Religion in Europe

(This is Neil.) I think that I have learned more about the state of religion in contemporary Europe from Grace Davie than any other sociologist. She has a short article in the February 15 Church Times entitled “Religion will be yet more hotly debated in future,” that is based on a longer essay (PDF format) that previously appeared in an issue of the Hedgehog Review devoted to the theme “After Secularism.” Professor Davie makes three very good points that, while familiar to readers of her work, might be somewhat surprising when first heard through American ears.

First, she introduces the concept of “vicarious religion,” namely, “the notion of religion performed by an active minority but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but, quite clearly, approve of what the minority is doing.” Practicing Christians perform rituals, believe, and embody moral codes for others. They also “offer space for the vicarious debate of unresolved issues in modern society.”

Even in a secular society, nominal believers frequently desire a church service at the time of their death. At times, as with Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, the structure of the liturgy is combined with “extraneous elements” in a “mixed economy” funeral. The church, then, performs the ritual on behalf of the deceased. Likewise, there is concern in even relatively secularized Britain that clergymen “believe” for the public, and obvious discomfort when, say, it is erroneously reported that the Bishop of Durham has dismissed the Resurrection as a mere “conjuring trick with bones” (see here). Professor Davie notes that societal expectations for ministers and priests also remain, with evident disappointment arising in the public when they do not uphold expected behavioral standards.

Finally, Davie notices that the debate over homosexuality in the Church of England has attracted “intense media attention.” Why is this? She wonders if the church has “offered space” for a thorny topic that simply could not be discussed elsewhere in society – if this presents “one way in which society as a whole comes to terms with profound shifts in the moral climate.”

It is difficult to see this concept of vicariousness functioning at all in American religion (“to act vicariously is not part of American self-understanding,” Davie writes), probably because of the lack of an established church which could be perceived as a “public utility.” The concept of “vicarious religion” certainly should complicate our view of Europe as simply “secular” or “post-Christian,” even if the vicarious religious economy only lasts for another generation or so.

Second, Davie suggests that European religion is moving from “a culture of obligation or duty to a culture of consumption or choice.” Confirmation in the Church of England has ceased to be a societal rite of passage, and is now an individual choice occurring often in adulthood as an “opportunity to make public what has often been an entirely private activity.” (Theologically speaking, we might want to question the use of the word “choice” instead of, say, “response.”) Something rather similar seems to be taking place in Catholic France. Even in Lutheran nations, where there are still more traditional patterns of Confirmation, young people, Davie tells us, increasingly choose the intense “experience” of a confirmation camp instead of a series of meetings.

This focus on spiritual experience in place of cultural obligation can be seen in the growth of conservative evangelicalism, “the success story of late twentieth-century churchgoing,” and the popularity of cathedrals, which offer an “aesthetic experience” of traditional liturgy, well-performed music, and excellent sermons, without any real sense of congregational obligation.

I wonder if Professor Davie too easily opposes spiritual experience to the cerebral; we can suggest that particular doctrines create the possibility of or at least intensify particular experiences. But it is interesting to note that the future of European religion may very well have to do with spiritual experience and its capacity to shape life in modernity. In our American context, religion is often discussed, but we rarely speak of spiritual experience with the complexity and sophistication that certain doctrinal and ethical issues receive. Perhaps this shows that American religion is still bound up with cultural and political obligations, particularly the maintenance of boundaries.

Third, Professor Davie points out that Europe has received a large number of non-Christian immigrants, initially during the postwar time of economic expansion, and then in the 1990s. While immigrants came for economic reasons, their presence will inevitably force the revision of any easy conclusion about European religion. In countries such as France, which have a history of religious uniformity and maintained a concept of citizenship that emphasizes equality to the extent of “eradicating difference,” the existing policy of laïcité might now seem problematically intolerant. But in Great Britain, which does possess a longer history of religious pluralism and the formation of a common good out of diverse identities, unelected figures, particularly in the Church of England, increasingly speak for religious tolerance as the protectors of “faith” in general. This redefined role is, needless to say, a controversial and difficult one.

