Secularism in France

Church bells ring out over the terracotta rooftops of Perpignan and fall upon deaf ears. Pews remain mostly empty Sunday after Sunday and the many relics of France’s holy past remain untouched by French citizens.

The St. Jaques Cathedral

France today is a secular nation.  Since 1905, French law has prevented religion and state from mixing. Religion has risen and fallen in the last century, with Catholicism considered the primary religion in France, claiming 25 percent of the population.

But today, according to a 2005  poll, even more French citizens — 26 percent — claim to be atheists. Some 31 percent say they are agnostic, 9 percent are Muslim, 1 percent are Jewish and 5 percent check non/other.

With the number of holy sites present in France — Lourdes, the birthplace of Joan of Arc, the church of Mary Magdalene–it’s hard to understand why citizens aren’t more observant.

Walking through Perpignan on Sunday mornings, I’ve been struck by the lack of people traveling through the streets in their best church attire. Yes, the stores are closed, but where are the followers?  Where are the priests on the church steps shaking hands with the parishioners? Nowhere, that’s where.

When my aunt found out I was coming to France she immediately screeched into the phone, “Go to Lourdes, go to the bath!” Of course I half-heartedly promised I would, pretending I was still a Catholic.

About half the time I phone home, my mom has asked where the Joan of Arc statues are and what mass is like in French. The last request is kind of a joke because she knows I don’t go anymore, but I don’t have the heart to tell her that religion here is on the decline. Sorry, mom.