Double Helix Double Helix News Series

Europe: Not as secular as you think

The former church Selexyz Dominicanen has been converted into a bookstore in Maastricht, Netherlands. Photo by Bert Kaufmann/Creative Commons

PARIS (RNS) — With its dwindling rates of attendance at religious services and rising numbers of churches shuttered or sold, Western Europe seems to be the region of the world where the outlook for faith is bleakest.

Roman Catholicism’s Pope Francis was the latest to lament this trend, saying only last week that Western society seemed like “a journey ending in a shipwreck, with the survivors trying to build a raft.”

A new survey by the Pew Research Center looks past the headlines that worry the established churches to ask what Western Europeans think about religion. The results, issued Tuesday (May 29), suggest a more nuanced picture.

Despite the region’s widespread secularization, 71 percent of the 24,599 adults Pew surveyed in 15 countries still identify as Christians, even if only 22 percent say they attend church at least once a month.

At 46 percent of the total sample, nonpracticing Christians make up the largest single group in the survey, almost double the 24 percent of religiously unaffiliated — atheists, agnostics and “nones” — that often dominate commentaries about the state of Christianity in its erstwhile stronghold.

These nonpracticing Christians have their own mix of religious and social views, sometimes leaning more toward their churchgoing neighbors and sometimes more toward the unaffiliated. These can have political effects as well, for example in the growing debate over Muslim immigration to Europe.

“Christian identity remains a meaningful marker in Western Europe, even among those who seldom go to church. It is not just a ‘nominal’ identity devoid of practical importance,” the survey said.

While religion surveys in Europe have long noticed this large group of nonpracticing Christians, few study them in detail.

French opinion surveys sometimes distinguish between observant and lapsed Catholics because their political views can vary, but those surveys usually don’t look closer at the respondents’ beliefs. In Germany, the usual distinction is between registered church members and nonmembers, because the system of church taxes makes this an important comparison.

Paul Bickley, head of the political program at Theos, a London think tank that studies the role of religion, said a British census question on religion gives an idea of a group dubbed “census Christians” without further detail about beliefs.

The 2001 census showed a surprisingly large 72 percent of self-identified Christians, but this dropped to 59 percent in the 2011 census.

Bickley agreed in general with the Pew findings but stressed the longer-term perspective that other research in Britain has indicated.

“It’s clear that religious identity and practice are both declining,” he said. “Also, the nones aren’t blanks with no spiritual beliefs at all — a lot is retained, rethought or re-understood. There’s complexity beneath any figures like these.”

In the Pew survey, about half of the nonpractitioners said they believe in a higher power or spiritual force and another quarter in the God described in the Bible, compared with two-thirds of practicing Christians who have the biblical view of God.

An abandoned church in Rathcormac, County Cork, Ireland. Photo by Alison Killilea/Creative Commons

Some 87 percent raise their children as Christians, not that far behind the 97 percent of churchgoers who do so, the 168-page survey said.

About 62 percent agree that churches and religious organizations play an important role in helping the poor, compared with 78 percent of practicing Christians. Even among the unaffiliated, 48 percent agreed on this.

The nonpracticing Christians also appeared closer to the churchgoers on social questions such as immigration and national identity, which have become hot political topics thanks to rising Muslim immigration in recent decades.

About half of all Christians — 48 percent of the nonpracticing and 54 percent of the observant — say their culture is superior to others. Only one-quarter of the unaffiliated agreed with that view.

Similar gaps emerged when the survey asked questions linked to immigration. Some 45 percent of the nonpracticing Christians said Islam was not compatible with European values, against 32 percent among the unaffiliated.

While 11 percent of the unaffiliated would not accept a Muslim into their family and 7 percent would not welcome a Jew, 30 percent of nonpracticing Christians would not accept a Muslim and 19 percent would reject a Jew.

