Laïcité is what Laïcité does: Rethinking the French cult controversy

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France’s distinctive reaction towards “cults” is generally described as a result of laïcité’s consubstantial problems with religious diversity. The aim of this article is to present an alternative way of thinking about the French cult controversy and, ultimately, about the concept of “laïcité” as an explanatory framework for France’s response to religious diversity. It draws on empirical data to look at how notions such as “laïcité” and “cults” are used in official discourses and translated into administrative practice. This approach will underline that laïcité is not a driving force that predetermines a unilateral response to “cults”, but that laïcité is as laïcité does, in other words a highly claimed and contested value, reflecting divergent political and administrative approaches of the cult phenomenon. The framework “laïcité versus religious diversity” is also undermined by another crucial observation. While it sees the cult controversy as primarily a religious issue, it seems that the recent revitalisation of the combat against “cults” was made possible by its partial dissociation from the religious sphere and its extension to a wide range of practices and new areas.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)489-510
Number of pages22
JournalCurrent Sociology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2010


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