Academic and religious boredom

I’ve written before about the curious state of academic boredom. Lately, I’ve been reading Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, and was struck by his comments on boredom in traditional French church services:

The rhythm is slow. The audience is bored to tears by the respectful abstraction of it all. Religion will end in boredom, and to offer boredom to the Lord is hardly a living sacrifice. (Yet as I write these lines, I wonder if I’m not making a crude mistake. Magic has always gone hand in hand with emotion, hope and terror, and still does. But are there such things as religious ’emotions’? Probably no more than there is a ‘psychological state’ – consciousness or thought without an object – that could be called ‘faith’. These are ideological fictions. Surely religion, like theology, metaphysics, ceremonies, academic literature and official poets, has always been boring. This has never been a hindrance, because one of the aims of ‘spiritual’ discipline and asceticism has always been precisely to disguise and to transfigure this living boredom…)

(Vol. 1, p. 220-21. English translation by John Moore, Verso, 1991.)

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Religion at Paris-8: Djinn and the Evil Eye

This is the last installment of my translation of some preliminary results from Charles Soulié’s study of religion among Paris-8 students, and this is going to be the post where I out myself as some kind of rationalist and modernist… Or at any rate where I express surprise at the non-negligible rates of magical and supernatural belief within the Paris-8 student body. I’ll sum things up: about 1 in 3 students believe in the Evil Eye (or at least they checked “yes” on the questionnaire), about 1 in 5 believe in djinn, and about 1 in 5 believe in astrology. These are minority views, in all cases, certainly, and are no doubt products of the radically transcultural space of Paris-8, where normative French national beliefs are often not in effect. A couple of these seem to be characteristically Islamic beliefs, others more diffuse across religions. To be honest, I can’t say I really understand what it’s like to believe in the Evil Eye, though I do have some idea what it means to believe in astrology (I give the astrologers credit for their acceptance that our lives are determined from the outside, though I strongly disagree that star positions are the most important node in this process of determination). For a devoutly secular person like me… there’s something always just slightly disquieting in reading over the substantial rates of non-secularism in the world.

A further note on this data: The last question here deals with wearing religious signs (strongest among the Greek Orthodox, as you’ll see). I’d emphasize here that our analysis of these religious artifacts ought to be somewhat different from our analysis of the rates of evil-eye-belief. A worn artifact is a sign of external identification (or verification) of one’s social identity in a way that a mental acceptance of some phenomenon (e.g. djinn) need not be. Even religious signs that are worn under the clothing, it seems to me, still have this characteristic of identity marking, even if one is thereby only signaling to oneself one’s own identity. (It’s interesting to note that among these signs of identity, only one, the headscarf, seems to have become a major public controversy. But we won’t get into the French politics of the veil just now.)

So without further ado…

Table 2: Belief in the Evil Eye by religion

Yes No No Response Total
Muslims 68.90% 24.41% 6.69% 100%
Christians 47.83% 44.93% 7.25% 100%
Other religions 44.57% 46.74% 8.70% 100%
Greek Orthodox 38.46% 53.85% 7.69% 100%
Jews 36.36% 54.55% 9.09% 100%
Catholics 35.62% 59.59% 4.79% 100%
None / NR 13.77% 82.32% 3.91% 100%
Buddhists 11.76% 88.24% 0.00% 100%
Protestants 7.69% 89.74% 2.56% 100%
Total 31.48% 63.44% 5.08% 100%
n 403 812 65 1,280

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Religion at Paris-8, Part 2

I see that Mike has already inquired as to the methodology of the report on student religion that I began posting yesterday. Most of his methodological queries are settled by the below section, which was actually the introduction in the original French version, but which I’m posting second because I wanted to start with some of the substantive conclusions.

This report looks into the ways that undergraduates [étudiants de 1er cycle] at Paris-8 relate to religion, and into their opinions and practices about their customs and politics. It is based on a questionnaire and interview study conducted in 2004-5 with a group of undergraduate sociology students at Paris-8 (Vincennes-Saint Denis). The project looks at these students’ undergraduate classmates who were present in class across a selected sample of some ten disciplines. It was initially planned as a form of research training through research practice.

The framework of inquiry

Paris-8 has the greatest fraction of foreign students of any French university. In 2003-4, grouping all levels together, they formed 34.7% of enrollments. At the same time, as a result of its location in Seine Saint-Denis [a working-class suburb just north of Paris], this establishment has a high percentage of immigrants’ children. The high proportion of migrants, and of children of migrants, thus makes the establishment a privileged observatory of the processes of religious, moral and political acculturation.


1,280 students responded to the questionnaire and around thirty interviews were conducted. 65% of respondents were first years, and 67.6% were women, the percentage of women ranging from 85.6% in psychology to 19.4% in computer science [informatique]. 80% of the students were French, 10% came from the countries of North and Central Africa [des pays du Maghreb et d’Afrique noire], 5.6% from Europe, 2.9% from Asia and 2.1% from America or elsewhere. The majority of foreign students at Paris-8, therefore, come from the countries of North and Central Africa, which are largely Islamic.

The proportion of foreigners varies by discipline. It’s highest in French literature (57.9%) and computer science (45.8%), and lowest in history (7.8%), plastic arts (9.9%) and cinema (10.2%). The particular nationalities also vary by discipline: the Europeans are most present in French literature and communication, the North Africans [maghrébins] in computer science and economics, the Central Africans in economics, and the Asians in French literature and computer science. This distribution also generally corresponds with the observable tendencies on the national scale.

We must also add that the notion of a foreign student, beneath its apparent bureaucratic simplicity (being a foreigner means having a foreign nationality), is a complex and ambiguous one. For some have lived for a very long time in France, or were even born here, while others are in positions of mobility; and this varies greatly according to nationality. 37% of North African students have a father who lives in France, against 20.8% for European students and 12.5% for those from Central Africa. These students’ family roots, and hence also their social, economic and cultural roots, thus differ strongly.

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Religion at Paris-8, Part 1

The main point of this post is as follows: One of the most left-wing universities in France is composed of a majority — a very slight majority, mind you, but still a majority — of religious believers.

Charles Soulié, of the Paris-8 sociology department, kindly shared with me some unpublished results of a survey project on campus religious belief that he conducted in 2004-2005. I’m going to post my translation of it in three segments: first the basic figures, then his comments on foreign students, and finally some very interesting results about campus beliefs in magical phenomena like the Evil Eye (beliefs which, moreover, aren’t as extinct as one might expect in our supposedly postmodern era).

Here’s what the figures look like, broken down by discipline. (I’ll post some details about the survey later; for now let me just note that it’s a survey of undergrads.)

None* Muslims Catholics Other Christians Other Religions
Cinema 71,43% 8,16% 9,18% 0,00% 11,22%
Arts 64,93% 5,69% 10,43% 8,06% 10,90%
Psychology 56,15% 15,57% 9,43% 9,43% 9,43%
Anthropology 54,72% 14,15% 10,38% 9,43% 11,32%
Communication 48,31% 14,98% 17,87% 9,18% 9,66%
History 46,07% 25,84% 13,48% 6,74% 7,87%
Others 42,37% 25,42% 10,17% 10,17% 11,86%
French Lit 36,84% 31,58% 5,26% 19,30% 7,02%
Computer Sci 26,39% 45,83% 8,33% 9,72% 9,72%
Economics 22,63% 44,53% 12,41% 16,06% 4,38%
Total 49,92% 19,84% 11,41% 9,45% 9,38%
N (total 1,280) 639 254 146 121 120

* None designates no religion, atheist or no response.
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