Rita Hermon-Belot

The Sources of the Secular Idea Religious Pluralism and French Secularism Publication date : October 7, 2015

Rita Hermon-Belot is a director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), where she is attached to CéSor, a research centre for the social scientific study of religion, and a member of the editorial board of the magazine Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions. She has taught at Science-Po Paris and at Yale. She is the author of L’Emancipation des Juifs en France (PUF, 1999), L’Abbé Grégoire, la politique et la vérité (Le Seuil, 2000) and a contributor to Le Dictionnaire des faits religieux (PUF, 2010).

Laïcité, the French brand of secularism whose roots go deep into French national history, has recently become a sensitive political issue. The turbulent origin of laïcité during the Revolution explains why religious beliefs and practices in France — unlike in other democracies — were relegated to the private sphere. It is this specificity that has engendered tensions in French society today, a time of increasingly assertive religious communitarianism.
In order to understand the current situation, Rita Hermon-Belot has gone back to the French Revolution and to the origins of religious freedom. She shows why the revolutionary episode was decisive in inaugurating a radically new period in terms not only of rights and liberties but also of practices. The French Revolution was not, as has too often been stated, profoundly hostile to religion. In fact, the Revolution was responsible for establishing religious pluralism, before the radicalisation of 1793 led to the adoption of a more antagonistic position.
The premises that were established then would be further developed during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And the author argues that France has not yet finished assessing the effects and contradictions of laïcité.

• Drawing on little known archives — Bulletins produced by different religious groups, Cahiers de Doléances (lists of grievances) — this essay renews the traditional historical interpretation of laïcité and of the French Revolution and puts in perspective the issue of religious pluralism in France.
• A book that enables us to understand why laïcité is not only a collection of republican principles but part of a long, confrontational history.