Is Western Europe Still Christian?

Is Western Europe Still Christian? June 1, 2018

By Dr. Jakob Egeris Thorsen*

The Pew Forum has published a report focusing on the role of Christianity in Western Europe. The overall results show a region that is ‘non-practicing Christian’ with low levels of church attendance and adherence to key Christian beliefs and doctrine. Furthermore, both church-going and ‘cultural’ Christians are more skeptical than ‘nones’ toward migrants and Islam, which is the dominant religion among recent migrants. In this commentary, I will focus on the some of the survey results concerning Roman Catholics and countries were the majority of Christians are Catholic.

Compared to the U.S., Western Europe is highly secularized. Among the European countries surveyed, the predominantly Catholic countries are generally less secularized than the Protestant, with Belgium and the Catholic parts of the Netherlands being an exception. This is visible with regard to regular church attendance, personal prayer, adherence to biblical understandings of God, and the view of the public role and influence of religion.

Across the region, 18 % of the population is categorized as church-attending Christians. Among the seven countries that score above the average, none is predominantly Protestant, five are Catholic, and two (Germany and Switzerland) are of mixed denomination. By far the largest group are non-practicing Christians, which correspond to 46 % of the Western European population, whereas those who self-identify as “religiously unaffiliated” amount to 24 %. In the top five among the latter group, there are two traditionally Catholic (Belgium, 38 % and Spain, 30 %) and one partly Catholic (Netherlands, 48 %).

While Catholic countries generally score higher than Protestant ones regarding church-attendance and non-attending Christians, they also have a notable presence among the countries with the most rapid recent decline in those who self-identify as Christian. In the period from 2002 to 2014, four Catholic countries have experienced a decline of more than 10 percentage points: Belgium (from 45 to 34 %), Portugal (from 84 to 72 %) and Spain (from 76 to 63 %). Right behind is Ireland with a 9 percentage points decline (from 80 to 71 %). There thus seems to be a recent tendency of Catholics to disaffiliate more rapidly than Protestants.

In almost all countries across denominations, for those raised in a religion (i.e. Christianity), who now identify as unaffiliated, the most significant reason for leaving church and a Christian identity stated is “gradually drifting away from religion” (68 %). The only exception is Spain, where “disagreement with their religion’s position on social issues” (69 %) and “Being unhappy about scandals involving religious institutions” (74 %) rank higher. These categories also rank high among unaffiliated in two of the other Catholic countries with rapid recent decline mentioned above. In Portugal and Ireland, 65 and 64 % (respectively) disagree on “social issues” and 60 and 58 % (respectively) are unhappy about “scandals.” Discontent with scandals is especially common in Catholic majority countries and may refer to the global sex abuse scandal. The disagreement with the church’s position on social issues may refer especially to the heated debates on abortion and gay marriage in the last decades in nations such as Portugal, Spain and Ireland.

Regarding the questions of gay marriage and legal abortion, both are strongly favored by Western Europeans (75 and 81 %, respectively). This is also case in all Catholic majority countries. Here, only the minority of strongly committed Christians (i.e. Catholics) are in opposition to the general public. Belgium is the exception; here 68 % of the highly committed Catholics favor legal abortion and 57 % favor same-sex marriages. But even in countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, sizeable minorities of the highly committed Catholics disagree with the official position on abortion (41, 42 and 47 %, respectively) and gay marriage (35, 58 and 44 %, respectively). All of the above is a strong indication that the Catholic Church in Western Europe is gradually is losing its influence on moral questions.

Self-identifying as Christian and believing in God does not necessarily coincide. Only 27 % of Western Europeans believe in a personal God as described in the Bible, whereas 38 % believe in a “higher power” or a “spiritual force.” In general, belief in the biblical God is higher in Catholic majority countries than in Protestant ones. Italy (46 %), Ireland (39 %), Portugal (36 %) and Austria (32 %) are highest ranking regarding a traditional Christian understanding of God. Surprisingly, the Catholic majority country Belgium ranks lowest of all countries on this question, together with highly secularized, Protestant Sweden (both 14 %). Again, this shows that Belgium is the country that differs most from the Catholic norm and more resembles secular Protestant countries.

