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Religion in the New Europe

Krzysztof Michalski

Observations from America

Peter L. Berger

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1The contributions in this volume provide a very useful overview of the role of religion in the integration of Europe, a matter that has become topical in the current debate over whether some reference to religion should be included in the proposed constitution of the European Union. In what follows I will not attempt a commentary on these excellent papers. Rather, I will make some (more or less organized) observations from the perch on which I happen to sit, namely an American perch. (So as not to offend Taylor’s Canadian sensitivities, I should say “a United States perch.” Canada is different from the United States in religion as in other things. However, for the sake of style, I will stick with the customary terminology.)

2At first blush there is something ironic about mentioning religion in the same breath as integration. Religion has always been an integrating force—typically by integrating one community in intense and frequently murderous hostility against other communities. The religious history of Europe in particular is dripping with blood—Catholics against Protestants, both against Jews, Latin Christendom against Eastern Orthodoxy, and Christians against Muslims. The idea of religion as an overarching integrative force throughout Europe is novel and, in view of the historical record, not very promising. Indeed, secularism (as carefully defined and distinguished from secularity by Martin) would be a more likely candidate for such a role. Perhaps one could speak more plausibly of European integration despite religion.

3The American perch is useful, because the comparison between Europe and the United States is theoretically strategic for the sociology of religion. Secularity (simply put, the decline in religious belief and practice) has commonly been seen as an inexorable consequence of modernization. Yet the United States, which can hardly be described as less modern than Western Europe, is robustly religious when compared with the latter. Reference is often made to “American exceptionalism” (sometimes favorably, sometimes not so). America is undoubtedly exceptional in many ways, but not when it comes to religion. Most of the world is religious, as is America—Europe is the exception (as stated in the title of a recent book by the British sociologist Grace Davie)—and it is that exception which begs for explanation. It so happens that our research center at Boston University is in the final stages of a research project on “Eurosecularity,” directed by Hervieu-Léger with the collaboration of an international team of scholars. The findings of this study will be published in the near future, and this is not the place for a preview. But I will allow myself some idiosyncratic comments of my own.

4The conventional distinction is between “religious America” and “secular Europe.” Things are rather more complicated—I will get to this in a moment. But, looked at from an American perch, there is something ironic about the current arguments for mention of the religious (or “Judaeo-Christian,” or “Judaeo-Christian-Islamic”) basis of so-called “European values” in the proposed constitution. The only mention of religion in the constitution of the United States is in the First Amendment, which both guarantees the free exercise of religion and prohibits its establishment by government—no mention of any religious basis for “American values.” (The Declaration of Independence, which does contain some very vague language of this sort, is not part of the constitution.) Yet this omission has not been an obstacle to the exuberant development of religion. Could it be that it has actually been helpful to this development? Alexis de Tocqueville certainly thought so. Is there a lesson here for Europe?

5Be this as it may, there are both differences and similarities in the place of religion on the two continents. (More precisely, the comparison refers to Western and Central Europe, the vortex of the alleged secularity. As one goes east and southeast from this region, one finds a very different situation.)

6What is different? All objective indices of religious behavior are much higher in America—in terms of church attendance, recruitment to the clergy, material support of the churches. There has been a high degree of “de-institutionalization” of religion in Europe. Both the Catholic and the Protestant churches are almost everywhere in a state of institutional crisis, with only some relatively small enclaves of traditional “churchliness.” By contrast, church life in America continues vigorously. There has been a decline in participation in the so-called “mainline” Protestant churches, much less so among Catholics.

7But there is one American phenomenon that is almost completely absent in Europe—the exuberant presence of Evangelical Protestantism, with some forty million Americans describing themselves as “born-again Christians.” The same difference shows up in subjective indices—expressions of belief in God, salvation through Jesus Christ, life after death, and for that matter any of the traditional Christian doctrines. If Hervieu-Léger is right (as in her recent book Catholicisme, la fin d’un monde), there has also been a decline in Europe of what she calls the “civilizational” role of religion—that is, the way in which entire cultures were shaped by Catholic, or Protestant, values, regardless of the fate of the churches. Thus America can still be seen as a Protestant civilization in a way in which, say, Scandinavia cannot.

