The National Catholic Review
Andrew M. Greeley

Man bites dog is news. So is the decline of religion. Dog bites man is continuity. So too the persistence of religion. That’s not news. Thus the media are fascinated by allegations of religious decline in Europe, especially because the remnants of modernity expect, even demand, the decline of religion. When someone argues that Europe is a vast and complex place and that there are many different measures of religion, one runs the risk of being mired in qualifications. Nonetheless, religion in Europe, like most other human phenomena, is gray. It has declined in some countries (France, Britain, the Netherlands), has increased in other countries (Russia, Latvia, Slovenia, Hungary), remains high and stable in yet other countries (Ireland, Poland, Switzerland, Slovakia, Cyprus, Austria), stable and diffuse in still other countries (Spain, Italy, Portugal) and stable and low in yet other countries (Scandinavia, the former East Germany, the Czech Republic).

 

The figures to back up these generalizations, which are too extensive to enumerate in this article, can by found in my new book, Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millenium. The analysis of European religion found there involves 23 nations and four surveys carried out between 1980 and 1998.

Some random evidence of complexity: though Scandinavians are not a religiously devout people, nearly half of Norwegians still assert that Jesus is their savior. More residents of eastern Germany believe in divine miracles than believe in God. (Who is the God in whom they do not believe?) Belief in God increased in Russia from 48 percent to 60 percent during the 1990’s. Superstition is weak in regions where belief in God or atheism is strong (Ireland and regions of eastern Germany) and powerful in countries where doubt is strong (Britain and western Germany).

Such complexities should persuade those who derive their knowledge of European religion from the media to be careful. It will be said, and often has been said: look at Britain, France and the Netherlands; these are the really important countries. To which one might reply: look at Russia, Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Latvia. What makes them unimportant? Indeed, in the face of the revival of religion in Russia (perhaps the most dramatic religious revival in human history), how can anyone take seriously the secularization model of religion?

The most striking finding is the dramatic rise in the belief in life after death among the youngest cohorts in all but three countries (Ireland, Cyprus and Britain—in the first two, it was already high). In the whole European sample, 56 percent of the cohorts born before 1930 believe in life after death, 50 percent of those born in the 1950’s, and 60 percent of those born after 1970. Grandparents and grandchildren are more likely to believe than parents. Since belief in life after death is one of the core components of Christian faith (and utterly abhorrent to the patrons of modernity), it can be asserted that Christian faith has increased in Europe as a whole. Only in Great Britain has this revival of faith not occurred. Perhaps the devastation of the war led to a decline in hope among those who were born to the survivors of the war, and then the prosperity of the postwar years influenced those born during those years.

God has not done badly in the late decades of the 20th century. Belief in God has increased in Russia and Hungary and decreased in Britain, the Netherlands, western Germany and France. Atheism is not popular save in eastern Germany (50 percent). Russia (20 percent), the Czech Republic (20 percent) and France (19 percent) are the next highest in atheism. In most European countries, moreover, the majority (77 percent) report denominational affiliation, the exception being eastern Germany and the Netherlands. Rates of nonaffiliation are almost 50 percent in France, the Czech Republic and Britain. Church affiliation has increased since 1991 in Russia (from 32 percent to 65 percent).

Church attendance figures are often cited in the media to prove that religion is in decline in Europe. It is the favorite indicator of most European sociologists and often the only indicator. One must compare current attendance rates, however, with past rates to see whether low levels today reflect change or merely continuity. In the last two decades of the 20th century, the proportion attending church services at least two or three times a month has declined in three Catholic countries—Ireland (82 percent to 71 percent), Poland (67 percent to 61 percent), and Italy (49 percent to 44 percent) and has increased in Hungary. There has been no significant change in any other countries except the Netherlands, where it has fallen from 25 percent to 18 percent. Professor Laurence Iannacone of George Mason University has developed a technique to project church attendance statistics back almost a century. While his work is as yet unpublished, I understand that it generally finds more continuity than change.

