“Making fun of religions is a part of French tradition”

Damien Karbovnik specialises in contemporary esotericism, sects and new religious movements. Photo DR



The terrorist attack that claimed the life of Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, last October, has led society to seriously question its approach to sensitive subjects, especially those relating to religions, faith and freedom of expression. Three questions were put to Damien Karbovnik, a researcher in history of religions at the Faculté des Sciences Historiques*.

Is it possible to teach history and especially the history of religions, without offending the sensitivities of believers?

Whatever the age group you are teaching, it is often complicated to discuss certain subjects with pupils or students, without offending their sensitivities, even beyond the question of religion. It is often perilous in history, a discipline in which there is no lack of sensitive subjects. However, a scientific approach to historical facts is not incompatible with faith. It is not uncommon to come across extremely devout teacher-researchers who are nevertheless capable of discussing the history of their religion and who are aware that the sacred texts do not provide an accurate version of it.

I believe that this way of seeing things, this ability to separate faith from the scientific method is a cognitive attitude of modern society, but it is an intellectual position that is far from being shared by everyone, in the west and elsewhere.

When people consider their beliefs to be part of their identity, as soon as those beliefs are criticised or mocked, it is seen as a personal attack. Their reaction can therefore be violent.

Do all religions have the same attitude to mockery and caricature?

Since at least the Age of Enlightenment, making fun of religions has been a part of French tradition. Generally speaking, this tradition is not applied more noticeably to the Muslim religion; Christians are often mocked, especially in satirical magazines, and even Jews are the objects of ridicule, despite their tragic history.

It seems to me that today in France most believers, including Muslims, are neither shocked nor upset by the mockery or the caricatures. The way in which a person responds to a caricature depends on that individual and the intimate connection they have with their faith, but it is also part of a more general process of secularisation of religions, which is not uniform and which results in very different attitudes, but which also does not necessarily result in the renunciation of faith and the disappearance of religions.

Is freedom of expression sacred? Does it have no boundaries?

The freedom of expression issue cannot be easily resolved. In addition to the religious question, balancing freedom and respect is almost impossible because it involves subjectivity.

The idea that I try to convey to my students is that the truth is not so easy to identify and that social reality is complex. You must not only have a critical approach, cross-checking your sources and avoiding all forms of assumption, but you must also be aware of the density of the jumble of interests involved in any historical fact. Even the experts have their limits. And while we must respect the faith and beliefs of everyone, we must also respect the spirit of the scientific method, because otherwise we run the risk of promoting pseudo-sciences.

Ideally, we should be able to approach all subjects without taboos and debate them, even if they are “sensitive”, but this requires a great deal of time, intellectual investment and, above all, nuance. In a society in which everything has changed rapidly in recent decades, there is no longer really any space for this type of debate and even less for nuance! The gradual, precise and complex scientific process has been replaced by media hype, which is not conducive to reflection or to impartial analysis.

Interview by Caroline Laplane

*Damien Karbovnik is a contractual teacher-researcher in the history of religions, attached to the Faculté de Sciences Historiques, who specialises in contemporary esotericism, sects and new religious movements.

 To delve deeper into this subject, you can also read our article entitled: “Terroristes acteurs solitaires, quels processus psychologiques à l’œuvre?”