Atheism in Europe

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting article on Atheism in Europe last week:

Passive indifference to faith has left Europe’s churches mostly empty. But debate over religion is more intense and strident than it has been in many decades. Religion is re-emerging as a big issue in part because of anxiety over Europe’s growing and restive Muslim populations and a fear that faith is reasserting itself in politics and public policy. That is all adding up to a growing momentum for a combative brand of atheism, one that confronts rather than merely ignores religion.

Faith reasserting itself into politics and public policy?! It’s like Europe is doing everything in its power to not become America.

There was also reference to a London debate:

In London last month, leading British atheists squared off with defenders of faith in a public debate on the motion, “We’d be better off without religion.” Tickets cost nearly $40 but so many people wanted to attend that the event was moved to a bigger venue with over 2,000 seats. It still sold out. The audience declared the atheists the victors, by a margin of 1,205 to 778, with a few score abstentions.

Arguing that we would be better of without religion were Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, and Christopher Hitchens. Speaking against the motion were Rabbi Julia Neuberger, Professor Roger Scruton, and Nigel Spivey. (You can download that entire debate by going here.)

Christianity, once the bedrock of Europe’s identity, has been losing worshipers on the Continent for at least half a century, though some opinion polls suggest the downward trend has bottomed out. Around three-quarters of Europeans still describe themselves as Christians. But only a small minority go to church. In Western Europe, according to polls, fewer than 20% do.

This is another idea I’ve never understood: Some Christians want to see the integration of Church and State. But in Europe, where that has happened, it has led to an increased apathy to religion altogether. It has also led to a rise in atheists. I was in Iceland last summer, where the largest church in Reykjavik was scarcely attended, I was told, except maybe during Christmas. Wouldn’t religious people be better off in places where religion is a private matter?

You should still be able to read the full WSJ article without being a subscriber. Read it before it goes away!


[tags]atheist, atheism, The Wall Street Journal, Europe, Religion, Muslim, Islam, America, London, Richard Dawkins, A.C. Grayling, Christopher Hitchens, Julia Neuberger, Roger Scruton, Nigel Spivey, Christianity, Iceland, Reykjavik[/tags]

  • miller

    Several comments…

    My history is poor. When exactly were Church and State integrated in Europe?

    Saying that the downward trend of religion has bottomed out seems to contradict the poll from earlier, which indicated the older generations are the most religious. I suppose that’s just Britain though.

    Lastly, I think that when people talk about “atheist fundamentalists” (what a loaded word), this is the sort of thing they mean. Some atheists give the impression that were the situation reversed, with atheists being in the majority rather than theists, there would still be discrimination going on, though in the other direction. But… I feel ambivalent about the whole issue.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    My history is poor. When exactly were Church and State integrated in Europe?

    It’s usually dated to AD 313 when Emperor Constantine passed the Edict of Milan making Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. This combined with Constantine’s own conversion to Christianity, his patronage of the church, and his enforcement of Church orthodoxy helped transform Christianity from an oppressed slave religion to the dominant religion of the empire and especially of those in positions of power and influence. It was made the official religion of Rome in 380 by Emperor Theodosius.

    Personally I think it was one of the worst things to ever happen to Christianity and a complete sell-out of the gospel message, which, IMHO, is all about resisting and subverting the powers of empire in this world.

  • Darryl

    If we think there is a lot of opposition now to the Christian fundamentalists and their lust for political power, imagine if they should succeed. The country would be at war with itself.

    Some atheists give the impression that were the situation reversed, with atheists being in the majority rather than theists, there would still be discrimination going on, though in the other direction.

    People are people. In large groups, atheists would likely be no different than theists on this score. Madison had it right: maintain competing interests and you avoid tyranny; consolidate interest and power and everything goes to hell.

  • MTran

    miller,

    To this day, there are European states with official state religions (e.g., Church of England) and others that fully or partially subsidize churches of religions that fall into particular categories (e.g., Germany, which funds recognized churches in proportion to their representation among the populace, or so I have read.)

    A number of commentators have speculated that part of the heavy secularization of Europe has stemmed from the governmental subsidization of religions.

    Subsidization means that there is no perceived need to participate financially in a church’s well being and, perhaps more telling, that the religion itself is seen as being tainted by its association with a distrusted government. Thus parisioners don’t feel the same level of commitment to the institution.

    In contrast, in the US, churches are very much free market driven with keen marketing skills, constantly seeking funds and membership.

  • Richard Wade

    This is another idea I’ve never understood: Some Christians want to see the integration of Church and State. But in Europe, where that has happened, it has led to an increased apathy to religion altogether. It has also led to a rise in atheists.