The religion-in-decline perspective is, in part, a function of the “good old days” fallacy. There was a time when “my grandmother went to the wee kirk and so did everyone else.” There was a time when people were more religious than they are now. Religious leaders like this fallacy because it gives them material to rant about. Secularizers like to point to the decline as evidence that religion no longer matters. Neither approach is good sociology, even when sociologists use it.

“Look at France,” I’m told, “the eldest daughter of the church!” To which I could reply, “Look at Poland!” I could add that I am not inclined to believe that France was ever a Christian country (despite all the cathedrals), but a more effective answer would be to say that the church has been on the wrong side in France for 200 years and on the right side in Poland. Look at the Netherlands! To which I say: look at Switzerland, a small, tripartite country dependent on international trade. The social consensus that supported religion in the Netherlands collapsed (with some help perhaps from the synod of the Dutch bishops); the Swiss social consensus (much older) did not. Religion in a given country is affected by history, social structure and culture; and it affects them. The result, however, is very different religious conditions and not a single, one-dimensional trend.

What about Great Britain? (Data for Northern Ireland were collected in a separate survey.) English historians recently have argued that Henry VIII was the first secularizer, that he replaced a religious society with an established church. It could be, then, that what one observes in Great Britain today is the endgame for Anglicanism. In the cohort born before 1930, the defection rate of Anglicans to “no religion” was 20 percent. In the cohort born after 1970, the rate rose to 70 percent. One can compare France to Poland, the Netherlands to Switzerland, but to what can one compare Britain? Is there a group that might represent a tradition older than Canterbury? The apostasy rate of Catholics for the same half century has not moved above 20 percent, whatever may be the serious problems of the Catholic Church in England.

The argument here is not that Europeans are devout. Some are; most are not. They never have been. They may have been superstitious. They still are. Yet there has been on balance some improvement since the end of the first millennium, when a wise investor would not have gone long on Christianity. In Catholicism there has been some improvement since the Reformation. The European Protestant churches have lost much of their élan, except in Switzerland. M. Voltaire and his colleagues confidently predicted the quick end of religion in Europe. They were wrong. A quarter millennium later, their successors are still wrong. Religion—imperfect, troubled, always changing, conflicted, always surviving, always under assault—still manages to hang on. Those who know more about such things than I do tell me that modernity is finished.

Rev. Andrew M. Greeley is professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona and research associate at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Comments

Frank DeVito | 3/10/2004 - 10:04am
I want to thank Andrew Greeley (3/1) for demonstrating the power of data in helping us to re-examine our assumptions around religious practices and beliefs in Europe.

As I read the article, I thought of my own work in helping school staff to examine their assumptions about their teaching practices and how they characterize students and their families/communities. I work for the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, Massachusetts, a non-profit organization that is committed to improving schools-- especially urban schools that serve students of color.

Within my work, I see how the assumptions that school staff have about their students and families can actually undermine their efforts to serve their students. In one urban school, teachers shared that their students' families do not value education. When an extensive survey was conducted of students' families, we discovered that the majority of them reported that they highly valued education. In fact, many parents questioned the commitment of their child's school in providing a high quality education.

The data raised more questions than answers and I had to help school staff to carefully examine the data and not to rush to premature conclusions.

Unfortunately, I believe that Andrew Greeley may have made some premature correlations because I believe that there is a lot more to mine from the data. When he noted the rise in Europe in the belief of life after death, he asserted that the "Christian faith has increased in Europe as a whole." While this may be true, this assertion is based upon the premise that the belief in an afterlife has its origin in the Christian faith. This finding is evidence of religiousity but I'm not sure whether it is completely Christian religiousity.

Greeley's narrow understanding of "modernity" may have contributed to this correlation. Greeley characterizes modernity as atheistic and rational. This characterization does not capture the complexity of people's beliefs and why they believe what they believe.

