Ross Douthat on the Crisis of Faith in Europe and United States

Ross Douthat, a young conservative writer, has an interesting commentary in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He argues that Europe is becoming more religious at the same time that the United States is becoming more secular--to the detriment of both. Here are highlights:
Nothing divides the United States from Europe like religion. America has its public piety and its multitude of thriving sects, Europe has its official secularism and its empty, museum-piece churches. Ninety percent of Americans say they believe in God, while only about 60 percent of Britons, French, and Germans say the same. American politics is riven by faith-based disputes that barely exist across the Atlantic, while European debates take place under a canopy of unbelief that’s unimaginable in the United States, where polls show that a Muslim or a homosexual has a better chance of being elected president than an acknowledged atheist.

The aftermath of 9/11 has thrown this contrast into sharp relief and seemingly pushed Europe and America into permanent, Venus-and-Mars opposition. But paradoxically, our era may be remembered as the moment when the religious gulf between the continents began to slowly close. In the United States, the Bush era has summoned up—arguably for the first time in this country’s history—a mass secularism that looks to Europe and sees a model for America to follow. In Europe, meanwhile, a rising Islam and a more assertive Christian remnant are touching off American-style culture wars on a continent that had prided itself on being past those messy controversies.

America’s secular turn actually began in the 1990s, though it wasn’t until 2002 that two Berkeley sociologists first noticed it. In a paper in the American Sociological Review, Michael Hout and Claude S. Fischer announced the startling fact that the percentage of Americans who said they had “no religious preference” had doubled in less than 10 years, rising from 7 percent to 14 percent of the population. This unexpected spike wasn’t the result of growing atheism, Hout and Fischer argued; rather, more Americans were distancing themselves from organized religion as “a symbolic statement” against the religious right. If the association of religiosity with political conservatism continued to gain strength, the sociologists suggested, “then liberals’ alienation from organized religion [might] become, as it has in many other nations, institutionalized.”

Five years later, that institutionalization seems to be proceeding. It’s showing up in an increasingly secularized younger generation: A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 20 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds reported no religious affiliation, up from just 11 percent in the late 1980s. . . .

. . .

Yet the Europe of tomorrow may look more like … the United States, with a politics that’s increasingly shaped by clashes between believers, or between belief and unbelief. Already, the Continent is experiencing a low-grade culture war, created by the collision between the religious zeal of Muslim immigrants and the secular culture that surrounds them. In flash points that range from the murder of the anti-Islamic filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Holland, to the controversy over the supposedly blasphemous Danish cartoons, to the question of whether to admit Turkey to the EU, secular Europe has found itself in unfamiliar, God-haunted, almost American territory. Such disputes may subside as Islamic immigrants assimilate to European norms, but for now, at least, resistance to assimilation by Muslims suggests that they may succeed in changing those norms as much as they are changed by them.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Christianity, too, is emerging from its decades-long defensive crouch. Pope Benedict XVI has taken the re-Christianization of Europe as a theme of his papacy, and his church’s recent interventions in Spain’s debate over same-sex unions and in Italy’s referendum on whether to loosen restrictions on in vitro fertilization bear an unmistakable resemblance to the gauntlet-throwing that Americans have come to expect from their churchmen.

. . .

These trends shouldn’t be exaggerated. America remains a deeply religious nation and its secularists an embattled minority, while Europeans remain strongly invested in preventing faith from intruding into politics. But both continents may be drifting into a zone where religious belief is likely to be a persistent source of tension, rather than a commonplace or a curiosity.

Religion stirs up the most controversy, a group of Harvard economists recently argued, when roughly half the population is actively religious; conflict ebbs when the devout constitute large majorities or small minorities. The more evenly divided a culture finds itself on the ultimate questions, the more likely politicians are to pursue “strategic extremism” and mobilize one side against the other. Precisely this kind of polarization dominated European politics from the French Revolution until the middle of the 20th century, sparking regular clashes— Germany’s Kulturkampf, France’s Dreyfuss Affair, Spain’s Civil War—between secular and religious ideologies.

America has long avoided this trap by enjoying near-universal piety; Europe, at least lately, has escaped it by cultivating near-universal skepticism. But if the religious gulf between the two continents narrows, the divides within each one are likely to open ever wider, and religious peace turn increasingly to culture war—or worse.

Read it all.

As Nicholas Knisely noted in this post, we need to be very careful how we interpret statistics on religious affiliation. He points to a wonderful piece by Razib on secularization trends at his Gene Expression blog. As Razib notes,

As America became more urban, and rural areas became denser with churches, there was a natural gravitation toward various denominations. This did not necessarily mean that Americans became more religious, just that the outward institutions scaffolded their beliefs. Similarly, the decrease in church affiliation in much of the modern world suggests a reverse process as individuals decouple their spiritual beliefs (if they have any) from religious institutions. A dynamic such as this explains why at least half (usually more) of those surveyed with 'No religion' in the United States express a belief in a God or Higher Spirit. One can have religiosity without religion. One can also have irreligiosity with religion when one considers the norm in some societies of church membership because for cultural reasons (Scandinavia is a case of this). So when people say that 'religion is not important' in their lives, one must be cautious, because there are people who would self-characterize as very spiritual and supernaturalist in their belief systems who would nevertheless balk at being associated with 'organized 'religion


The rising secularism in the 18-25 demographic is certainly troubling. Christians need to get back to living and teaching the Bible. We also must develop strategies for communicating effectively with the post-modern generation.

I am old enough to recall the Jesus movement of the 70's. Mass spiritual revivals are possible when Christians reach out to others with love and concern.

If Christians don't fill the spiritual void in the world, the Muslims will be glad to do so.
Chuck Blanchard said…
My pwn denomination, the Episcopal Church, has done done a very good job at evangelism. I am pleased to see that this is beginning to change. My own diocese has many initiaitves particualrly focused on younger adults.
Mystical Seeker said…
There New York Times Sunday magazine article a few months ago that made a very salient point. Europeans and Americans are more similar than is at first apparent; the issue is that Americans tend to exaggerate how religious they are because they think that being religious is a good thing, and Europeans claim to be less religious than they are because in Europe religion is a matter of embarrassment.

I wrote some comments on this subject when I got back from a trip from Europe in my blog. If you've got nothing better to do (it's a long entry), take a look. The posting can be found here.
Chuck Blanchard said…
Mystical Seeker:

Thanks for the link to your report. It was well worth a read.

If you ever get to Phoenix, drop by Trinity Cathedral--we may be more orthodox than your blog suggests you like, but we are open to all and i would love to read your reaction on your blog
stephen fox said…
Guy in the Pew:
Brought your blog to the attention of roughly the progressive baptist world at a chat for the them faith and practice.
You may want to check in to see how it plays there.
I read the article yesterday and like you was caught by the last two paragraphs.
Random here,but you may want to check the July 3 newslinks at www.baptiststoday for a summary of a great address Columbia's Randall Balmer gave to Baptists in DC June 29.
My Dad was a Baptist preacher and I am a fan of Babs Taylor and Fleming Rutledge.
Will be checking your blog again.
Stephen Fox

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