Life & Soul

Not everyone is free to speak out in France

A floral tribute outside Charlie Hebdo's headquarters in Paris (PA)

The cult of Reason was proposed as the replacement for Christianity at the French Revolution. There was to be only one God: le Peuple. It was just such a secular religion, founded on the principles of the Enlightenment and anti-clericalism, which raised an altar to Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The modern French secularist state is its disciple.

Following the horrific massacres in Paris the same mindset sought to raise to the altar of Reason the saints and martyrs of Charlie Hebdo. The cold-blooded murder of these journalists was barbaric and totally unjustifiable. But I am afraid I am not going to worship at that particular shrine. It lies despoiled, not by terrorism but by its own internal contradictions.

Only in a cult of pure reason – that is, rationalist idealism – would one march for the right to be able offend anyone, exalt that right as the basis on which to unite a society and suggest that this is somehow an expression of all that is best about it. Only in a cult of pure reason could one extol the obligation to put up with any offence to religion in the name of free speech, at the same time legislating against racist or homophobic hate speech and enforcing it according to the subjective offence felt by the individual complainant.

It is understandable and good to want to find solidarity in the face of an outrageous affront to law and order. But if you truly believe the pen is mightier than the sword, don’t be surprised that it alienates those against whom you wield it. The reaction to the Islamist violence cannot conceal something inherently flawed in the creed of a secularism, in which everyone has equal rights but wherein the most celebrated dogma governing the manifestation of religious conscience must be the right to outrage it. This cannot justify what was done, but it emboldens extremists on both sides who want to cast it as a clash between Islam and modern, enlightened thought.

There may well be the freedom to insult religious belief, de facto, in a modern secular state. But holding it as a jewel in the crown of democracy is a little like asserting the freedom to insult your wife and children in order to maintain unity in your household: it only looks like freedom to those doing the insulting. It cannot be justified on the grounds that free speech is an absolute value, for it clearly isn’t. If you quote Voltaire, you should happily march to defend all views, including those held for more honourable reasons than gratuitous insult. If free speech is a democratic right, it is indivisible.

One of the original Revolutionaries saw the limitations of this rationalistic approach. He said: “Liberty, reason, truth are only abstract beings. They are not gods, for properly speaking they are part of ourselves.”

This becomes of utmost significance once you try to construct polity on the basis of individual human rights, for rights are equally abstract. A truth which is only “part of myself” cannot sway anyone who believes that truth has reference to objective or transcendent reality, and cannot create consensus. When you cannot create consensus, you have to coerce it with legislation or force. So the secularist state champions freedom of speech in the face of criminal threats, but will also turn its police force, which supposedly defends this right, on an entirely peaceful vigil in support of traditional marriage.

La répression pour tous? is a harrowing account of the way in which the French state colluded in attempts to discourage, intimidate and brutalise those who took part in the Man-if pour tous marches in 2013. It details the undemocratic manner in which the legislation was introduced (though in France it was, at least, in a political manifesto). It also describes the attempts to prevent the marches, and the widespread intimidatory police tactics and physical assault on youths, women and children keeping peaceful vigil in support of traditional marriage. They marched in greater numbers than those under the Je suis Charlie banner but their voice and solidarity, apparently, is neither heard nor wanted.

So forgive me if I don’t rush to make a Charlie of myself in support of rationalist, secularist values. As Pascal said, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (23/1/15)