With the sun about to set on my final day in Belgium, I prayed to find the right next destination–hopefully in France. I didn’t have internet to arrange for transportation or accommodations, but at least I’d managed to learn the email address of friends of friends who pastored in Paris. If I could contact them in time, Paris might be the next stop in my mission to backpack 360° around the world in 180 days documenting Christian students’ university experiences.
After walking a couple of blocks, I found a street corner where—if I leaned ju-u-ust the right way into a hedge—I could access sufficient Wi-Fi to send an email. I’d already knocked on enough doors which had never opened that I didn’t really expect to hear back in time. But when I accessed the internet again that evening, the pastors had already replied that I could join them in Paris the next day!
Thank You, Lord! I exulted. Within 24 hours, I’d be meeting Christian students in one of the planet’s most secularized nations.
How did France, a nation which once commissioned missionaries and constructed cathedrals, become so secular, anyway?
How did France, a nation which once commissioned missionaries and constructed cathedrals, become so secular, anyway? In most of the Western countries I’d visited so far, Darwin’s ideas had been what catalyzed a largescale cultural rejection of God’s Word, as evolution gives people a seemingly scientific way to explain life apart from God. France’s history of departure from God’s Word, however, began centuries before Darwin.
France, like many European nations, had originally been officially Catholic following the area’s Christianization. After the Protestant Reformation, when many Christians returned to God’s Word alone rather than man-made church traditions as their authority for truth, persecution against Protestants surged and ebbed throughout the 16th-17th centuries. In 1685, King Louis XIV finally outlawed Protestantism with the Edict of Fontainebleau, causing hundreds of thousands of believers to flee France for their lives.1
Less than a decade later, a youngster named François-Marie Arouet was born into France’s de-Protestantized cultural landscape. Arouet’s family called him Zozo,2 but he opted for the name Voltaire. Charles Spurgeon, the famous English preacher, would later call Voltaire the “high priest of infidelity,”3 commenting, “I should think that no one ever excelled Voltaire in a clever kind of blasphemy.”4
Remembered as one of France’s most influential writers, philosophers, and religious critics, Voltaire epitomized the attitude of the “Enlightenment,” the cultural movement where elevating human reasoning above God’s Word became almost as stylish as sporting a floofy wig.5 Voltaire vehemently attacked the Bible, Christianity, and Judaism,6 embraced hedonism,7 and fought unsuccessfully to demonstrate that science contradicts the Bible.8 According to the Sandford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
Voltaire’s legacy . . . cemented the alleged linkage that joined positivist science9 on the one hand with secularizing disenchantment and dechristianization on the other. In this way, Voltaire should be seen as the initiator of a philosophical tradition that runs from him to Auguste Comte and Charles Darwin, and then on to Karl Popper and Richard Dawkins in the twentieth century.10
Inspired by Voltaire, the early French Revolutionaries rebelled against religion.
Inspired by Voltaire, the early French Revolutionaries rebelled against religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular, which at the time owned the largest amount of land in France.11 The Revolution’s extreme dechristianization program included subordinating the Church to the revolutionary government, destroying icons of worship including crosses, and legalizing the mass murder of clergy.12 To eradicate church references from public life, revolutionaries even tried turning the seven-day week founded in Genesis into a ten-day week, although the change proved too impractical to implement for long.13 (Besides, who wants to wait that long for the next weekend?)
Part of this revolutionary secularization process involved passing the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” in 1789, which stated, “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.”14
Interestingly, this statement sounds uncannily like the central principle of Wicca, known as the Wiccan Rede: “An ye harm no one, do what ye will.”15 In both cases, the same problem remains: without the biblical God as our authority for truth, who can absolutely, consistently define what “harm” means, or why harming someone else is wrong in the first place? Few people, for instance, would contradict that France’s murdered clergy (not to mention, the thousands of others abused and guillotined during the Reign of Terror) were unjustly “harmed” during the very Revolution which ironically sought to quell injustice. Ultimately, France’s history of secularization illustrates the dark consequences which logically flow from rejecting God’s Word as humanity’s authority for truth, morality, and justice.16
Amidst this chaotic humanist backdrop, two influential French scientists began theorizing about living things’ origins in ways which looked far different from the Genesis account.