With regard to personal prayer practice, Catholic majority countries generally rank higher than Protestant ones, with Italy (60 %), Portugal (57 %) and Ireland (53 %) being at the top of list regarding the percentage of the population that engages in daily or occasional personal prayer. There thus seems to be a correlation between belief in a personal God and engaging in prayer practice, which corresponds well with the fact that 74 % of Belgians and 78 % of Swedes seldom or never engage in prayer.

Here we should briefly focus on a range of questions that have already received the most widespread news media attention since the Pew report was published last week. After the refugee and migrant crisis of 2015 and various terrorist attacks from 2015 to 2017 by radical Islamic extremists, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiments have been on the rise throughout all of Europe, and the Pew Report therefore examines the correlation between religious identity and attitudes toward (further) immigration and Muslims. The Pew Report shows clearly that those who self-identify as non-practicing or practicing Christians have more skeptical and negative attitudes towards immigration and Islam than the religiously unaffiliated. Among non-practicing and practicing Christians, 45 and 49 % (respectively) believe Islam to be incompatible with their country’s culture and values, whereas ‘only’ 32 % of unaffiliated share that view. On this question there is no significant difference between Catholic and Protestant majority countries, with examples of both scoring high (e.g. Austria and Finland) and relatively low (Portugal and Sweden). Likewise, across Western Europe practicing and non-practicing Christians (40 and 37 %, respectively) are more likely than unaffiliated (28 %) to be in favor of reducing further immigration. Neither here does the question of Christian denomination seem to matter.

In conclusion, both church-attending (72 %) and non-practicing Christians (52 %) are more likely than unaffiliated (42 %) to link national identity with ancestry. Here practicing Christians in Catholic majority countries generally rank higher than Protestants, with Portugal (85 %), Italy (81 %) and Ireland (77 %) being at the top of the list. In Pew’s NIM index (Nationalist, anti-Immigrant and anti-religious Minority), practicing and non-Practicing Christians in Catholic majority countries have a tendency of ranking higher than those in Protestant majority countries do. However, these correlations do not say anything about a causal connection. As the Pew Forum states: “It could be that holding anti-immigrant positions may lead a person to embrace Europe’s historically dominant religious identity, rather than that identifying with Europe’s historically dominant religious group leads a person to take anti-minority positions” (p. 78).

Nevertheless, I think it is fair to conclude that people who self-identify as Christian and practice their faith are significantly more skeptical towards Islam and further migration than the unaffiliated. This is especially the case for Catholics. A liberal interpretation of this could point to the potential inherent exclusivity and intolerance in Christian religion and endorse the gradual religious decline in Europe as a pathway toward a more tolerant and multi-cultural and multi-religious Europe. A more conservative interpretation, on the other hand, would state that practicing Christians have a deeper understanding of the importance and impact of religion in people’s lives. Therefore, they are much more realistic (and less idealistic) about the huge social problems and cultural tensions created by uncontrolled mass migration of predominantly young Muslim males than the unaffiliated, who tend to understand religion as merely a personal attribute or question of individual choice.

*Jakob Egeris Thorsen, PhD, is an associate professor at the Department of Theology at Aarhus University (Denmark). He has published various articles and anthology chapters on religion in Latin America, global Catholicism and systematic theology. In 2015 Brill published his book, Charismatic Practice and Catholic Parish Life – The Incipient Pentecostalization of the Church in Guatemala and Latin America.



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  • TinnyWhistler

    ““It could be that holding anti-immigrant positions may lead a person to embrace Europe’s historically dominant religious identity, rather than that identifying with Europe’s historically dominant religious group leads a person to take anti-minority positions””

    In my experience, people who are anti-immigrant, anti-minority, and all around authoritarian tend to make up a sizable portion of the new converts. They see their behavior rejected in the more mainstream culture but find a haven in various forms of conservative Christianity, Catholic or not.