Is Europe Christian?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
The intriguing question above is the title of a brief new book (from Oxford University Press) by prominent French social analyst Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and critic of political Islam.
To Roy, the correct answer is that it all depends on what you mean by “Christian.” The Religion Guy agrees. If the answer is no, that’s an epochal change. The continent has served as the faith’s heartland through much of history, symbolized by Catholicism’s headquarters in Rome and the World Council of Churches offices in Geneva, though thriving churches in the Global South are now taking the numerical lead.
Across the continent, the Christian heritage involves some cultural and moral influences, nostalgia, folkways, and a residuum of respect. But actual belief, practice, and church participation are weakening steadily. Is Shrove Tuesday February 25 merely about pancake recipes, or Christmas a season of street markets and consumer excess? Pope Benedict and allies could not even win acknowledgment of the continent’s past Christian roots in the European Union’s constitution of 2004.
The Pew Research Center tells us Europe is the only sector of the world where the population labeled Christian in whatever way is shrinking by demography as deaths steadily outnumber births, resulting in a net loss of 5.6 million in just the years 2010 to 2015.
Before turning to Roy’s argument, let’s scan relevant data from Pew’s 2018 report on telephone interviews with 24,599 randomly selected adults conducted in 12 languages in 15 nations of Western Europe (post-Soviet Eastern Europe was not surveyed).
It’s striking that only 27 percent of West Europeans “believe in God as described in the Bible” any longer. Another 38 percent believe in some other sort of vague “higher power.” A commanding 63 percent “mostly agree” with the assertion that “science makes religion unnecessary in my life.”
Ranked by the degree to which people raised Christian are no longer actively involved, the biggest drop-off is in Belgium, followed by Norway, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, France, Portugal and Finland. Notably devout Ireland has lately lurched toward secularism. Western Europe’s landscape is dominated by people who were baptized and raised Christian, and most among them still think of themselves as Christian in some sense.
Yet only 22 percent across the region attend church monthly or more often. In each of the 15 nations except Italy, those who attend church infrequently or never outnumber those who attend at least monthly. By Pew’s definitions, Britain for example shows 55 percent “non-practicing” Christians who loosely identify with that faith, compared with 18 percent who are actual “church-attending” Christians.
Those who were raised in church but now lack any religious identity were asked why. The leading explanations (more than one answer was allowed) were just “gradually drifting away” (68 percent), disagreement on social issues like abortion or same-sex marriage (58 percent), no longer believing in religious doctrines (54 percent) and church scandals (53 percent).
The picture was even more bleak in the 2018 report on Europe by Stephen Bullivant of St. Mary’s University, London, to a Vatican synod. For instance, substantial majorities of young adults in Belgium, France, Hungary and Spain say they never pray. In Eastern Europe’s Czech Republic, non-praying people reach 80 percent, showing the failed Communist regime had one lasting achievement, gravely wounding the nation’s churches through persistent oppression.
“Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good — or at least for the next hundred years,” Bullivant informed Catholic officials. “The new default setting is ‘no religion’ and the few who are religious see themselves as swimming against the tide.”
You’ll immediately recognize that the situation in the United States is quite different, even though non-religious citizens are on the rise. The Guy now turns to a rough summation of some key observations from Roy as follows.
Christians as a community bound together by faith are beset by the “large-scale dechristianization” of European society, with churchgoers well outnumbered by people who identify as “Christian” in some sense but are religiously rootless. Mainline – liberal Protestantism in particular has created “the triumph of self-secularization” by churches. Conservative Protestant evangelicalism, imported by outsiders, seeks converts and has little interest in the cultural struggle.
The secularized European masses believe first and foremost in individual choice, typified by the “my body is my business” mantra or the “fluidity” of gender defined as “cultural” and no longer “natural” and biological.
A significant minority group of Muslim immigrants has plunged into this complex “crisis in European culture.” As a result, populism has merged with “Christian identity” instincts that exploit religious nostalgia and symbols to rally wariness or hostility toward Muslim newcomers while doing nothing to rehabilitate Christianity as a living religion. Rather, the rising right-wing populism is not interested in the authentic faith of actual churches, and in some ways is its sworn enemy.
In politics and law, “the urge to limit the role of Islam amounts to reducing the religious sphere in general.” Use of “Christian identity as a means to counter the rise of Islam results in the increased secularization of Christianity.” Secularists have shifted into “identity politics” and thereby help “undo the link between Europe and Christianity.” These trends can only be countered by “an overwhelming return” to Christianity as a functioning religion, and this probably depends on Catholics and not the weakened Protestantism of the sort so evident in post-Lutheran Scandinavia.
So Roy contends. The Guy concludes this answer with a question. What are the odds that a Christian resurgence can occur?