Grace DavieBy Grace Davie

Drawing on recently published work, this short article introduces a series of factors that are currently shaping the religious life of Europe. These factors not only change and adapt over time, they push and pull in different directions. (Note that these comments have particular relevance to western Europe. Those parts of Europe that were under Communist domination until 1989 have a rather different trajectory. They are less influenced by the relatively recent arrival of Islam and more by long-standing religious minorities -- a presence very often brought about by historic border changes.)

These six factors, then, that will shape the future of European religion:   

1)   The role of the historic churches in forming European culture. This is easily illustrated in the sense that the Christian tradition has had an irreversible effect on time (calendars, seasons, festivals, holidays, weeks, and weekends) and space (the parish system and the dominance of Christian buildings) in this part of the world.  

2)   An awareness that the historic churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of modern Europeans, though they are no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behaviour of the great majority of the population. Despite their relative secularity, Europeans are likely to return to their churches at moments of celebration or grief (whether individual or collective). 

3)   An observable change in the churchgoing constituencies of the continent, which operate increasingly on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty. As a result, membership of the historic churches is changing in nature; increasingly it is chosen rather than inherited, though more so in some places than in others.

4)   The arrival into Europe of groups of people from many different parts of the world. This is primarily an economic movement, but the implications for the religious life of the continent are immense. The growing presence of Christians from the global South alongside significant other faith communities has altered the religious profile of Europe. Quite apart from this, some of these communities are -- simply by their presence -- challenging some deeply held European assumptions, notably the notion that religion should be considered a private matter. 

Read More from: The Future of Religion

5)   Rather different are the sometimes vehement reactions of Europe's secular elites to this shift, i.e. to the increasing significance of religion in public as well as private life. Such elites did not anticipate a change of this nature, but see it as their duty to question what is happening, sometimes aggressively, sometimes less so.

6)   A gradual, but growing realization that the patterns of religious life in modern Europe should be considered an "exceptional case" -- they are not a global prototype. It short, Europeans are beginning to realize that Europe is secular not because it is modern, but because it is European. It is equally true that some Europeans welcome this insight; others are disconcerted by it.