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.