“Both church-attending and non-practicing Christians are more likely than religiously unaffiliated adults in Western Europe to voice anti-immigrant and anti-minority views,” the survey remarked.

Olivier Roy at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, in May 2015. RNS photo by Tom Heneghan

The survey did not hazard an explanation for this but did quote French Islam expert Olivier Roy as saying that traditional organized Christianity had “faded away in favor of a cultural marker which is more and more turning into a neo-ethnic marker (‘true’ Europeans versus ‘migrants.’)”

Drilling down into the numbers, the survey found that Catholics were more likely than Protestants to have negative views of Muslims.

While geography may play some part in that since southern Europe is more heavily Catholic and the north more Protestant, the survey said the overall pattern is evident in countries with large groups from both denominations, such as Britain and Germany.

The survey stressed its results did not mean most Christians opposed Muslim immigration and pointed out that churches helped to resettle refugees.

‘It could be that holding anti-immigrant positions may lead a person to embrace Europe’s historically dominant religious identity, rather than that identifying with Europe’s historically dominant religious group leads a person to take anti-minority positions,” it said.

On social issues, around four-fifths of the nonpracticing Christians agreed with the 87 percent of unaffiliated who support abortion and gay marriage. A majority of churchgoers also approved, but at 52 percent and 58 percent respectively.

The survey had some interesting comparisons between Western Europe and the United States. They have roughly similar levels both of self-identification as Christian ( 71 percent for Western Europeans and  Americans) and of the religiously unaffiliated status (about 24 percent).

Skateboarder Danny Leon performs during the opening of Kaos Skate Temple in a converted church in Asturias, Spain, on Dec. 9, 2015. ( Luis Vidales/Red Bull Content via AP Images)

But Americans are far more likely than West Europeans — by 53 percent versus 11 percent — to say that religion plays an important part in their lives.

Even the religiously unaffiliated in the U.S. see faith as more important than their counterparts across the Atlantic, to the point where American nones sometimes emerge as more religious than Christians in several European countries when asked about belief in God, prayer and attendance at religious services, it said.

The share of nones varies considerably across Western Europe, ranging as high as 48 percent of the adult population in the Netherlands and as low as 15 percent in Ireland, Italy and Portugal.

The survey was conducted between April and August of last year.

It said it showed higher shares for religiously affiliated people than the widely used European Social Survey because Pew only asked respondents what if any religion they followed whereas the ESS asked first if they belonged to a faith and if so which one.

(Tom Heneghan is a correspondent based in Paris. This story was written as part of a grant supported by the Templeton Foundation.)

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About the author

Tom Heneghan

Tom Heneghan is a Paris-based correspondent


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  • So Christianity, like Judaism, becomes a cultural identity rather than a religious one. All of my German relatives identify as Christian, but are effectively atheists.

  • It’s interesting that the headline reduces the ‘practice’ of Christianity down to attending church services. Yes, common worship is important, but it isn’t everything. Believing in Christ and living according to what he taught are what matter most.

  • In all of these articles I keep reading about the decline of religious practice and affiliation, I rarely read about how much effort was spent trying to figure out why so many people have left religion. That would include this article.

    Based on the articles I’ve read which do delve more deeply, it would seem that young people particularly are turned off by what they perceive as the church’s intolerance, especially toward LGTB people like me. It doesn’t matter that Catholics in the pews, for example, are generally more liberal in this respect than people in other denominations. As long as the Catholic hierarchy continue to spend millions of dollars fighting gay marriage as they did with Prop. 8 in California, or as long as they continue to fire gay employees who get married at city hall (unlike straight ones who get married at city hall and somehow manage to keep their jobs) the general public will rightly associate the Catholic Church with bigotry, Pope Francis’ recent private words of support to a gay man notwithstanding. Pope Francis could help by publicly acknowledging the things he’s alleged to have said, but the Vatican will neither confirm nor deny that he said them, which neither helps gay people nor their opponents in the church, but rather leaves everyone in a strange limbo.