8But what is similar? The most important similarity is individuation. This means that religion is no longer embedded in the culture in a taken-for-granted manner, but rather becomes an object of individual choices. Hervieu-Léger has called this phenomenon “bricolage” (the term suggests tinkering with a Lego set). Robert Wuthnow, referring to America, has used the term “patchwork religion” to describe the same phenomenon. On both continents this includes the people who say that they are not religious but “spiritual.” Many of them are perpetual seekers (Hervieu-Léger calls them pilgrims) rather than resolute affirmers of this or that faith. In Europe these people express their religiosity in very diffuse ways, typically outside the churches. In America they frequently set up churches. The prototypical American church of this kind is the Unitarian–Universalist denomination, which officially defines itself as a community of seekers. (A telling joke: How does the Unitarian version of the Lord’s Prayer begin? “To Whom It may Concern.”) Significantly, this denomination, though small, has experienced healthy growth.

9I would argue that this phenomenon (and not secularity) is indeed a result of modernity, which pluralizes the life-world of individuals and makes taken-for-granted certainty (in religion as in everything else) hard to come by. This pluralization is caused by a variety of modern developments—urbanization, mass migration, literacy, and the mass communication media. All of these confront the individual with a diversity of worldviews, value systems and lifestyles, between which he is compelled to choose. (Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of “being condemned to freedom” is doubtful as a description of the general human condition, but it applies neatly to the modern condition.)

10Modernity can occur under different political and legal regimes, but the pluralization it engenders is obviously enhanced under democratic regimes that guarantee religious liberty. When the churches can no longer rely on the police to fill their pews, they are forced to compete for the allegiance of uncoerced consumers of their services. This is so even in countries (like France, or Sweden) where one traditional church nominally contains the majority of the population. Even if no other churches are available in the individual’s neighborhood, he is free not to adhere to a church at all or/and to put together his own religio-moral “patchwork.”

11Why the difference? As already indicated, ever since de Tocqueville there has been the classical explanation of the vitality of American religion in terms of the separation of state and church, which is almost certainly a valid explanation. The withdrawal of state support forced American churches to compete, and competition makes for vital institutions. (It was possible to see this long before the recent introduction of economic theory into the sociology of religion by Rodney Stark and others, though it makes sense to think of a religious market in which certain economic processes occur.) Equally important, though, churches that are not identified with the state do not incur the resentments that, sooner or later, will be directed against the latter.

12But this cannot be the whole story. If it were, the separation of church and state in France, more rigid than the American model, has now lasted for almost exactly a century, yet there are no signs that it has vitalized religious institutions in that country. Indeed, as soon as real religious liberty is introduced in a country, even if it still has an official religious establishment, there will be a de facto separation of church and state. This has long been the case in the democracies of Western Europe, with no discernible vitalization of the churches ensuing.

13There must be some other factors to account for the difference, of which I will mention three possible ones. One, the chronology and the intensity of religious pluralism in America: this occurred from the beginnings of European settlement in America, with a large number of Protestant churches spreading throughout the colonies, none big enough to do the others in. Attempts at religious establishment, in New England by Congregationalists and in Virginia by Anglicans, soon failed because of this pluralism. The constitution of the Union then only ratified the pluralism that had preceded it. As Richard Niebuhr had pointed out, America generated a new type of religious institution, the “denomination,” defined as a church that recognizes other churches’ right to exist. Even churches to which such recognition is theologically repugnant are nevertheless forced to behave “denominationally” in the American situation. This is notably the case with the Roman Catholic Church.

14Two, again for historically explainable reasons, Americans have developed a genius for creating voluntary associations: let three Americans be stranded on a desert island, and they will start four neighborhood associations. (The conventional view is that American culture is very individualistic. I think this is a mistake. Americans are much less individualistic than other Western cultures such as the French. Rather, they are “associationist”—a different matter altogether.) American religious pluralism has benefited from this cultural trait.

15Three, the status of intellectuals differs greatly as between the two continents. Raymond Aron once called France the paradise of intellectuals, America their hell. This is a slight exaggeration, but it is still a valid insight. From the beginning America created a highly commercial culture, and businessmen tend to have a low opinion of intellectuals. This difference became very important for religion on both continents as primary education became universal and compulsory. In many European countries education has been a function of the central state. The cadres of teachers were then drawn from the lower ranks of an intelligentsia, that tended to be more secularized than the general population.

