Friday, March 18, 2016


My last day in Paris I went to mass at St. Eustache (where my mother went when she studied here several Les Halles ago) and then spent the afternoon with T, an American journalist friend of my uncle's. T spent part of his career focusing on religion news, so there was much to talk about. He also taught me a term and explained to me another I'd misunderstood completely.

The latter is le fait religieux, a phrase I'd seen in French materials from time to time. I was nonplussed by it, because I took it - erroneously, as it turns out - to be a faith claim. While I recall reading somewhere that it meant "phenomenon of religion," I was tripped up by fait, which I couldn't help seeing as some claim of fact: "the religious fact," "the fact of religion." I assumed it was a term used by people who were, if not believers themselves ("the truth of religion"), at least people who thought religion an element in the structure of consciousness.

Not so! T explained that it was a neologism introduced perhaps 15 years ago by a resolute secularist who was struck that religion-free public education had rendered French children unable to recognize most of what was going on in the art of the Louvre, etc. While religion - the term and the phenomenon - is anathema and has no place in the laïc French state, it might be a valuable part of citizenship and cultural literacy to know about things like this. It's like Richard Dawkins arguing (as he does) that while the Bible is a symptom of the toxic virus of religion, people should nevertheless learn about it for its influence on English poetry.

So fait religieux definitely doesn't mean what I thought it meant. It's closer, T said, to the extension of the English term "religion," which includes true and false, good and bad, near and far, individual and collective. I should have thought of fait accompli, or Bruno Latour's arguments about the social construction of knowledge based in dazzling word-play around the similar sounding faitiche-fétiche. Fait, after all, also means "made."

Incidentally, T found that when you seek out the English equivalent of the page Enseignement du fait religieux you get routed to Anthropology of religion! Which helps explain how my discipline, described awkwardly in the final program as "Professeur, Religious Studies," was in the surviving original language described as anthropologie religieuse. Does anthropologie here gesture toward what we would call the humanistic study of religion, I wonder? Everyone knows that English "secularism" and French laïcité are different; "séculaire" refers to completely different things than the English word... How naïve of me to think that religion could mean the same thing! Faux-amis strike again!

Oh, and the new term T taught me is laïcard, a term for what we might call a fundamentalist secularist, or perhaps a militant atheist? Of a sudden I'm not sure of anything anymore...

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