Sunday, July 15, 2007

God in Europe

Religion is making a come-back in Europe, and the Wall Street Journal describes why:

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.

"Monopoly churches get lazy," says Eva Hamberg, a professor at Lund University's Centre for Theology and Religious Studies and co-author of academic articles that, based on Swedish data, suggest a correlation between an increase in religious competition and a rise in church-going. Europeans are deserting established churches, she says, "but this does not mean they are not religious."

Upstarts are now plugging new spiritual services across Europe, from U.S.-influenced evangelical churches to a Christian sect that uses a hallucinogenic herbal brew as a stand-in for sacramental wine. Niklas Piensoho, chief preacher at Stockholm's biggest Pentecostal church, says even sometimes oddball, quasi-religious fads "tell me you can sell spirituality." His own career suggests that a free market in faith is taking root. He was poached by the Pentecostals late last year after he boosted church attendance for a rival Protestant congregation.



Read it all here.

And John Chilton, who knows quite a bit about both religion and economics, agrees in a post on The Lead:
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."

Sweden has also overhauled church financing. In 2000, the government gave up formal control of the Church of Sweden. With great fanfare it replaced what had been a church "tax" with an annual "fee," still collected by tax authorities, levied on Church of Sweden members


Read all of John's analysis here.

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