16By contrast, in America, until very recently, education was entirely run by local communities. The results are simple: in Europe, unless a religious school was nearby, children were exposed to secularizing indoctrination regardless of the wishes of their parents; in America, the parents could fire the teachers whose instruction they disliked. It may be added that the American Enlightenment, and thus the intelligentsia it spouted, was much less anti-clerical than its European cousin—which, again, may be related to the fact that there was no dominant “clerisy” against which Enlightened spirits could fulminate (to paraphrase Voltaire, no infamy to be crushed).

17Thus America is indeed different, but not without significant similarities. And, as David Martin points out in his paper, America has been part of a “bourgeois Protestant” axis—Amsterdam/London/Boston—that developed a tradition of relative tolerance early on. The principle of voluntary association intensified as this axis moved westward and its tradition of tolerance embraced an ever-wider circle of religious groups—first within the Protestant fold, then taking in Catholics and Jews, and by now embracing any religious group that eschews ritual cannibalism.

18What is the integrative power of Europe?—Here I must respectfully disagree with Charles Taylor, who claims that Europe is “way ahead of the rest of the world” in seeing itself as “multi-national.” Hardly. To be sure, the European Union is a great achievement in providing an almost ironclad guarantee that no nations within it will ever go to war with each other again. But in terms of a political identity (which is Taylor’s focus) Europe is a project rather than a present reality, and the future of the project is far from determined at this time. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago. I attended a conference of young German professionals (it was advertised as no less than an Elitetagung). An official from Brussels addressed the conference. The subject of her address was the present structure of the European Union and its future plans. She ended her address by saying, “Thank you for your interest in Europe.” No one seemed to find this phrase odd. I imagined how odd it would be for a speaker at this conference to say, “Thank you for your interest in Germany.” Will there be a European political identity, as there now is a German one, a French one, and so on? Maybe. Obviously the project will become more difficult as the European Union expands to include ever more heterogeneous nation-states.

19Whatever the outcome of this project, Europe is certainly not “way ahead” of the United States in integrating immigrants from every conceivable ethnic and religious background. America has been phenomenally successful in this kind of integration, despite some setbacks. (For historically understandable reasons, the major setback has been with African-Americans—who, paradoxically, are not immigrants at all in the conventional sense.) Europeans have a much harder time including culturally diverse immigrants in the political identity of their nation-states. It is not easy to be a Bavarian Muslim or a Hindu Norwegian. In the 1950s a public-service advertisement in the New York subway read, “Worship in the church or synagogue of your choice.” More recently, in Hawaii, a similar advertisement read, “Worship in the church, synagogue or shrine of your choice.” The term “shrine” embraces every conceivable non-Christian, non-Jewish faith.

20If one asks how religion may relate to European integration, one must look at the role of religion in the public space of societies. In most of Western Europe one finds the phenomenon described by Grace Davie as “believing without belonging”—as mentioned before, people put together (bricoler) some sort of religious worldview, but without actively adhering to a church. But there is also the obverse phenomenon—“belonging without believing.” In this connection Davie has spoken of “vicarious religion”: many people do not make use of the church, but they want it to be there—just in case it may be needed, or just as a symbolic presence which one does not want to miss. Davie is correct, I think, in finding that such vicariousness is significant.

21Take Germany: the state collects a church tax and hands it on to the churches. This Kirchensteuer amounts to about eight percent of an individual’s income tax—a not inconsiderable amount of money. This tax, unlike every other tax, is not compulsory. To be exempted from it, an individual merely has to declare himself without any religious affiliation (konfessionslos). Not surprisingly, many people have made use of this easy way of increasing their disposable income. What is remarkable that most have not including many who never set foot in a church. Their motives are often vague, yet finally quite clear: they want the church to be there as a symbolic presence, as some sort of moral authority, even if they do not need it at this point in their lives.

22The need for this symbolic presence may suddenly manifest itself in public space in moments of crisis—for example, in England at the death of Princess Diana (when it went unquestioned that the funeral service took place in Westminster Abbey), in Sweden when the steamship Estonia sank with great loss of life (the Lutheran church became, as it were, the official mourner), and on comparable occasions elsewhere. Vicariousness is not the same as irrelevance. It is conceivable that a renewed public role of the churches would emerge if Europe were subjected to a more long-lasting crisis.