    And that’s just the Catholic Church. When it comes to the “brand” most closely associated with Christianity in this country among non-churchgoers, the loud-mouthed evangelicals who want to legislate morality to everyone else, the bad taste in people’s mouths for Christianity becomes even worse.

    The churches could of course “evolve” on various issues, which the conservatives would say is only accommodation at the expense of orthodoxy. So in the end nothing changes, the old conservatives who largely support the church financially are dying off while not being replaced by younger people who are turned off to the whole enterprise.

    The handwriting is on the wall.

  • There are too many easy answers for them to bother asking the ex-religious. The laziest of all is “They want to sin! they serve Satan!”

    You know, anything that will spare them a moment’s self-reflection on WHY people aren’t buying what they’re selling, and what they could do to make their faith more appealing.

  • Said group suffers from the 3 B Syndrome, Bred, Born and Brainwashed in the the mumbo jumbo of Christianity. The cure? The Great Kibosh of All Religions!

  • Addendum:

    Having just read this article by Catholic writer E.J., Dionne in “Commonweal” I realized that I’d left out one enormous reason people in this country are abandoning religion: Trump. When they see people who claim to be religious (Christians, specifically) wholeheartedly endorse this godless president they have apparently decided to wash their hands of the whole thing. And who can blame them?

    Obviously this doesn’t explain the decline of organized religion in Europe, but given Trump’s bad reputation the world over, the damage to Christianity will undoubtedly spread due to his malignant influence.

  • I don’t believe that a long explanation of how this and that church, and the usual anti-Catholicism, from someone with a clear axe grind supports the conclusion that “(t)he handwriting is on the wall”.

    For example, what you call “loud-mouthed evangelicals” are growing quite nicely, while the churches that “‘evolve” on various issues – like the Episcopal Church in the United States – are sinking like rocks.

  • E. J. Dionne is Catholic in the same sense as Thomas Reese.

    I always enjoy his articles on why folks should do this, that, and the other about poverty written in his multi-million dollar home with swimming pool in the DC suburb of Bethesda.

  • Perhaps you’d care to share with us specific details regarding your own personal wealth, including your charitable giving, so that we can decide for ourselves whether or not, using your own standard, you deserve to be called Catholic, or if, like your oblique insinuation about Dionne and Reese, you are merely Catholic in name only.

  • I was unaware that my charitable giving was at issue.

    So, in order to proceed I would first expect you to provide your real name and address and sufficient specifics to allow all of us to confirm your soon-to-be reported wealth.

    After all, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    Once that’s accomplished, I will provide my specifics.

    Since that is not going to happen – bluff called – let’s begin by noting that I did not refer to Thomas Reese’ wealth. He is a member of the Society of Jesus and as a result owns nothing.

    E. J. Dionne and I once lived quite near each other.

    In Maryland you can look up any real property on-line:

    Now, I would have to invade his privacy by revealing his address, but in checking I see Eugene Joseph Dionne still lives in a multi-million dollar home, with swimming pool, of more than moderate size.

  • The numbers speak for themselves.

    Unless the editors are out recruiting or discouraging members, their personal opinions are of little import.

    I see your denomination is in the process of tanking, btw.

  • Putting the Great Kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • After all, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

    Not in this case. You were the one who obliquely accused someone of being a hypocrite for having obtained a certain amount of wealth – not I.

  • Here is what I wrote:

    “I always enjoy his articles on why folks should do this, that, and the
    other about poverty written in his multi-million dollar home with
    swimming pool in the DC suburb of Bethesda.”

    I always found it amusing.

    I also find multi-millionaire and multi-billionaire politicians pontificating about poor people amusing.

    So, when are we going to get your bona-fides and copies of your tax returns?

  • We would do well to continue studying the “nones” in both Europe and the USA. How do we describe them?
    “Unaffiliated”? Is that it? Does that mean we should be afraid of them as being likely careless about anything good?
    Or might it mean that most of them are just sick to death of competing tribes in denominationalism staking their claims of supposedly possessing THE keys to faith?

