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Report: In Europe, God Is (Not) Dead

July 15, 2007

Andrew Higgins / Wall Street Journal:

After decades of secularization, religion in Europe has slowed its slide toward what had seemed inevitable oblivion. There are even nascent signs of a modest comeback. Most church pews are still empty. But belief in heaven, hell and concepts such as the soul has risen in parts of Europe, especially among the young, according to surveys. Religion, once a dead issue, now figures prominently in public discourse.

God’s tentative return to Europe has scholars and theologians debating a hot question: Why? Part of the reason, pretty much everyone agrees, is an influx of devout immigrants. Christian and Muslim newcomers have revived questions relating to faith that Europe thought it had banished with the 18th-century Enlightenment. At the same time, anxiety over immigration, globalization and cutbacks to social-welfare systems has eroded people’s contentment in the here-and-now, prodding some to seek firmer ground in the spiritual.

Some scholars and Christian activists, however, are pushing a more controversial explanation: the laws of economics. As centuries-old churches long favored by the state lose their monopoly grip, Europe’s highly regulated market for religion is opening up to leaner, more-aggressive religious “firms.” The result, they say, is a supply-side stimulus to faith.


Most scholars used to believe that modernization would extinguish religion in the long run. But that view always had trouble explaining why America, a nation in the vanguard of modernity, is so religious. The God-is-finished thesis came under more strain in the 1980s and 1990s after Iran, a rapidly modernizing Muslim nation, exploded with fundamentalist fervor and other fast-advancing countries in Latin America and Asia showed scant sign of ditching religion.

Now even Europe, the heartland of secularization, is raising questions about whether God really is dead. The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition. In America, where church and state stand apart, more than 50% of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported — but also controlled — the church with money and favors, the rate in many countries is 20% or less.


Mr. Stark first developed the notion of a “religious market” in the 1980s as a way to explain America’s persistent faith. It posits that people are naturally religious but that their religiosity varies depending on the vigor of what he calls religious suppliers. “Wherever churches are a little more energetic and competitive, you’ve got more people going to church,” he says.

The notion that Adam Smith’s invisible hand reaches into the spiritual realm has many detractors. Steve Bruce, a professor of sociology at Aberdeen University in Scotland, says market theory “works for cars and soap powder but it does not work for religion.” Christianity in Europe, he says, has reached the point of no return, like a dying language doomed because too few people transmit its vocabulary to their children.


In the U.S., the American Revolution ended ecclesiastical hegemony in the 11 colonies that had an established church and unleashed a raucous tide of religious competition. As Methodists, Baptists, Shakers and other churches proliferated, church-going rose, reaching around 50% in the early part of the 20th century, he says.

Europe never developed such a religious bazaar. The Church of Sweden, the Church of England, the Catholic Church in Italy and France, state-funded churches in Germany and others lost their de-facto “monopoly” status to other denominations over a century ago. But they retained their ties to the state and economic privileges.

Grace Davie, professor of sociology at Britain’s Exeter University, compares them to “public utilities” — institutions that people look to for basic services such as weddings and funerals but that don’t demand day-to-day involvement. The Church of Sweden, for example, has a near-monopoly on death. Its broad property holdings, gathered since the 16th century, include most of Sweden’s graveyards. The state still pays it to oversee funerals, even those involving Muslim rites.


To try to refute the supply-siders, Aberdeen University’s Mr. Bruce points to Poland and Ireland, highly religious countries each dominated by a Catholic “monopoly church.” Mr. Stark and those in his camp counter that market mechanisms in Poland and Ireland were trumped by the church’s role as a vehicle for nationalism. More revealing, they say, is America’s boisterous religious market and its high levels of religiosity.

One factor now spurring religious competition in Europe is the availability of state money that traditionally flowed almost entirely to established churches. It still does, but the process is more open.

In Italy, the state used to pay the salaries of Catholic priests, but in 1984 it began letting taxpayers choose which religious groups get financial support. The proceeds of a new “religious tax” of 0.8% are now divided, according to taxpayer preference, among the Catholic Church, four non-Catholic churches, the Jewish community and a state religious and humanitarian fund.

The result is an annual beauty contest ahead of a June income-tax deadline, as churches try to lure taxpayer money with advertising campaigns. Catholics get the lion’s share — 87% of nearly $1.2 billion in 2004, the last year for which figures are available. But according to a 2005 study by Italian lawyer Massimo Introvigne and Mr. Stark, the system “reminds Italians every year that there is a religious economy.”

Full report here.


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