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The religious fact, secularism and the history teacher


The history-geography teachers are at the forefront of issues of secularism at school. Indeed, they must not only teach the religious fact by historicizing the main monotheisms, but also introduce the principle of secularism in their civic education classes, from the sixth grade. While the presidential candidate François Hollande speaks of integrating the first title of the law of 1905 into the Constitution, that the controversies hardly cease around Islam, and more generally around the changes in French society, we can consider the role of the teacher and the difficulties he encounters in approaching these fundamental subjects. An occasion given by a conference organized by the CCEFR at the Sorbonne, and whose theme was: "The school of the Republic and the religious fact".


What is the religious fact?

According to Jean-Marie Le Gall (professor of modern history at Paris 1), we could define the religious fact as “A social and collective fact, measurable (the populations concerned, but also geographically), quantifiable […] it can also be an event; a regicide, for example, has a strong religious charge ”. The religious fact is also a "Cultural fact", in the broad sense, such as literature, monuments, painting, music, as well as a "Vision of the world and a conception of time". It is also all that pertains to culture in the anthropological sense of the term, human behavior,Habit de Bourdieu or Weber’s ethics. The purpose of teaching religion is then to "Understand the world of religions by historicizing it, and without prejudging membership". Teaching religious facts can thus avoid "The essentialization and reification of religions, like the clash of civilizations (one religion = one civilization)", just like the return of "holy ignorance" (Olivier Roy). It is a question of objectifying the religious fact, not of criticizing or invalidating religions.

What teaching of the religious fact in school programs?

Inspector General of National Education, Laurent Wirth specifies that the teaching of religious matters at school is multidisciplinary, and does not concern only history and geography teachers. Secularism is enshrined in the Constitution, as well as in the Education Code (article L141). The question is then: "How do you teach religion in a school in a secular republic? ". The principles were laid down by the Debray report (2002): respect for secularism, and no specific teaching on religious matters. It can thus be approached in different disciplines, and in a multidisciplinary way by crossing different approaches (history and history of the arts, TPE,…). It was the 2008 high school programs that first set up this spirit, according to Laurent Wirth, to help teachers who were sometimes uncomfortable with addressing these issues, who did not always feel legitimate in the face of certain audiences.

Laurent Wirth insists on symmetry in the study of the beginnings of Judaism and Christianity (in sixth grade), and of Islam (in fifth grade), with first and foremost a desire to historicize and not to sanctify. The teacher must feel on his ground, that of history. The same goes for the rest of the programs where the religious fact is approached (crusades, Reform,…). Atheism, always in this concern for secularism, is not forgotten with the study of the Enlightenment, the law of 1905 or the relations between the Revolution and religions. It is therefore the approaches that are desecrated, not the content.

For Nicole Lemaître (professor of modern history at Paris 1), one must also respond to a social demand and adapt to the context in which one finds oneself. We can teach the origins of Christianity, while using the culture of religion to explain the wars of religion. Studying the wars of religion of the sixteenth century is therefore very useful for explaining how violence is reached. We then go from teaching about religion to teaching history.

The professor of philosophy and specialist in secularism Henri Peña-Ruiz, on the other hand, is not very satisfied with the notion of "teaching about religion". He considers that the religious fact is not a discipline, but an object of study: "Religion is a representation of the world among others [...], and no religious fact has any meaning in itself". Henri Peña-Ruiz therefore calls for the reintroduction of the teaching of the humanities to counter a deculturation that is not only religious.

The teacher's difficulties in the face of religion

Henri Peña-Ruiz's reservations show that the debate is not over, and that it is very difficult to define the work of the teacher to approach the religious fact in a secular setting. This raises the question of its training, and its confrontation with reality. The field work of Benjamin Farhat, researcher in educational sciences at the University of Paris-8 Vincennes / Saint-Denis, is eloquent on this point. He takes the example of a vocational high school in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, attended by a majority of students of Muslim culture, where the behavior observed during the month of Ramadan shows that the students ultimately speak very little about religion, but on the other hand much more of the practices and behaviors to adopt during the month of fasting. According to Benjamin Farhat, "At no time do they comment on, interpret or criticize religious texts, they are not in a process of exegesis. On the other hand, they spend a lot of time negotiating the terms of their practices: [during Ramadan] can we talk about everything? Can we kiss a girl? Should we spit or not spit? ". The pupils are in a logic of competition, in an orthopraxy. What then is the teacher's role in the face of these behaviors? In an interview with World of Religions, Benjamin Farhat says "That he Teachers must first be prepared for what awaits them, and for this, the public authorities must finally adopt an empirical position on the question of the ethnicization of society, and in particular of school relations. Today, the State refuses the term of ethnicization to which it prefers that of demonstrations or identity claims, and the subject is not mentioned in the training of the teaching staff ”. For Henri Peña-Ruiz, "[Students] must be taught to construct their identity in a critical and distanced manner, to free themselves from being locked into their origins [...] and not to stroke them in the sense of identity", calling on teachers to be "Teachers of the universal".

Secularism in the sixth grade program

Finally, let's look at the concrete with the civic education program in sixth grade, which addresses secularism. In Chapter I, "The Meaning of School", part 2 (education, a right for all), the program comments are: “Secularism, located in its historical dimension, is both a value and a practice. It materializes in the life of the school, in particular with reference to the internal regulations ". The site Eduscol offers a detailed sheet to help the teacher teach secularism in sixth grade. We can read for example: “It is important to present secularism as a fundamental human freedom. It is not a denial of the religious fact. It concerns the organization of power in its relations with religion. It is also related to the equality of citizens, regardless of their affiliations, convictions or beliefs ".

Teaching religion in a secular school, and teaching precisely what secularism is, is proving more and more a challenge for history-geography and civic education teachers, while we are assisting both to a return to religion in the context of globalization (Jean-Marie Le Gall takes the example of the “born-again” Pentecostals), and to “ an ethnicization of school relations observable everywhere, in vocational high schools, such as general high schools, whether they are prestigious or "disadvantaged" high schools " (Benjamin Farhat), the teacher often finds himself helpless, helpless and tempted by self-censorship. Already poorly trained following the so-called "mastering" reform, he risks having more and more difficulty in maintaining school peace, while respecting republican principles.


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