Recessional

A local analogy might help Americans to understand the extent of the crisis. Just imagine that in the United States, Christianity was represented almost exclusively by the liberal mainline churches—Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal, Congregational, and the rest, and no other bodies existed to compensate for their shrinking membership or attendance figures. In such circumstances, it would be tempting to graph the accumulating statistics of decline to determine just when, in a few decades, the sole surviving parishioner would be forced to turn out the lights on the last church. Of course, Americans have, besides the main-liners, a plethora of thriving and well-attended alternative churches: most European countries do not.

Any number of indices demonstrate the weakness of European Christianity. In terms of belief, most simply, several different surveys regularly ask people in various nations how important religion is to them. In some Muslim nations, around 90 percent declare that religion "plays a very important role" in their lives, while the U.S. figure in 2002 was about 60 percent. The average figure for Europeans was 21 percent, though of course with national variations. The figure for Italy was 27 percent, Germany 21 percent, and France and the Czech Republic 11 percent. Unlike the United States, moreover, religious disaffection is not merely expressed in nonparticipation in church activities. A significant number of Europeans declare themselves atheist or non-religious. A survey of British respondents in 2004 found only 44 percent admitting to belief in God, with 35 percent denying that belief, and 21 percent "don't knows." Among those aged 18 through 34, atheist respondents rose to 45 percent. Between 1973 and 1994, the proportion of French people claiming no religion grew from 11 percent to 34 percent.1

In terms of specific Christian doctrines also, surveys trace a sharp decline in belief. In 1957, 71 percent of British respondents declared that Jesus was the Son of God, but by 2001, the figure had fallen to 38 percent. Breaking such responses down by age group suggests the speed with which Britain is moving toward a post-Christian society. Asked whether Jesus ever lived, which is scarcely a major concession to Christian orthodoxy, 80 percent of those over 65 said that he had, while only 54 percent of those aged 18-24 agreed. And that survey preceded the phenomenal impact of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, which has since 2003 popularized the idea of a Jesus who existed but whose teachings had nothing in common with any traditional concept of Christianity.2

Low levels of religious belief are reflected in figures for attendance, though the enormous disparity in reported rates for Christian loyalties means that we have to use this evidence cautiously, always asking what exactly is being measured. Combining separate surveys can yield puzzling results: surveys taken within a couple of years of each other by equally competent firms apparently showed that while 72 percent of British people claimed to be Christians, only 44 percent of the nation claim any religious affiliation. Similarly, when we read a despairing comment that only some tiny fraction of a given population attends church, that does not necessarily mean that Christianity is near extinction in that society. The figure cited might well refer to those reporting weekly attendance, rather than "regular" or occasional atten-ders, who still profess Christian loyalties.3

With that caveat in mind, though, European levels of church attendance fall far short of American, and the situation is deteriorating fast. Around 40 percent of Americans report visiting a place of worship weekly, compared to less than 20 percent in most of Europe. According to some estimates, the British attendance figure is 15 percent, with 12 percent in Germany, and Scandinavia below 5 percent. If those figures seem low, then the news for Christians is still more depressing. Those rates include attendance at any place of worship, whether church, mosque, or synagogue, so the European figures include Muslim believers. At the other end of the scale of religious practice are those who never or "practically never" attend a place of worship. The American figure for seldom or never attending a place of worship is 16 percent. As of 2000, though, such absentees made up 60 percent of French respondents, 55 percent in Britain, and between 40 percent and 50 percent in Scandinavia and the Low Countries. Young people are much more likely to be never-attenders than regulars. The number of young British people attending Anglican services has halved just since 1979, and only 6 percent of those aged 15 to 29 attend. Between 1900 and 1960, half of those baptized in the Church of England later went on to confirmation: that figure is now 20 percent. In 2005, the English Church Census reported that, since 1998, half a million people stopped going to a Christian church on Sundays.4

Such figures would be troubling enough for church leaders if they represented a steady level of low activity, but they do not: the trends are clearly downward and have been so since the 1960s. In Britain, Callum Brown argues that "quite suddenly in 1963 something very profound ruptured the character of the nation and its people, sending organized Christianity on a downward spiral to the margins of social significance." During the 1960s, "the new media, new gender roles and the moral revolution dramatically ended people's conception that they lived Christian lives." Decline accelerated in the post-1975 decade, when most of Britain's Christian churches lost around 20 percent of their adult membership, and matters have deteriorated still further since then. In the words of conservative British writer Danny Kruger, "More than 70 per cent of us claim to be Christian. But only four per cent of us go to church on Sundays. Church membership has fallen by a quarter over the past quarter-century: extrapolate forward and the prognosis is not good." Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has suggested that if the Church of England were a human being, "the last rites would be administered at any moment." He sees the church "as an elderly lady who mutters away to herself in a corner, ignored most of the time." Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, has said that "Christianity, as a sort of backdrop to people's lives and moral decisions—and to the government, the social life of the country—has now almost been vanquished."5

In Germany similarly, the Evangelical Church, EKD, which includes most Protestants, has lost over half its membership in the past half-century. Though in theory the church claims the loyalty of around a third of the population, some 28 million notional members, only a million or so demonstrate any regular religious participation. The proportion of babies born in Switzerland who were baptized was 95 percent in 1970, but 65 percent in 2000.6

As we will see, the picture of religious indifference is not uniform, and Christian adherence remains strong in parts of New Europe, especially Poland and Slovakia. Yet eastern and central Europe also have their bastions of secularism. In the closing years of European communism, the churches generally flourished on the strength of their opposition to repressive regimes, but matters changed when the old dictatorships collapsed, and the public gained access to secret police files. In some countries, it became painfully obvious how thoroughly the state apparatus had penetrated the churches, recruiting clergy as spies and propaganda agents.7

Such scandals were not inevitably fatal, at least where the structures of belief were secure. The Polish Catholic Church, for instance, has survived a scandalous claim that perhaps a tenth of its priests cooperated with the secret police, while the faith of Slovak Catholics has not been visibly dented by charges that their archbishop collaborated. In other countries, though, like the former German Democratic Republic, such scandals administered the coup de grâce to already weakened churches. Today, some regions of the former Soviet bloc look as secular as the Netherlands, if not more so: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and the former East Germany all register very high percentages of adults reporting no religion. According to the European Values Study, "fewer Czechs claim allegiance to organized religion than any other people in Europe, except Estonians." Only a third of Czechs belong to a religious denomination and about 12 percent attend services once a month or more. Today, over 60 percent of Czechs identify themselves as atheists, compared to just 19 percent who believe in God.8

Generally, decline has been far more marked in formerly Protestant areas, such as Britain or Denmark, than in nations with a strong Catholic heritage, and that difference is as marked within particular nations. Looking at the former Czechoslovakia, the mainly Protestant Czechs secularized rapidly, while their Catholic Slovak neighbors did not. Yet Catholics can take little comfort from this distinction, which might indicate not a qualitatively different fate, but rather a cultural delay of a decade or two.

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