23But there is a less speculative situation already at hand—the confrontation of Europe with Islam, both within and outside its borders. Can Europe integrate Islam? Bhikhu Parekh draws an optimistic picture for Britain (and it is not irrelevant to reflect on the significance of the fact that this author occupies a seat in the House of Lords). I think that it would be more difficult to be equally optimistic about Islam in France, where Muslims almost inevitably pose a challenge to the secularism (laicité) of the republican ideology. Be this as it may, in every European country there is an intensely separatist trend among many young Muslims, who fiercely reject the culture of the host country.

24Throughout the Muslim world there is a contestation between a modernizing view of Islam, capable of accepting the separation of religion from the state, and the more traditional view, in which Islam must dominate every phase of social and political life. The outcome of this contestation is as yet unclear, but it will have great consequences for the political identity/identities of Europe. And then there is the pivotal case of Turkey’s candidacy for entry into the European Union, as described in Nilüfer Göle’s paper. One need not doubt the sincerity of European concerns for human rights in Turkey to suspect that there is also a reluctance to let a huge body of poor Muslims into the European Union—and not merely for economic reasons. There is a bitter irony to the Turkish story: ever since the creation of Kemal Ataturk’s republic Turkey has been proclaiming its European identity (Ataturk equated it with “civilization”)—and now, after all this, Europe is not sure whether it recognizes this identity.

25Hervieu-Léger sees the possibility of a rediscovery of Europe’s “religious patrimony” in the confrontation with Islam. That “patrimony,” of course, is that of Christendom—more specifically, Latin Christendom. Thus it is not only in drawing the frontier of Europe against the Muslim world that religion may play a role. There is also the question of the frontier with Eastern Orthodoxy. With the exception of Greece, the borders of the present European Union coincide with the old borders of Latin Christendom. Can Europe integrate Greek Christendom? Samuel Huntington may have been prescient when he raised the question of whether Greece and Turkey belong in NATO—because they were not part of Western civilization as he defined it. Such questions are not acceptable in politically correct discourse, presently left to demagogues of the far Right, but this may change. The anti-Muslim diatribes of, for example, Oriana Falacci may be a harbinger of things to come. And it is not a pretty picture.

26David Martin’s paper draws our attention to the fact that European secularity is almost as heterogeneous as European religion. Martin suggests a useful trilogy. First, there was what he called the “Counter-Reformation Baroque,” a predominantly Catholic phenomenon. It sought to re-establish a sacred unity between church and society, generating its mirror image of a sacred secular republic. In this sense, French laicité is a post-Catholic phenomenon.

27But secularity in the form of anti-clerical secularism is not only to be found in France. Indeed, it can be found in all Catholic societies of southern Europe and Latin America. Thus the Italian sociologist Enzo Pace has analyzed the Communist Party of Italy as a mirror image of the Catholic Church, with both now undergoing parallel “secularizations.” And the Chilean historian Claudio Veliz has written about “the cracking of the baroque dome” in Ibero-America, with the advent of an “Anglo-Saxon” type of pluralism. There is also, secondly, the question of what Martin calls “Enlightened absolutism.” Scandinavia, with its development from a benign Lutheran monopoly to a benign social-democratic monopoly, is the model case for this.

28Thirdly, there is the aforementioned “bourgeois Protestantism,” best suited to the emergence of modern religious pluralism. Its key principle is that of voluntary association. Conservative Catholics are quite right when they see the acceptance of this principle as a subtle form of “Protestantization.” Whether one regards this as a good or a bad thing will depend, not on one’s sociological insights, but on one’s philosophical or theological views.

29Should the constitution of the European Union contain some reference to the religious history of Europe? I have no opinion on this and, frankly, am not terribly interested. It is quite clear, though, that the current debate on this topic may open up a Pandora’s box of divisive questions about the nature of Europe and its future.


Peter L. Berger is University Professor Emeritus, Professor of Sociology and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs (CURA) at Boston University. Recently author of Questions of Faith: A Sceptical Affirmation of Christianity, Oxford, 2003; Many Globalizations: Cultural Diversity in the Contemporary World, ed. with Samuel P. Huntington, Oxford UP, 2002.

© Central European University Press, 2006

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