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