    Europe had its bloodbath for centuries. They’re sick of it. But don’t expect the fundies in the U.S. to learn from history. They either ignore history or they re-write it. If the Radical Religious Right seized power it would be a new holocaust. They’d set up “salvation camps” around the country. Those were called something else in Europe. We’d have to have our own Thirty Years War before disillusionment and apathy set in.

    Darryl is right that it would tear this country apart, and that because people are people whoever won would be the oppressors of the losers. It happened in Rome and Europe; anywhere that one belief system conquers another there’s hell on earth. That’s why I disagree with the anti-theist atheists. Their way will bring back the same repeating nightmare. We must find a new way that is not conquest oriented, not about obliteration. If secularism is to replace dangerously irrational religion it must be through attrition over a very long time, using persuasion, positive engagement and attraction by good example. We have to balance patience and effort.

    Wouldn’t religious people be better off in places where religion is a private matter?

    They could use the closets we are now vacating.

  • MTran

    Europe had its bloodbath for centuries. They’re sick of it. But don’t expect the fundies in the U.S. to learn from history.

    Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, or so I’ve heard. Unfortunately, they drag the rest of us along too, so we are all doomed by ignorance.

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    If the Radical Religious Right seized power it would be a new holocaust. They’d set up “salvation camps” around the country.

    Richard, you know that I am totally opposed to the Religious Right too, but your claims about their true intentions still strike me as a little extreme. Be careful of fear-mongering. I agree that it would be pretty bad if the RR got control of the country, but it’s going a little far to suggest that they would do this kind of stuff. I was a part of the Religious Right for a long time, and I never heard anyone suggest anything like “salvation camps”.

    Though ironically I did hear a lot of fear-mongers among the Religious Right claim that the secularists were going to do this to Christians if they ever got complete power. But I’m not sure making these kind of accusations about the other side helps either group.

  • Logos

    fear-mongering is as much a part of human nature as any of our better qualities.

  • Richard Wade

    Mike C, thank you for your perspective. I put that thought up with the hope and expectation that someone would disagree. I expected rational arguments against the likelihood of it, but I didn’t expect the fear mongering angle. I certainly wouldn’t want to do that, and at the same time I don’t want to make the so often fatal mistake of saying, “Oh, that couldn’t happen here.” I’m reminded of the scene in “Ship of Fools” where the Jew who is being ostracized by the rest of the passengers is speaking to the only other passenger who will talk to him, a dwarf. He shrugs off all the shunning and bigotry that is growing all around him and says with complete incredulity, “Besides, what are they going to do, kill all of us? The silent look in the face of his companion sends chills down my spine.

    When I think of fear mongering I think of deliberately manipulating people through their fear the way a demagogue would. To avoid any chance of that in myself I will shut up about this, but we must not be naive about things. There are more holocaust deniers and fewer holocaust survivors every year. Once it is forgotten the chances of it returning against any group increase greatly.

    I really hope I’m being paranoid, but I don’t want to be falsely reassured. So I’ll make no more such statements for now, but I’ll remain “eternally vigilant,” as Jefferson said we must.

  • Karen

    I really hope I’m being paranoid, but I don’t want to be falsely reassured. So I’ll make no more such statements for now, but I’ll remain “eternally vigilant,” as Jefferson said we must.

    Amen, brother! :-)

  • http://emergingpensees.blogspot.com/ Mike C

    Indeed Richard, I would never be so foolish as to say “It could never happen here.” But I do think that we’re still a long way off from it possibly happening here. And what I was mainly reacting to was the similarity between your fears about what would happen if the RR got control and their fears if people like Sam Harris got control. What you said about the RR is exactly what I grew up hearing from them about you atheists (e.g. try reading the novel The Illuminati by Dobson pal Larry Burkett to see what I mean). So I guess I’m wary of hearing it from either side these days. I don’t think either group (even the extremists on either side) are quite the demons their opponents make them out to be.

    But yes, vigiliance is always good!

  • Richard Wade

    I don’t think either group (even the extremists on either side) are quite the demons their opponents make them out to be.

    That’s true. Thank you for reminding me of that.

  • Darryl

    Richard, you know that I am totally opposed to the Religious Right too, but your claims about their true intentions still strike me as a little extreme. Be careful of fear-mongering. I agree that it would be pretty bad if the RR got control of the country, but it’s going a little far to suggest that they would do this kind of stuff. I was a part of the Religious Right for a long time, and I never heard anyone suggest anything like “salvation camps”.

    You’ve never seen the Religious Right with unlimited state power either. We don’t know what they would be capable of. What’s that maxim? Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

  • Jammie

    It would boarder on hilarity if we all had to jump on a boat–alright, a plane–and go to Europe to escape insane religious people.


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