    I, for one, suggest that it is not only possible, but likely, for any of us to have a stronger moral compass when NOT a “member” of this or that. Formerly “affiliated” is a great freedom. When you are not BOUND to being a Jew, a Muslim, a Catholic, a Protestant (hundreds of flavors), you are free to be kind, just kind, as your heart might yearn most deeply for you (us) to act out in life. Your doctrine is YOUR doctrine, not one you pick from a religious buffet on offer in this world. The more you think about YOUR doctrine, the better. Many of the “nones” may be doing that. We hope so anyway.

  • Just like Stalin, Hitler, and Mao were free to be … kind?

    Their doctrines were their doctrines.

    Free to be, you and me.

  • Not exactly. The problem with those three (and others) were that people followed them.
    I’m suggesting the more we cut ourselves loose from “following”, the better off we are.
    You gotta admit (but might not, who knows?) that the LAST thing Stalin, Hitler and Mao asked (or told) people to do was to THINK FOR THEMSELVES, especially in the realm of anything religious at all. But I am. There is no “FriendlyGoat Movement” now or ever.

  • ad populum arguments from Bobber et al aside, the whole Christian story about the purported sacrifice of Jeebus to remove sin, the foundational tale of the entire Christian cult, is complete hogwash out of the gate. Now THAT is a great reason to leave Christianity behind; the religion’s basic tenets are nonsense.

  • Well, you’re suggesting then that no one follow you.

    I believe that is good advice.

  • No, “Bob”, that isn’t what Friendly was getting at, and you know it. However, it’s clear that you wanted to slide in your usual snide, typically Christian swipe at him. Caught you again.

  • Certainly it is good advice. I just throw out thoughts here as a hobby. If I wanted people to follow ME, I would incorporate, raise money, trademark everything possible, and get a publicist. As it is, I am a retiree who would rather muse in comment sections than work a crossword puzzle.

  • Nein. Die Kultur ist die Religion. How else are we going to Make America White Again?

  • I suppose that wraps it up, eh?

    So, what did you think of the short course in Talmudic law?

  • “Don’t wonder at people who are good without God; pity those who need a god to be good.”

  • Yes, it’s as obviously phony as healthy doctors caring for sick people, or sane counselors helping the mentally ill. Such hypocrisy (in the wee little right-wing mind).

  • So, how are the results from the “sane counselors helping the mentally ill” going?

    The last research I looked at still found, as it has for three or four decades, that the odds of being hurt by counseling were approximately the same as being helped by counseling.

    Counselor heal thyself.

  • Yes, I saw that.

    I put it in a folder along with the report that insight-based therapy was as effective as cognitive therapy for treating depression after three studies in a row said that it was useless while cognitive therapy was as effective as drugs, also along with the report claiming it was not the mind mavens fault that the pedophile clerics that had been treated and returned “cured” turned out not to be cured at various Catholic dioceses in the USA.

    Bottom line: in general except for some very specific issues and some very specific approaches, were counseling a drug, it would not get approved by the FDA.

    It is also no accident that practitioners are overrepresented in forums like this one.

  • Still dodging your latest embarrassment, still not working. Learn from your betters, old crank; they’re not hard to find, after all.

  • Just what is the basis of “not accepting a Muslim?” Is it just a blanket prejudice or a disilke for the role of women in Islam? Women’s equality is strongly embedded in Europe, and this equality for women often required rejecting a Christian church’s position on women without fully rejecting other aspect of Christianity. Without getting to some specific why’s, this survey remains superficial.

  • Christianity , for many who identify as Christian but do not practice, is a kind of western Shintoism. No doctrines, but a strong aesthetic. No doctrines, but ceremonies useful for certain important occasions in life. Wonderful temples. Sometimes good art. And an important key in iderstanding one’s history, culture, and anthropology.

