Stats on future of faith in Europe: What happens when Christendom's heart weakens?

The original saying, I think, was this: "When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold (or words to that effect)." The meaning is pretty obvious.

Then people started spinning off variations. One of the most common is this: "When America sneezes, the world catches cold." In this case, we're talking about American economic clout, but there are many variations -- as this nice NPR feature explains.

But I'm convinced the true cultural equation is this one: "When Europe sneezes, America catches the cold." The whole idea is that Europe tends to be several decades ahead of America, when it comes major trends in arts, culture, etc."

Now what about religion? That's basically what we talked about in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Well, for decades now, demographers have known that the active practice of religious faith was fading in most (not all) of Europe. Once again, France has been one of the easiest places to see this trend. However, in the past decade or so -- Hello, Church of England -- it's been easy to see the same struggles in other pews.

Now, several years ago here in America, we had a hurricane if ink and newsprint when the Pew Forum released its famous "Nones on the Rise" study, showing a sharp increase in the number of "religiously unaffiliated" Americans, especially among the young. The term "Nones" has been all over the place, ever since (including here at GetReligion).

Why? Well, for starters there were big political overtones. This paragraph from one of my "On Religion" columns pretty much sums that up:

The unaffiliated overwhelmingly reject ancient doctrines on sexuality with 73 percent backing same-sex marriage and 72 percent saying abortion should be legal in all, or most, cases. Thus, the "Nones" skew heavily Democratic as voters. ... The unaffiliated are now a stronger presence in the Democratic Party than African-American Protestants, white mainline Protestants or white Catholics.

In other words, a coalition of atheists, agnostics and "Nones" is now to the Democratic Party what the Religious Right (broadly defined) is to the Republican party -- the grassroots heart.

So here is the question that host Todd Wilken and I talked about this week: If the "Nones" study has received acres of headlines, why has there been so little American coverage of that stunning new Benedict XVI Centre study entitled "Europe's Young Adults and Religion"? 

This is basically the "Nones" trend on steroids and, well, if Europe sneezes, you know what happens in America. Right?

So what did this study have to say? Here's the headline on a report from The Guardian: " 'Christianity as default is gone': the rise of a non-Christian Europe." The overture:

Europe’s march towards a post-Christian society has been starkly illustrated by research showing a majority of young people in a dozen countries do not follow a religion.

The survey of 16- to 29-year-olds found the Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe, with 91% of that age group saying they have no religious affiliation. Between 70% and 80% of young adults in Estonia, Sweden and the Netherlands also categorise themselves as non-religious.

The most religious country is Poland, where 17% of young adults define themselves as non-religious, followed by Lithuania with 25%.

In the UK, only 7% of young adults identify as Anglican, fewer than the 10% who categorise themselves as Catholic. Young Muslims, at 6%, are on the brink of overtaking those who consider themselves part of the country’s established church.

The author of this report is Stephen Bullivant, who teaches theology and the sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University in London. The data for this study came from the massive European social survey of 2014-16.

Here's a key chunk of my "On Religion" column this week, which framed some of the results of this study in remarks that Germany's Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger began making several decade ago about the future of the church in Europe (see the video at the top of this post). Ratzinger, of course, became Pope Benedict XVI.

In 18 of these countries "fewer than 10 percent of all 16-29 year-olds attend religious services at least weekly. And in 12 of them, over half say that they have 'no religion,' " noted Stephen Bullivant, the report's author and director of the Benedict XVI Centre, in email exchanges with Rod Dreher of The American Conservative.
"These are all countries in Europe, the very heart of Christendom, where Christianity (albeit in several forms) has been reliably passed on from generation-to-generation for the best part of 2000 years. And now, in the space of just a couple of generations, that's largely stopped in many places."
The key, he said is that "nominal" or "cultural" faith doesn't pass from one generation to another. While today's parents may call themselves Christians -- perhaps believing in a "vaguely benevolent 'Something' out there" -- their children have cut these ties to the past, said Bullivant, a former atheist who converted to Catholicism in 2008.

There are so many trends and shocking statistics in this Benedict XVI Centre study. It's a must read for religion-beat professionals.

For context, reporters might also want to file a copy this Ratzinger interview from 2001, shortly before he became pope: "On the Future of Europe."

I have seen some reactions to this study, only not in major American media. This remark by scholar Robert P. George of Princeton (on Facebook) sets the tone, in terms of talking about where Europe may be going:

"Something will fill the vacuum. Something always does. For now it's expressive individualism underwriting hedonism (and contributing to a weakening of civil society and a demographic collapse). But that won't last. As Christianity fades away Islam (or various forms of Islam) will likely increase in numbers of adherents and influence. But it might or might not become culturally normative or dominant. It too will be under pressure.
"Competitors will emerge. Some will be neo-pagan, building on the currently dominant expressive individualism and exploiting the opening for them that it creates. Some will be nationalistic and some of those will be Romantic. As usual, Jews will be the canary in the coal mine. If things go really dark, an indicator will be the treatment and plight of Jewish communities in the various nations. As soon as one sees that Jews are being victimized and life is being made dangerous, hard, or impossible for them, expect a very deep darkness to envelope the nation and culture."

Sobering. Enjoy the podcast.

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