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Charlie Hebdo and France's Irreligious Tradition
Press conference announcing publication of Charlie Hebdo's next edition, Paris, January 13, 2015 (Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

Charlie Hebdo and France's Irreligious Tradition

Kenneth R. Weinstein

Charlie Hebdo has suddenly become the best-known example of a venerable French tradition: vituperative and unrelenting anti-religious satire, a provocative yet regular phenomenon of French public life. And now—not, alas, for the first time in that nation’s history—it has occasioned actual bloodshed.

Lampooning of the Bible, Christian doctrine, and clergy dates back almost 400 years to the “strong thinkers,” French learned skeptics in the 16th century. The primary target of anti-religious satire was France’s official religion, Catholicism, the Church’s ties to the state, and its control over education. And the ridiculing wit long directed against these targets would eventually play a central and crucial role in reducing the status and influence of religion in the French Republic.

This tradition began among a small number of French theology students studying in Italy, where they encountered Renaissance humanism—free of the magisterial synthesis of Aristotelianism and Catholicism provided by St. Thomas Aquinas. Reading Aristotle, and newly re-discovered ancient materialists like Epicurus and Lucretius, as rejecting the immateriality and immortality of the soul, Pietro Pompanazzi (1463–1525) and Cesare Cremonini (1550–1631) fomented skepticism among their French students.

But unlike the editors of Charlie Hebdo, these men did not wear their irreligiosity on their sleeves. Cremonini’s motto was “think inwardly as you like, but conform outwardly to custom.” Public irreligion, Cremonini understood, was too dangerous, as the executions of Etienne Dolet (in Paris in 1546) and Cesare Vanini (in Toulouse in 1619) made all too clear. Skepticism was therefore limited to trusted and learned circles.

Gabriel Naudé (1600–53) imported a version of Paduan Aristotelianism to France, and became part of a small number of self-described “strong thinkers,” polymaths who did not flinch from rejecting popular beliefs, including religion. He wrote subtly, hiding impiety through double entendre, indirect Biblical criticism, and erudition.

Naudé, librarian to both Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, and fellow polymath Francois de la Mothe Le Vayer (1588–1672), tutor to the Duke of Orleans, winked in noting the similarity of pagan and Christian miracles: stars heralded the birth of Honorius of Rome and Mithridates of Persia, just as the Star of Bethlehem announced the birth of Jesus. And wasn’t Apollonius of Tyana, a Greek moral philosopher who lived in the same century as Jesus, also a divinity, halfway between God and man?

The next generation brought satire to a broader European audience. Pierre Bayle (1647–1704), nominally a French Protestant exiled to Holland, and perhaps the most widely read author of the 17th century, drew on a critical approach to history to challenge the authority of revelation more boldly. Feigning deep faith, he nevertheless revealed what he took to be the irrationality of the Old and New Testaments and Christian doctrine.

In arguments that would later be reprised a half century later by Voltaire (1694–1778) and the French Enlightenment Philosophes, Bayle implied that ancient sects like the Manicheans—who believed in the eternal co-existence of good and evil—offered a more plausible explanation for the persistence of worldly horror than did Christianity, which had wrestled from the start to square divine omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence with the obviously fallen state of man. Bayle all but openly mocked a Creator who would stand idly by as Adam ate of banned fruit in the Garden of Eden, thereby condemning his descendants to suffer unending ills as punishment. And he wondered how King David could be considered a man after God’s own heart, especially as David was a liar, a murderer and a serial adulterer.

Bayle and his fellow satirists sought to reduce the control religion had over thought to reduce the fear of the fires of hell that, he argued, fostered zealotry and religious war. They spoofed tradition and challenged its metaphysical authority, hoping to replace it with a more enlightened and scientific account of the universe and a more rational approach to morality. Seeing intolerance among fellow Protestants, Bayle’s target was as much stricter and rational forms of Protestantism as it was Catholicism.

Given the broad diffusion of Bayle’s ideas, Voltaire and those who followed him saw less of a need to hide their skepticism. Voltaire, more of a polemicist and activist than an original thinker, borrowed heavily from Bayle and others in a vituperative critique of the Bible, ranging from serious moral questioning (“Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, Rachel stole: so I must deceive, steal, lie”) to deliberate provocations, such as seeding doubts about Mary’s virginity or noting the absence of any mention of the Trinity in the New Testament.

