914) prohibited members of religious orders from teaching. But, essentially, the combative anticlerical movement gave birth to a progressive pacifist form of laicism. It is as if a revolutionary socialist party, assuming power by democratic process, ultimately gave birth to a social democratic system.

During the 1880s, the republicans introduced a religiously neutral educational system, which included a ”laic morality.” This morality borrows elements from a number of origins: classical antiquity, Christianity, the Enlightenment (from Voltaire to Kant), and, occasionally, from Confucius. Different traditions are interpreted according to two notions: dignity of the human person (which creates rights and duties) and social solidarity. Further, the republicans hoped that the structure of the lay school would engender morality. As a place for learning tolerance, it enabled all French children, irrespective of social class or religion, to come to know and accept one another. Through school, the republic itself was the bearer of values. This moral was a compromise, and, because of the conflict, a significant anticlerical section asserted that religion was dangerous for the republic and its ideals.

In 1904—5, after the crisis that arose out of the Dreyfus affair, the separation of church and state became inevitable in a climate of confrontation. Two models were possible. One was combative, as represented by the bill of Prime Minister Emile Combes. However, it was rejected, especially by the celebrated socialist leader Jean Jaures, who hoped to achieve a law that would bring peace and make it possible to combat social inequalities. A liberal model prevailed ensuring freedom of conscience, guaranteeing the freedom to exercise religion, and respecting the self organization of each religion (art. 1 and 4), even though it neither “recognized” nor subsidized any religion (art. 2).

Even in liberal dominance, this model of separation completed a religiously neutral educational system and found a new logic. This can be seen as the second threshold of laicization. As for the first, there are three characteristics:

  1. Institutional dissociation: Religion was entirely optional because it was no longer considered an institutional structure of society but rather as a mode of free association.
  2. Social neutrality regarding religious legitimacy: Religious needs became a private matter. The question as to the usefulness of religion for society was no longer publicly relevant. But, within the framework of freedom of expression and association, religions could participate in public debates on social questions and the meaning of life.
  3. Freedom of religion and conviction: Various religious societies belonged to the public sphere. The state guaranteed each citizen freedom of conscience and allowed citizens to meet within religious societies or associations.

A twofold aspect marked a separation in 1905: the victory of the lay camp in the conflict of a divided France, and an implicit covenant with opponents whose ultimate aim was to attain peace rather than achieve victory in the short term. The conflict vanished progressively because religion ceased to be a political problem, except in the field of education. So, by 1945, the bishops held that there could be a positive meaning to the term laicism and the following year laicism was officially proclaimed and recognized by the Constitution.

Other countries also underwent a process of laicization. Belgium was not situated in a similar logic to the second threshold of French laicization but integrated laicism in its system of recognized religions: non confessional morality in school, lay advisers in hospitals or prisons, and so on. The Spanish and Italian systems tend to resemble a laicism that corresponds a little more to the first threshold of laicization, with more liberty and more pluralism.

The American situation is characterized by the separation between church and state (the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, 1791) and this is linked to the central function of religion. Stephen Warner indicates the main differences:

  • Religion is constitutive for some American subcultures.
  • Religion in America has historically promoted the formation of associations among mobile people.
  • Religion in America serves as a refuge of free association and autonomous identity -a ”free social space.”
  • The second generation of immigrants often transmutes ethnicity into religion because it allows immigrants to assimilate and con serve their identity.

The American situation is heavily influenced by civil religion. There is an ambivalence between civil religion and laicization. Civil religion historically favors dissociation between social links and the hegemony of a religion, but civil religion renders the political values of the collectivity sacred.

Is the French situation the most laic? The answer is no, since, for example, the separation between state and church in Mexico from 1917 to 1992 created a time of austerity for religion. The 1917 Mexican Constitution forbade monastic orders, ensuring that religious ceremonies could only take place in churches, which were permanently under the authorities’ supervision, and according to the Constitution religious ministers of all cults were denied the right to vote. Since the 1990s, though, there has been more flexibility and such rigidity is not as common. Turkish laicism is also historically harsher than French laicism. It expanded after World War I, questioning the logic of Islam, which was considered to be the principal cause of social decline. This position explains the reason for the armed forces’ important role in religion.

A moderate Islamic movement tried to make it more liberal. The international situation does not favor such a development because a new form of conflict that might be characterized by a new anticlericalism has arisen between fundamentalist religious groups and laicized and/or secularized societies. Examples are evident in several Islamic countries, in Israel (orthodox Jews), and in the United States (fundamentalist Christians). Whether or not headscarves may be worn, a passionate issue for many French people, is a typical example of these new tensions. Several problems are interwoven, concerning not only how best to deal with fundamentalism, but also the most appropriate strategy to pre vent social exclusion, the various conceptions of school, and the different notions of plurality compatible with national identity.

However, the idea of the universal has changed within the last 50 years. Today, the universal is no longer considered as the imposition of the nation state’s values upon the civil society, no more than it is the imposition of western values on the rest of the world. It is the result of the building up of positive comparisons between values provided by different cultures, religions, philosophies, and civilizations. We are in the age of globalization. This represents a considerable change for laicism, which is linked with the development of the nation state.

Another issue worthy of attention is that, historically, laicization and secularization were two different processes of modernization. Now, changing from a process to a movement, modernization is a hegemonic but disillusioned reality. In the nineteenth century, morality was based on science. Now, science and morality tend to be dissociated in the context of many problems. Science was increasingly seen as techno science, the functional efficiency of which was undeniable but which, far from helping to resolve moral questions, created new ones that were more difficult to resolve because of their intrinsic power. Is all possible progress also desirable? This is now an important topical question, not just in the biomedical field but in other areas as well: consider everything that contributes to environmental degradation. This new disillusionment changes the relationship to temporality. Ephemeral effects thus are becoming more important than investments in long term projects. Mass communication favors sensationalism over analysis in the news, emphasizing its entertainment value. This entertainment broadcasts heroism, intrigue, sex, and wealth in large doses. It can lead to resentment because of the sizable gap between the imaginary notions conveyed and the nature of daily life, with all its banality, difficulty, and routine. In addition, it is necessary to be self sufficient, each person has to assume responsibility. Such disillusionment leads to problems and various identity constructions are available that help individuals move toward the necessities of self realization. Once again, the new cultural and religious demands have to be understood within this context. Indirect discrimination and reasonable accommodation are becoming new important problems.


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