Religion & Democracy: Anastasia Colosimo in conversation with Adam Gopnik

2020-10-22

The Sciences Po American Foundation welcomed Anastasia Colosimo, in conversation with Adam Gopnik, for a discussion on religion and democracy. Colosimo is an essayist and the author of Les bûchers de la liberté. She received her PhD in political theology from Sciences Po and currently serves as the Chief of Staff to Richard Attias & Associates. She was joined by Adam Gopnik, staff writer at The New Yorker, acclaimed author of Paris to the Moon, and most recently, A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

Colosimo spoke fondly of her time at Sciences Po, where she undertook both her Masters and her PhD. Despite the fact that religious studies did not really exist in France at the time, she “found the right people and the right place at Sciences Po” to complete a PhD on blasphemy. Although Gopnik was never a Sciences Po student, he expressed his honor to be engaging with the school. Among the faculty, students, and alumni of Sciences Po, he said, one encounters “a level of clarity, lucidity, and scintillating omniscience that one finds in few other places.” 

Both speakers addressed the gravity of their subject in the era after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, a turning point for an entire generation according to Colosimo. Just days after the tragic killing of teacher Samuel Paty in a Parisian suburb, the discussion now seems even more crucial. 

Colosimo began the conversation discussing blasphemy, reminding the audience that two of the biggest figures of western civilization, Socrates and Jesus Christ, were blasphemers. Before the political modernity of the 16th and 17th centuries, religion and politics were one and the same. The blasphemer was extremely dangerous for society in the ancient world, because speaking out against religion was speaking out against political power. After modernity then, Colosimo asked, how come blasphemy is still so political? Before turning to this question, she addressed a French specificity. In the wake of the French Revolution, France was rebuilt on anti-religious sentiment. Today, laïcité guarantees French citizens the right to express their beliefs and convictions and mandates separation of the State and religious organizations. 

Gopnik described American secularism as far from just a translation of the French laïcité. America is a country founded on religious freedom, so according to Colosimo, “in the very heart of the political system, there is a place for mysticism.” In France, on the other hand, mysticism was broken by the Revolution, when the doctrine of rationalism took its place. Additionally, in French political philosophy, there is the notion that the community, whether family, religion, or corporation, must be dissolved in order for the state to have a direct connection with its citizens; one is defined not by a community but by freedom of thought. In America, however, where the state can sometimes be viewed as the enemy, it is one’s community that protects against the state’s encroachment. Gopnik stated his admiration for the conception of a non-neutral French laïcité. American secularism, he said, is intended to show no favor among religions. The French laïcité, however, says that the Republic has positive values; “you must bring into the public square yourself as an individual.”   

On religious assimilation in France, Colosimo explained two aspects of a religion: dogma and culture. In France, it is the cultural component that can change and offer a renovated perception of religion, in order to start practicing in a way that is compatible with the laws of the Republic. Religion adapts, therefore, both religiously and culturally to the national context. 

Gopnik described one of the beauties of the French tradition: not only freedom from persecution for being convicted of blasphemy, but also the right to blaspheme, as vital as the right to practice a religion itself. This critical French freedom demonstrates the possibility of affirming the right to blaspheme without demeaning religion. Colosimo agreed, describing blasphemy as “a French national sport, part of French heritage.” She added that it is not just about religion. “The way that the French people would write and talk about sex, about food, about everything… there is something very decadent, very provocative in the French culture.” In the wake of old tensions reappearing in France, she reiterates that it is critical to defend the French system and its values of universalism. The current fight between intolerance and pluralism must be taken seriously. 

Ariane Ville, Sciences Po alumna, sociologist by training, and Project Director at Fabernovel, concluded the conversation. She summarized the French mindset of leaving one’s religious and cultural ties at home to be a good citizen in contrast to the American perspective of bringing one’s cultural or religious attachments into the public sphere. In light of each country’s pathway to political autonomy, she said, their divergent understandings of the place of religion in the public sphere seem clear. 

The next installment of the Alumni Webinar Series will take place in late November and will feature alumna Camille François. Camille is the Chief Innovation Officer at Graphika and works on the detection of disinformation. She will speak about disinformation and the 2020 Presidential Election. Stay tuned for more information and to register at usscpo.org. 

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