Europe is at a “turning point” in showing an increase of religious beliefs, suggesting that it may not be the secular exception in an increasingly religious world, according to a new study.
The study, presented by Yves Lambert of the Paris-based Group de Sociologie des Religions et de la Laicite (GSRL) at the mid-August conference of the Association of the Sociology of Religion, is based on the European Values Surveys between 1981 and 1999. Between 1981 and 1990, the surveys of eleven countries supported the accepted view that western Europe was undergoing increasing secularization, especially among young adults.
But the 1999 survey (the most recent multi-nation survey) revealed dramatic changes especially in comparison to the 1970s and 1980s. Lambert explains that a decline in “religious belonging,” as shown in church membership and attendance, has grown (today, 62 percent of the young have never belonged to any religious institutions). But there is also a higher rate of belief in God, growing by almost 10 percent since 1981 (20 percent in 1981 to 29 percent in 1999).
In the 1980s, disbelief in an afterlife started to reverse itself among baby boomers and younger generations and today that reversal is spreading to other beliefs, such as the belief that the church holds answers to spiritual needs. Lambert concludes that Christian renewal in several countries, as well as religious growth in post-communist countries, explains much of this reversal.
In another presentation, Jean-Paul Willaime of GSRL finds that a militantly secularist outlook is losing its hold in France. There is a growth of interest in religion in the French media, schools and government and the “reemergence of ethical concern.” Williame said that the growth of religious pluralism in France is posing new questions, particularly as it is difficult to reduce Islam and new religious movements to a privatized view of faith. Thus, there is a “rediscovery of religion’s social dimension.”
In an article from the news service UPI (Aug. 27), writer Uwe Siemon-Netto reports that though France still ranks with Quebec and the Czech Republic as among the most secular places in the world, there is a renewed interest in Christianity. Leftist spokesman Regis Debray, is now pleading for religious instruction in public schools. Actor Gerard Depardieu has “astounded the public with statements of support for the Christian faith.” At the Catholic Institute of Paris, some 2,000 laypeople are studying theology, not to be ordained but simply because of a search for God or, as sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger, says, out of a postmodern desire for fulfillment.
While the Catholic seminaries are seeing a decreasing amount of priests, there is steady growth of ordained deacons, and Protestant seminaries are crowded. Many parishes also report “constantly swelling catechism classes and Bible study groups for adults,” Siemon-Netto adds.
Those viewing Europe as an exception to American and other nations’ high rates of religiosity often point to the failure of evangelicalism to gain a foothold in many European countries. But even such a highly secular country as France is revealing patterns that to some extent challenge this theory, according to a paper presented at the ASR by Sebastien Fath of GSRL. The evangelical churches of France are a small yet growing minority (representing 0.5 percent of the population) and it may be because of their small size (not easily captured in surveys) that their more “American”-style of competition, networking and restructuring goes unnoticed.
Contrary to theories that the evangelical growth in Europe represents a sectarian reaction to widespread secularization and religious “decomposition,” Fath finds that evangelicals (and other newer religious groups in the country) thrive in an environment of competition and pluralism, giving birth to new networks and coalitions with a distinctly French identity (which is often critical of American evangelical directions). Thus, (as Yves Lambert pointed out), the U.S. may well be growing closer to the European secularized society type, but it is just as important to be attentive to the rise of European religious dynamics familiar to North America,” Fath said.