Christianity Recedes in Europe–Is America Next?

“I don’t go to church, and I don’t know one person who does.” That statement, taken from Brian Kenny, a 39-year-old graduate student in Dublin, Ireland, launches readers of USA Today into a consideration of Christianity’s receding influence in Europe.

In “Religion Takes a Back Seat in Western Europe,” USA Today considers the rapid pace of secularization in Western Europe, and the social, moral, and political impact that has resulted from Europe’s loss of faith.

The newspaper obviously believes that something important is at stake in this analysis, for this article by Noelle Knox appeared on the front page of the August 11, 2005 edition of the paper. As it stands, the article offers considerable information and insight. Something remarkable and newsworthy has taken place in Western Europe over the last two decades. Once the very cradle of Christian civilization, Europe has embraced a secular future, and the residual memory of the Christian tradition is fading fast.

For at least half a century, researchers have been observing massive shifts in Western cultures. The increasingly secular shape of European civilization has been evident for some time, though a realization of this can sometimes come as an explosive insight. When Brian Kenny reported, “I don’t go to church, and I don’t know one person who does,” he understood that something had changed. “Fifteen years ago, I didn’t know one person who didn’t,” he reflected.

The statistics documenting European secularization are now impossible to ignore. Ireland, still one of the least secular nations in Western Europe, has seen church attendance fall by at least 25 percent over the last three decades. Ireland is predominantly Roman Catholic, of course, but the paper reports, “Not one priest will be ordained this year in Dublin.”

On the Protestant side, the picture is not much better. Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, once the cradles of the Reformation, are now prime examples of Europe’s secular shape.

Throughout the European continent, Islam is the only religion growing in the number of adherents. According to the Center for the Study on Global Christianity, at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in suburban Boston, the decline in Christian influence “is most evident in France, Sweden and the Netherlands, where church attendance is less than ten percent in some areas.”

Why has this happened? Ronald Inglehart, Director of the World Values Survey in Sweden, suggests that Christianity has been a comfort to people in times of crisis. “For most of history, people have been on the borderline of survival,” he explains. “That’s changed dramatically. Survival is certain for almost everyone (in the West). So one of the reasons people are drawn to religion has eroded.”

In other words, Mr. Inglehart believes that religion fulfills a social function. Once that function is no longer needed, the entire structure of Christian belief becomes unnecessary.

This kind of reductionism is now common in the social sciences, where religious faith is seen in functional terms rather than in theological categories.

Others, looking at the same pattern of secularization, point to the impact of theological liberalism, the rise of a technological society, and the cultural shift towards autonomous individualism as the main factors behind Christianity’s decline.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the vast majority of European citizens identified themselves as Christians. Even now, 75 percent of Europeans identify themselves as Christians. What is going on here? If three out of four Europeans claim to be Christians, how can Europe have become so pervasively secularized?

For some years, sociologists and observers of church life have suggested that younger persons are developing a pattern identified as “believing without belonging.” In other words, these researchers have suggested that low levels of church attendance may be offset by the fact that individuals still hold residual Christian beliefs. The more recent shape of secularized Europe indicates that the opposite must be true–that millions of Europeans must be “belonging without believing.” In other words, these persons identify themselves as Christians simply as a matter of family heritage or superficial identity. Evidently, their Christian identity is not based in deep levels of Christian belief, high levels of church participation, or traditional markers of Christian discipleship. In Sweden, the government reports that 85 percent of Swedes are church members, yet only eleven percent of women and seven percent of men attend church services.

The most documented evidence of Europe’s secularization comes in moral terms. As USA Today reports, the number of marriages is dropping throughout much of Europe. “There is virtually no social stigma for unmarried parents,” the paper explains. “More than half of the children in Sweden and Norway are born to unmarried mothers, according to the European Union.” In other nations, the statistics are similar.

Interestingly, the paper reports that one of the “most striking consequences” of Christianity’s decline in Europe has been fewer children. As Knox explains, “The birth rate throughout much of Western Europe has fallen so drastically that the population in many countries is shrinking . . . .” As Ronald Inglehart argues, “The biggest single consequence of the declining role of the church is the huge decline in fertility rates.”

The pattern doesn’t stop there, of course. USA Today also acknowledges that the decline of Christian belief in Europe “also has brought a change in attitudes and laws on issues such as divorce, abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research.”

Without doubt, the decline in Christian belief and the massive transformation of European lifestyles and moral expectations go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, it may be impossible to determine just how these trends work together within the process of secularization. As Christian conviction declines, Christian morality gives way to the ethos of moral individualism, sexual libertinism, and eroding commitment to marriage, children, and family.

USA Today‘s cover story on the decline of Christianity in Western Europe raises the question of America’s future. In many ways, America seems to be following the European example, though several years behind. Yet the pace of moral transformation in the United States may indicate that America is fast catching up with the European model of secularization.

All this should remind seriously-minded Christians to analyze survey data with caution. Even as the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christians, the indicators of social morality and commitment to marriage and children indicate that America may be moving closer to the European precedent.

The evidence is mounting, and the current shape of secular Europe should serve as a powerful warning. Without a robust commitment to Christian truth, Christian morality simply fades away.