  • Heard on a Catholic radio station that one is not really Irish unless one follows the Roman Church which I found offensive as being of part Irish ancestry. . But the Roman Church thinks it can offend without consequences, but no one can offend it. My Hindu Indian friends says the same thing about India that true Indians are Hindus.

  • “Europe: Not as secular as you think”

    A better title might have been . . .

    Europe: Not as rational and educated as you think

  • “the Roman Church thinks it can offend without consequences”

    Exactly. And for many centuries, when the Church was part of the European power structure, it had only to take into account the other power elites. With the advent of democracy, that has changed of course. The loss of the Papal States should have been a major heads-up, but Pius IX was never one to let reality get in the way of his ego.
    Though some have tried, for the past 150 years the institutional hierarchy has been unable to come to grips with the fact that it now has to take the general population into account, and the results for the Church in Europe has been disastrous.

  • Brief mention is made of French Catholics whose churches receive funds from the French government. However, the article doesn’t go on to note and/or explain the rapid growth of evangelical Christian churches that are self-supporting, and not receiving funds from the government. This practice is very common in many European countries.

    Most of those claiming to be . . . “atheists, agnostics and “nones,” and even those attending church, resent being forced to support the “state church” by paying high taxes.

  • Ah, Reason. Bob is not the personification of what is “typically Christian” unless we who don’t think in the Bob Box allow him to define us out. And I won’t go along with that. He is zealous in his beliefs and posts a lot of comments, but he is only one person representing pretty much himself. He does not represent Christianity or Catholicism. What we might do is recognize Bob as a version of Catholicism – maybe we should call his brand Bobtholicism.

  • So what’s YOUR excuse for rejecting Jesus himself? And don’t try to hide behind anybody else; state & justify your OWN rejection of Him.

  • I’m not drawing the same conclusions you are based on the articles. Unless I missed something, they seem to state that therapy can be damaging if misapplied. That is not the same thing as suggesting therapy does not help.

  • I understand precisely your point.

    My point – again – was that about 1/3 of the time an appropriate therapy is prescribed, applied, and is beneficial; about 1/3 of the time either it’s an inappropriate therapy, it is not applied correctly, but no harm occurs; and finally about 1/3 time the therapy actually harms the patient.

    This has been consistently observed for decades.

  • Define your bar.

    Tis mind boggling how easy it is to kibosh all religions.

  • Mere identification as Christian is meaningless. I’m sure that most of the people surveyed are religiously illiterate when it comes to doctrines and practice to the extent that they mistake secular politically correct codes with “Christian ethics.” It would be better to test the real temperature of Christian religiosity by asking people whether God is their point of reference in the course of their daily lives.

  • If only all churches would become Skate Parks!
    Man would be better served staying home and reading the Scriptures for themselves.
    2 Timothy 4:3. That time has come and gone.

  • There is a lot of hand-wringing about the decline of religion, but it doesn’t seem to be making all that much difference. Northern Europe is more secular than Southern Europe, New England is more secular than Mississippi, Canada is more secular than the USA and New Zealand is more secular than Australia. Despite this, the data does not show that the more secular places are worse off.

    It should be remembered that much change of this kind happens relatively slowly. The map above shows a non-Christian majority only in the Netherlands but in several countries, 80% or more identified as Christian. Yes, some church buildings have been converted to other uses, or have become derelict, but other churches continue to function.

    50 years ago, religion was more influential than now but we don’t know what will happen over the next 50 years. Predictions are that this trend will continue, but we won’t know the answer to that for another 50 years.

  • lol. The ESS is a more accurate measure of actual religiosity. Following a faith implies active belief and participation. Belonging to a faith can include secular, non-practicing Jews, for example, who culturally identify as Jewish without believing any of the theology.

    But leave it to the Templeton Foundation to put its filthy, corrupting hand into everything.