The presence of a Muslim population in Europe might also force another revision, namely, of the notion that European religion is a private matter hidden from public life. The most obvious example of this would be the controversy over the wearing of the veil in schools in France. More recently, reflecting on the row surrounding the city mosque of Oxford’s request to broadcast the call to prayer, the Jesuit Nicholas King has written, “A public call to prayer, emanating from whatever religious source, can usefully serve as a reminder that there is such a thing as God’s time, and that our task is at all times to give praise and glory to God. … It is possible that British society today needs a reminder that prayer and worship is not a private, individual matter, between me and my God, but something that we do corporately, in company with others.”

The point here is not whether Fr King is right or wrong, but that religion in Europe – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – might reenter the public square or enter it for the first time. Some of the controversy about public religion might surprise us Americans, but Professor Davie reminds us that the Enlightenment in Europe often, if not always, meant a freedom from belief, while in the US it generally meant a freedom for minorities to believe.

We can summarize Davie’s conclusions with merciful brevity:

There is a perhaps temporary economy of “vicarious religion” in Europe, in which the churches serve as public utilities for nominal members.

There is a newer economy of voluntary religion, based on spiritual experience.

Religion will “increasingly penetrate the public sphere, a tendency driven largely by the presence of Islam in different parts of Europe.”

Well, what do you think?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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3 Responses to Religion in Europe

  1. Liam says:

    The longer essay seems to crave a Hegelian synthesis that is not really there.

    Religious faith in Europe does not have a linear history. It’s all over the place, and it will likely remain so. Various parts of Europe have gone through extended periods of light religious practice before, only to be succeeded by a relatively fervent period. It’s not a uniform line across space or time.

    This is true not only for Christianity but also Judaism and Islam, btw.

    For example, the Swedish,Russian, Cossack and Turkish invasions of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth in the mid-17th century led to a decimation of “enlightened” religious elites (which were more “enlightened” than those often found to the West) in all faiths, and a rise in what we might anachronistically call “fundamentalism” in popular expression of all the major religions. Precisely at the time the “Enlightment” was taking hold in western Europe.

    For an example from today: the Saudi government is underwriting the “rebuilding” of Islamic institutions in the Balkans – but by erasing what it views as the heterodox Turkish version that historically dominated and replacing it with a more pure Wahhabist version. Et cet.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks for writing. Good to hear from you again. Sorry for being away from the computer for a bit.

    I really don’t see how Davie’s Hedgehog Review article “seems to crave a Hegelian synthesis that is not really there.” Davie concludes, with very explicit caution, that it is likely that “vicarious religion” will decline and give way to voluntary religion, and, with more certainty, that the presence of Islam will serve as the “catalyst” of a “change in the religious landscape of Europe.” The result, she says, will be the increased presence of religion in European public and private debate. How is this a “Hegelian synthesis?” Where is the dialectic? Davie is providing tentative conclusions on the basic of sociological trends, not arguing from any sort of philosophical necessity.

    As far as I can tell, she is not arguing that European religion in Europe has had a consistently linear history. After all, one of her factors is the “second wave” of immigration to Europe in the 1990s, which rather quickly transformed Dublin into a diverse and expensive city.

    And, once more, I believe that she is suggesting a probable, not necessary, course of events. Obviously, should sudden and unpredictable occurrences take place, she would have to revise her conclusions. I am not sure if it is persuasive to argue against a sociological theory by suggesting that it does not sufficiently explain the possible aftermath of the 21st century equivalent of massive invasion (bird flu? terrorist attack?).

    I am not even sure how your single example of Wahhabi mosques in Bosnia argues against Davie. She grasps that Europe is not homogeneous – and if any part of Europe seems radically different from the rest of it, wouldn’t it be the former Yugoslavia? -and that any sociological generalization is somewhat fragile. But, in any case, wouldn’t Saudi-funded mosques in Bosnia challenge the privatization of religion and ensure its place in public debate? Therefore, Davie’s conclusion would seem to be reinforced.

    As it would seem to be by recent events in England – I mean, specifically, surrounding the Archbishop of Canterbury and sharia.

    Please let me know if I haven’t understood you.

    Best,
    Neil

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