Another aspect of modernity (and most historical periods) is the practice of combining religious beliefs. For example, members of my family, friends, and colleagues from Latin America and Europe (I am from Honduran and Italian descent), believe in life after death. When you probe them further, they believe in past lives and in reincarnation. When you ask them what faith they practice, they will answer "Christian" and/or "Catholic." Greeley may characterize these folks as "superstitious" but unfortunately this label may get in the way of helping us to understand why people believe what they believe.

There are a LOT more questions that we need to ask. If we are really committed to serving the "People of God" and understanding their religious beliefs and practices, we need to examine available data more carefully and keep a pulse on our own assumptions and biases.

(Rev.) G. F. Werner | 2/9/2007 - 10:28am
The opening pages of America’s issue of March 1 made for very bleak reading: the continuing questioning of the decision to move into Iraq (Of Many Things), then the ongoing debate over same-sex marriages (Editorial), then the report of accusations against 4,450 members of the Catholic clergy in the matter of molestation of some 11,000 children over a 50-year period of official church silence (Signs of the Times). And next, a Vatican report proposing to keep clerical abusers in the ministry but away from children, thus formulating a two-class priestly ministry: Class 1—safe with children, Class 2—not safe with children.

Then (all this in five pages), from the bleak to the absurd, when we learn that someone in Rome is still exercised over whether we should say, “And with your spirit” or “And also with you” at Mass. A great step forward for us all, the solution to that problem.

True: Father Greeley does offer us some ray of hope (“Religious Decline in Europe?”). His article would be even more consoling if one didn’t have the nagging doubt that it was reporting on poll numbers rather than on vibrant personal faith, on Christendom’s religion rather than on Christianity, on superficial markers of religion rather than on truly interiorized Gospel faith.

Perhaps the next issue of America should come in a plain brown wrapper marked: “not to be opened by the faint of heart (or faith).”

Frank DeVito | 3/10/2004 - 10:04am
I want to thank Andrew Greeley (3/1) for demonstrating the power of data in helping us to re-examine our assumptions around religious practices and beliefs in Europe.

As I read the article, I thought of my own work in helping school staff to examine their assumptions about their teaching practices and how they characterize students and their families/communities. I work for the Center for Collaborative Education in Boston, Massachusetts, a non-profit organization that is committed to improving schools-- especially urban schools that serve students of color.

Within my work, I see how the assumptions that school staff have about their students and families can actually undermine their efforts to serve their students. In one urban school, teachers shared that their students' families do not value education. When an extensive survey was conducted of students' families, we discovered that the majority of them reported that they highly valued education. In fact, many parents questioned the commitment of their child's school in providing a high quality education.

The data raised more questions than answers and I had to help school staff to carefully examine the data and not to rush to premature conclusions.

Unfortunately, I believe that Andrew Greeley may have made some premature correlations because I believe that there is a lot more to mine from the data. When he noted the rise in Europe in the belief of life after death, he asserted that the "Christian faith has increased in Europe as a whole." While this may be true, this assertion is based upon the premise that the belief in an afterlife has its origin in the Christian faith. This finding is evidence of religiousity but I'm not sure whether it is completely Christian religiousity.

Greeley's narrow understanding of "modernity" may have contributed to this correlation. Greeley characterizes modernity as atheistic and rational. This characterization does not capture the complexity of people's beliefs and why they believe what they believe.

Another aspect of modernity (and most historical periods) is the practice of combining religious beliefs. For example, members of my family, friends, and colleagues from Latin America and Europe (I am from Honduran and Italian descent), believe in life after death. When you probe them further, they believe in past lives and in reincarnation. When you ask them what faith they practice, they will answer "Christian" and/or "Catholic." Greeley may characterize these folks as "superstitious" but unfortunately this label may get in the way of helping us to understand why people believe what they believe.

There are a LOT more questions that we need to ask. If we are really committed to serving the "People of God" and understanding their religious beliefs and practices, we need to examine available data more carefully and keep a pulse on our own assumptions and biases.