Amidst this chaotic humanist backdrop of Renaissance and Revolution, two influential French scientists began theorizing about living things’ origins in ways which looked far different from the Genesis account. The first scientist, Georges-Louis Leclerc (Comte de Buffon), proposed that earth formed about 75,000 years ago17 when a comet hit the sun, ejecting matter which cooled to become the planets. From there, Buffon suggested that different life-forms spontaneously generated in different regions.18 Though he didn’t believe that one kind of living thing could change into another, Buffon’s ideas (including an older earth than a biblical timescale allows) looked different enough from Genesis that prominent 20th century evolutionist Ernst Mayer called Buffon “the father of evolutionism.”19
The second scientist, a mentee of Buffon known as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, did propose a type of evolution from a single ancestor to explain the origin of all living things.20 Lamarck, born over a century before Gregor Mendel paved the way for our modern understanding of genetics, suggested that creatures can pass along any trait they’ve acquired during their lifetimes to offspring, resulting in evolution. For instance, Lamarck expected that if a giraffe stretched its neck to reach leaves on tall trees, its descendants would be born with longer necks than previous generations possessed.21 Voila, evolution.
Clearly, this isn’t quite how parent-offspring resemblance works, so Lamarck’s ideas didn’t turn the world upside-down the way Darwin’s would later.22 Lamarck and Buffon’s suggestions nevertheless helped lay the foundation for France to believe in evolutionary origins as an alternative to accepting earth’s true history revealed in Genesis.
Today, nearly three hundred years after Lamarck’s birth, evolutionary origins beliefs are nearly ubiquitous throughout France. Among 34 nations surveyed in a 2006 study on the public “acceptance”23 of evolution, France ranked fourth-highest, with roughly 80% of French adults believing in human evolution.24 Of the primary and secondary school teachers discipling France’s upcoming generations, meanwhile, 98% report believing in evolution.25 Evolutionary theory also assumes a central place in France’s national science curricula from primary school onwards, with evolutionary biology and deep geological time ingrained in French students from age 9.26
There’s no consistent way to believe in human evolutionary origins and the literal truth of Genesis, the book on which major Christian doctrine directly or indirectly rests. Yet, evolution is a necessary belief of atheism. So, it’s no shocker that of 23 countries surveyed in 2011, France was the least theistic, with nearly 4 in 10 respondents claiming to not believe in any God.27
France’s history tells the (rather gruesome) story of how a long series of compromises on biblical authority creates a secular culture.
In the end, France’s history tells the (rather gruesome) story of how a long series of compromises on Biblical authority creates a secular culture—and of the bloodshed which may logically follow from making man’s word the authority rather than God’s. Much like we see happening in many evangelical circles today, compromises began in France when the official Church placed man’s word before God’s, even persecuting Reformers who stood solely on Scripture. Disillusionment with the Church and disregard for Scripture soon led influencers like Voltaire to vocally reject God’s Word, seek “Enlightenment” through human reasoning alone, and embrace hedonism in lieu of God-given moral standards. These ideas, in turn, helped fuel an aggressive dechristianization program during the Revolution, with a massive death toll analogous to the countless lives cut short by abortion and euthanasia in nations which make man’s word their authority today.
Even when outright religious persecution calmed in France, the evolutionary worldview foundation prepared by Buffon, Lamarck, and later, Darwin remained, lending supposed scientific justification for the many people clinging to atheism in modern France.
What are Christian students experiencing at the universities of such a secularized nation—and how are they keeping their faith, despite their culture’s influence?
Boarding my bus bound from Belgium to Paris, I believed I was about to find out.
Stay tuned for Part 28!