W(h)ither Europe?

Lately there has been a line of social science research that has been very positive for the egos of secularists. This tends to point out that religious belief is correlated with social insecurity, and that a high proportion of nonbelief in societies goes together with indicators of societal health. (See, for example, Phil Zuckerman’s “Is Faith Good for Us?”.) Very secular societies such as those of Western and Northern Europe and Japan do much better than countries where faith is riding high; the US falls somewhere in the middle.

Conservatives who favor religion, however, need not be bothered too much by such research, even if it were all to turn out to be correct. After all, if strong faiths are vital for human societies, the problem with falling away from religion may most clearly present itself in the long term. They suspect that a highly secular society cannot successfully reproduce its way of life in the long run, regardless of indicators of immediate societal health. After all, such indicators do not address cultural reproduction.

Hence the anti-Europe arguments that have become so popular in US right wing circles. To many American conservatives, secular Europe may be a relatively pleasant place where lives of hedonism appear attractive, but Europe is also being overrun by fundamentalist Muslims, approaching demographic collapse, and suffering from economic stagnation. Without Christianity, these societies have no common purpose beyond individual hedonism or the well-meaning but ineffectual morality of secular humanism. Europeans have lost the will to reproduce their culture, most directly because they reproduce well below the population replacement level. They may be able to afford bloated welfare states that boost indicators of “societal health” for a short period, but especially as their populations age and have to be supported by an imported underclass of resentful Muslims, all of this will very quickly become unsustainable.

Now, much of the conservative literature that argues this way is dripping with American or Israeli nationalism, not to mention the hypercapitalism that is the real established religion in the US. They probably tell me more about the demonology of our right wing than about Europe, so I don’t trust them.

Nonetheless, I also think there are some grains of truth there. The European Union project appears to have stalled, and no one really knows what’s going to happen. European economies depend on achieving growth, and their social security systems depend on a larger number of workers coming up to pay for the aged, so in the usual shortsighted economic terms, their low and falling birthrates are worrisome. Europe does have a Muslim problem—even if we reject the bigoted and alarmist views of “Eurabia,” it’s very clear that Europe’s large and rapidly growing Muslim minorities have not been integrated and don’t display a lot of interest in becoming more integrated. And it’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether Europe—the closest thing we have to actually existing secular humanist societies—presents an attractive enough ideal to either outsiders or insiders to be able to secure allegiances and reproduce itself.

I don’t know. I am, however, willing to say that the long-term sustainability of fully secular societies is still an open question.

(I could also add that since exponential growth in the numbers of wealthy Westerners would just rapidly add to the probably already unbearable strain on the environment, declining European populations is probably a good thing. But that doesn’t matter. All we’ll get is the secular humanists being demographically swamped by highly religious, high birth-rate societies. If then civilization collapses, the fundamentalists can be happy with that version of Armageddon, and start slaughtering the remaining few godless people around who obviously must be to blame for all the troubles.)

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06394155516712665665 CyberKitten

    TE said: And it’s perfectly legitimate to ask whether Europe—the closest thing we have to actually existing secular humanist societies—presents an attractive enough ideal to either outsiders or insiders to be able to secure allegiances and reproduce itself.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by that. I would imagine that most Europeans have some kind of allegence to Europe. I know I do. I’m really not sure what you mean by ‘reproduce itself’ though…..

    TE said: I don’t know. I am, however, willing to say that the long-term sustainability of fully secular societies is still an open question.

    That would depend on what you mean by ‘long-term’. Are we talking hundreds or thousands of years? Secular Europe is after all a very recent event in historical terms. All the indications I have seen though inevitably draw me to the conclusion that Christianity is in steady decline. What effect Muslim populations will have on the European political and religious scene in the next century or so is anyone’s guess – but I doubt if they will make the rest of us Secular Humanists more religious.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16731690779682393927 Philip

    I’m interested in the Straussian viewpoint (or what Shadia Drury calls the Straussian viewpoint) that, empirically speaking, a healthy, functioning society depends on most of its citizens having at least moderate religious beliefs. This is supposed to be an empirical rather than a conceptual truth, since it’s based on the distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric, between the elites and the mob. As a matter of fact, most people need the crutch of religion; for example, most people think morality, and thus social order, depend on religion. The special few, however, those whom Nietzsche calls the overmen, the elites, understand both that religious beliefs are all false and that nevertheless the vulgar masses need religion and need also for the elites at least to appear to be religious.

    If European countries are exceptions to this Straussian view, it might be because, empirically speaking, the elites outnumber the uneducated, weak-willed vulgar persons in Europe, so that the exoteric-esoteric distinction doesn’t apply in the same way. And yet, if in the long run Europe depends on an underclass to support the elite (socialist) European lifestyle, this underclass might require religion. If Muslims are supposed to fulfill an underclass role in Europe, Muslims will need their religion to console them; while they lose out economically in the present life, they can look forward to a pleasant afterlife thanks to their moral purity.

    One point is certain, which is that none of these sociological studies is conclusive with respect to the question whether theism or atheism is true. Theism might be preferable from a pragmatic, sociological, or psychological viewpoint, and still be false; happiness for most people may depend on their having religious beliefs; social unity may depend at least on there being a civic religion, or on the appearance of the elites having religious beliefs, and yet theism may be false. Theism may be preferable and socially necessary, and still there may be no God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09891160904748206385 AYDIN ÖRSTAN

    >I am, however, willing to say that the long-term sustainability of fully secular societies is still an open question.

    Europe’s Moslem problem is specific to Europe. But I don’t see what that has anything to do with the sustainability of a fully secular society in general. Surely, one can have a fully secular society that is not flooded by Moslem workers who refure to integrate.