Religion and the West

Religion and the West

Mini Teaser: American religiosity and European secularity spring from the same source.

by Author(s): Peter L. Berger

A few years ago I was having breakfast in a hotel in Austin, Texas. At the next table sat two middle-aged men in business suits, both reading newspapers. One looked up and said: "The situation is really heating up in the Middle East." He paused, then continued: "Just as the Bible said it would." Not long after this I was in a London hotel on a Sunday morning. I thought it would be nice to attend an Anglican Matins service. I went to the concierge, a young Englishman named Warren--clearly not an intern from Pakistan. I asked him where the nearest Anglican church was and added, "Church of England parish." He looked at me with a blank look, then said, "Is this sort of like Catholic?" I said, "Well, not quite." What impressed me was not that this young Englishman evidently did not go to church, but that he actually did not know what the Church of England was--his country's state church, whose head is Queen Elizabeth II.

It is often said that modernity brings about a decline of religion, a notion dignified by the term "secularization theory." Most sociologists of religion now agree that this theory has been empirically falsified. (I myself held to the theory until, beginning in the 1970s, the data made it increasingly difficult to do so.) The theory fails spectacularly in explaining the difference between America and Europe. It is hard to argue that Belgium is more modern than the United States. A European travelling in India will expect to encounter all sorts of exotic phenomena, including a lot of religion. He is likely to feel much less out of place travelling in the United States. Consequently, he will be the more surprised when encountering what will appear to him as American exotica, such as the inexplicable American penchant for religiosity. Some time ago a German professor of my acquaintance lectured at the University of Texas (also in Austin). He felt very much at home--until Sunday morning, when he hired a car to explore the Texas countryside. He was bewildered by a massive traffic jam in downtown Austin, until he realized that it was caused by large numbers of people going to church. He then turned on the car radio and found that most stations were broadcasting Evangelical services. I would not be surprised to learn that upon his return to Germany he conveyed impressions of the bizarre experience he'd had in Texas.

Intellectual curiosity is always aroused by exceptions. Much has been written to the effect that religion is a part of "American exceptionalism." But in reality, most of the world, not just the United States, is characterized by an explosion of passionate religious movements. The real exception is Europe. Explaining European secularity, especially its contrast with America, is one of the most interesting topics for the study of contemporary religion.

Both the Catholic and Protestant churches are in deep trouble in Europe. Attendance at services has declined sharply for many years, there is a shortage of clergy because of lagging recruitment, finances are in bad shape, and the churches have largely lost their former importance in public life. Western and central Europe is the most secularized area in the world. This has become so much a part of European culture that the term "Eurosecularity" seems appropriate. Originally a phenomenon centered in the northern part of the Continent, this secular culture spreads quite rapidly as other regions are absorbed into it. This was the case in the south, in Italy after World War II and very dramatically in Spain after the demise of the Franco regime. I would venture a prediction: Countries are pulled into secularity to the degree by which they are integrated into Europe. Integration into Europe means signing on to Eurosecularity (the legal norms, after all, are contained in the famous EU acquis) along with the rest of the "Europe package." This is already noticeable in Ireland and Poland. I doubt whether Eastern Orthodoxy will provide immunity against this cultural penetration. The case of Greece would seem to confirm this view; it remains to be seen what happens in Romania and Bulgaria as they too are absorbed into Europe. If my prediction is correct, this has obvious policy implications: As time goes by, "new Europe" will increasingly look like "old Europe." If one looks for vibrant religion in Europe, one may have to look farther east--most importantly to Russia, where a remarkable revival of Orthodox Christianity is underway. But that is another story.

European politics eschews the sort of religiously tinged rhetoric that is common in America, and Europe lacks the massive presence of Evangelical Protestantism, which is a crucial part of the American scene. Europeans have a hard time understanding this presence and commonly perceive it in simplistic stereotypes: Bible-thumping rednecks spouting right-wing fundamentalism. Britons have a particular difficulty here, since Evangelicalism in the United Kingdom has traditionally been linked firmly to left-leaning agendas of social reform. American Evangelicalism, of course, is a much more complicated phenomenon, by no means coinciding neatly with right-of-center politics. It is worth remembering that born-again Christianity first attracted widespread media attention during the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter.

But while there are clear differences between the United States and Europe, we should also keep in mind that survey data on religion are always somewhat suspect. Americans may exaggerate their religiousness in response to survey questions, just as Europeans may exaggerate their secularity. To illustrate, a few years ago some busy sociologists compared responses on church attendance in a particular locality with the number of cars in church parking lots, discovering that there were fewer cars than the responses would lead one to expect. Conversely, when the ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea a few years ago, resulting in the death of a large number of Swedes, the churches were packed for memorial services in Sweden--a country that consistently leads in indicators of secularity. And the caricature of a "religious America" and a "secular Europe" ignores the fact that there are major differences within America itself. The center and the south of the country are more religious than the two coasts. And, at least since the middle of the 20th century, there has been an American intelligentsia, much more secular than the rest of the population, that forms a cultural elite, with considerable power in education, the media and the law. Much of American politics since 1963 (the date of the first Supreme Court decision concerning prayer in public schools) can be much better understood if one sees it as, in part, a struggle between the activists representing secular and religious America. It so happens, moreover, that the two sets of activists have become important as constituencies, respectively, of the two major political parties.

But this simplified picture--of God-fearing, red-state Americans standing up for faith and country against the coastal blue-state citizens aligned with post-Christian Europeans--leaves out one important matter: namely, that the religious situation on both continents is marked by the pervasive influence of pluralism.

Religion on the Market

The first, and often overlooked, point is that the secular choices of west Europeans and the religious choices of American southerners are rooted in the same experience with modernity. This is because, rather than being a catalyst for secularization, modernity in fact leads to pluralism. And it is pluralism that explains the two religious spheres.

Through most of history, the majority of human beings lived in communities with a high degree of homogeneity of beliefs and values. Modernity undermines such homogeneity: through migration and urbanization, by which people with very different beliefs and values are made to rub against each other; through mass education and mass literacy, which open up cognitive horizons unknown to most individuals in pre-modern societies; and most dramatically, through mass communication. These changes have been underway for at least several centuries, but they are now being rapidly diffused and intensified by globalization. In today's world one can find very few places that have been left untouched by this pluralist dynamic. Religion is no exception.

In both North America and Europe, pluralism has transformed religion both institutionally and in the consciousness of individuals. Religious institutions, many of which had been accustomed to monopoly status, must now deal with competition. In effect, there emerges a religious market in which individuals can, indeed must, make choices. On the level of consciousness, this means that religion is no longer taken for granted, but becomes the object of reflection and decision.

Such a religious market is obviously enhanced if many religious communities coexist in the same social space and if their freedom to operate is secured in law. On both counts, America has had an obvious historical advantage over Europe. But the pluralist dynamic begins to make its impact even in countries where one religious community continues to command the nominal allegiance of most of the population, or where one such community continues to be recognized as the official religion of the state. France is an example of the first case, England of the second. While relatively few French people adhere to a religious community other than the Catholic one, Catholicism is certainly no longer taken for granted as the normal religion in society, and individuals minimally have the choice of having little or nothing to do with it. In England the legal establishment of the Anglican church continues, but this has less and less influence in the lives of most English people. In both countries there is a religious market with many options. That few people exercise this option is not the point. Rather, it is that pluralism has led to a far greater degree of religious choice than was available before. In America the term "religious preference"--tellingly derived from the language of consumer economics--has become part of the common discourse. The term may just as well be applied to the European situation.

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