How Soccer Reveals Different Meanings Of ‘Secular’ In France And The US

April 5, 2024

RFI’s Paul Marshall wrote an article in Religion Unplugged discussing France’s recent denial of religious accommodations for Muslim soccer players’ fasting requirements during Ramadan, due to the country’s “cramped view of ‘secularism.’ ” Marshall explains how the term “secularism” has evolved over time, and has now dangerously affected the idea of the “secular state” to be understood not just as a political order in which there is no religious discrimination in political or social status, but in which there is no room for religion in public life. He writes:

Problems have arisen with more recent changes of meaning, originating in the 19th century, whereby “secular” has become used to refer not only to nonconfessional states but to advocate for something much more, for a state emptied of religious influence and, in some cases, for society itself to be emptied of religious influence. Religion was then said to be private — or else should be required to be private. This went far beyond how we might refer to a nongovernmental company, university, school, or charity as private, in the sense that General Motors or Harvard are private, but as something more akin to “personal” or “intimate,” something closed off that does not or should not impinge on public life.

This latter view has been growing in the United States, and more so in Canada and northern Europe. It can be illustrated by recent events in France, which often prides itself on its peculiar laïcité version of secularity.

These issues have come to a head during Ramadan, wherein observant Muslims are required to fast from dawn to dusk, except for drinking water. Many French soccer players are Muslims, and they are some of the best players in the country, including perhaps the greatest — one of the world’s best, in Kylian Mbappe.

Ahead of March training camps, France’s soccer federation said that it would not change its meal times and practices to accommodate players who wanted to observe a Ramadan fast. Unlike those of Germany, England and the Netherlands, during evening games, French referees have not allowed Muslim players to end their fast with a quick snack and drink on the sidelines. After a demanding day of fasting, Muslims can’t even take a small break to quench their hunger and thirst during a strenuous evening game.

Instead, as Samuel Petrequin notes, “The French soccer federation (FFF) says part of its mission is to defend the country’s strict adherence to secularism in public life.”

Of course, it all depends on what is meant by that weasel word “secularism.”

Despite current fevered assertions about burgeoning “Christian nationalism,” Americans across the political spectrum are still disposed to support what the law calls “reasonable accommodation” — meaning that in public and private, unless there is exceptional hardship, we should make as much room as we can for people to follow their religious precepts, at work and elsewhere. Hence, in line with this, the U.S.-based Major League Soccer introduced drink breaks last year for Muslims and, indeed, anyone else who wanted such a break.

Given these differing meanings, we should not easily equate a secular state with a religiously free state. Secularism can be its own repressive ideology, becoming if not an ideological then at least a functional atheism in political life. North Korea and China are both highly secular and highly repressive of religion — and pretty much everything else in human life.

We would better use “secular” to mean a political order in which there is no religious discrimination in political and social status, while at the same time seek to accommodate our society’s diverse religious beliefs and practices both in public and private.

Read the full article: “How Soccer Reveals Different Meanings Of ‘Secular’ In France And The US.”