Coruscating satire designed to foment doubt therefore became a central aim and strategy of the Enlightenment: humor joined with science and a critical, comparative approach to tradition as practical tools to promote reform. By taking skepticism out of the hands of the few, injecting it into polite society, and, ultimately, making it tolerated, acceptable, and even commonplace in general conversation, this tradition irreversibly reduced the role of religion in French public life.

A more public skepticism, which the massive Encyclopédie (1750–72), edited by Denis Diderot (1713–84) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), sought to promote, would foment doubt and lead to religious toleration—so its proponents believed, at least. Rather than feeling justified in imposing their beliefs violently on others, men and women would follow their own consciences. This focus on sincerity as the test for religious belief would be the best guarantor of religious pluralism.

But such hope for toleration became harder to maintain as dogmatic strands of rationalism and scientific materialism arose. Rather than toleration, Robespierre promoted a new intolerance: violent atheism. Attacks on the Bible and the clergy helped radicalize the French Revolution, leading to the violent de-Christianization of France, the destruction of thousands of churches, and the forced replacement of Christianity with a celebration of the cult of reason.

Against this backdrop, for more than a century, the French Right, in support of Church and monarchy, fought the anti-clerical and Republican Left. And while Napoléon (1769–1821) and the subsequent Restoration of 1814–15 brought Catholicism back as official religion, anti-clerical forces were triumphant in the Revolution of 1830, the Paris Commune of 1871, and in the rise thereafter of the Third Republic. In 1877, at the National Assembly, Republican leader Leon Gambetta (1838–82) proclaimed, “Clericalism, there lies the enemy!”

Having lost its unchallenged epistemological status through the rise of scientific rationalism and the unrelenting attacks of the satirists, the Church would lose a monopoly on education in 1884. By 1905, there was full separation of church and state in France.

Separation of church and state is very different in France than it is in the U.S. Religious dissenters came to America seeking freedom to worship, away from established churches; the Catholic Church in France, however, was the established church, central to the Ancien Regime. The Church and monarchy were intolerant of dissenters; the August 22–23, 1572 St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre saw the officially sanctioned murder of thousands of French Protestant leaders in the bloodiest day in French history until the Revolution. In France, a synthesis eventually was reached, rejecting both the Catholicism of the Ancient Régime and the rationalism of the Revolution. Religion would be tolerated but removed from the public sphere.

The method of the forerunners of Charlie Hebdo—unrelenting and vicious satire of religion and clergy—proved so effective that France became a fully secular state, to such an extent that certain of its practices, laicité, would be regarded as unsettlingly alien and intolerant by most Americans. Sporting a burqa is prohibited, and civil servants cannot wear visible signs of religious affiliation while at work. Last month, President Hollande did not offer Christmas greetings—and he was criticized by many for wearing a kippah in his visit to the Grand Synagogue to pay homage to the victims of the Hyper Casher terror attack. Today, even the Far Right, once aligned with the Church under the Nazi-era collaborationist regime of Marshal Pétain (1856–1951), claims to be secular.

This secular and anti-religious tradition, a largely left-of-center movement which was far too passive about radical Islam due to sentiments of post-colonial guilt, now seems reinvigorated in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack. If any country is Europe has hope for meeting the challenge of radicalism, therefore, it is France.

Applying traditional French anti-religious satire to Islam, however, has always been a fraught enterprise. A significant segment of French society—even, and maybe especially, “secular” French society—is inclined to view criticism of Islam as a form of “racism,” and considers outright satire of Islam beyond the pale. And the difficulty here is only compounded by the general reluctance of French Muslims, many of them justifiably concerned about the threat of ostracism or violence, to publicly question religious doctrine. As a result, there is less willingness to entertain satire involving critical contemporary issues associated with Islam.

Charlie Hebdo has been a healthy if erratic and not always “responsible” exception on the French Left, extending the anti-clerical tradition to Islam, thus satirizing the monotheistic faiths with equal ferocity and, more than occasionally, outright crudity. Perhaps there are “strong thinkers” among France’s Muslim population who could begin to propagate a tradition of satire behind closed doors, pushing for a greater skepticism towards clerical authority. This skepticism doesn’t need the ferocity or the vulgarity that was often Charlie Hebdo’s calling card. The erudite skepticism of a few “strong thinkers” might give way later to a more civil and open society. Given that the French tradition of satire knows no bounds, one can only imagine an outraged Voltaire or a Bayle reacting to the Charlie Hebdo attack, mocking a God so jealous—at least as imagined by certain extremists—that he would demand outright and cold-blooded murder to avenge purportedly “blasphemous” cartoons.

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