For anyone paying attention, it is clear that Christianity as personal devotion, ritual practice, and as an intellectual and societal force has been declining in Western Europe for some time. Centuries of scientific and technological progress, industrialization, rationalist critique of religious dogma, revolutionary emancipatory ideals, and democratic egalitarianism, combined with recent massive immigration from Muslim-majority regions, have reduced Christianity to an insignificant civilizational force in Europe, albeit with important differences between Eastern, Central, and Western Europe. And the future is not looking brighter.
Europe is, therefore, most probably entering a post-Christian, neopagan era, the contours of which are slowly emerging. Still, for many conservative politicians and thinkers, Christianity fulfills the role of symbolizing continuity with the past, giving national identity a deeper meaning, and often stands as a guardian for a set of somewhat fuzzy values. The main cultural role of the Christian religion is, then, not to help people on the way to salvation, furthering holiness and caring for the destiny of their souls, but to embody the ideals of Western civilization.
One important thinker for reflecting on the tension between the sacred and cultural heritage is Roger Scruton (1944–2020), the recently deceased English writer and philosopher. Some have asked whether Scruton actually believed in God, or if he was merely drawn to the richness and sense of home provided by cultural forms of Christianity. But high culture is not religion, and when a culture springs from a religious faith, it quite naturally withers when severed from its spiritual roots. In 2018, Scruton wrote in an essay:
For you can lose your faith without losing the values that derive from it or the spiritual orientation that it implanted in your soul. And you might retain those things and be all the more distressed by a secular culture that mocks or tramples on them, precisely because you have nowhere to turn in your desire to defend them.
Later in the same essay, he continues:
That understandable skepticism was not bound to lead to the desecrated culture that surrounds us today. It is possible to accept the disenchanted vision of a purely material universe without losing the sense that the world is also a field of moral endeavor, in which there are values, prohibitions, sacred moments, and an exalted sense of our own and others’ worth. Nevertheless, those residues of religious feeling are jeopardized when their metaphysical foundations crumble.
Can Christianity, in its many confessional forms, perform the cultural tasks conservative thinkers and politicians expect it to do when its core beliefs and ethical principles are not taken seriously, as indicated in the last line of the Scruton quote? My hypothesis is that the idea of a Christian civilization or nation without sincere faith and morals will fail due to the impossibility of having the effect without the cause. Scruton, therefore, argues for a “re-enchantment” of Western civilization in order to preserve beauty in the arts and the moral principles necessary to uphold human dignity. However laudable such a project might be, it has a tragic tone to it.
According to polls and statistics, the Anglican church, like most national churches in Western Europe, seems to be a dying organization, connected to a fading social and political order, like the long-lived queen and the lost empire. To resist disenchantment by strengthening the values and “spiritual orientation” derived from a specterlike faith fails in understanding the dynamism of the sacred. The strength of sacrality depends on the ontological chasm between creation and creator and the slender bridges connecting them. If the material world is all there is, Weberian disenchantment is inevitable with the progress of knowledge. Ideals and values are then not discovered and inherent but constructed. What then besides brute force stops rulers and ambitious individuals from making values in their own interest?
Any discussion of Christianity as part of a European, conservative resistance to revolutionary changes and technological utilitarianism needs to make a sober assessment of the religious situation in Europe without wincing at uncomfortable truths. Christian beliefs and values cannot be taken for granted—even when a majority of the population identifies as Christians. A first step is to look closely at what various polls tell us about the religious attitudes and values of Europeans.
Importance of Religion
A recent Eurobarometer survey from 2020 reports that 36% of Europeans consider religion important, while the same percentage consider it unimportant. When breaking this down to individual countries, there are large differences. In Hungary, 30% consider religion important, in Germany, 24%, while in Sweden, it is a mere 16%
For my argument, the category of “important” is not strong enough, as it includes those answering from seven to ten on a scale of zero to ten, with zero to three categorized as “not important.” When differentiating between “very important” and “quite important,” the EU average for men who consider religion very important is only 13%, and for all people under 24 years old, it is even lower at 10%. On the other hand, 21% of persons aged 55+ think religion is very important. This indicates that the overall share of serious believers will continue to decline.
The number of people who chose ten on the scale of importance were a mere 6% of respondents in both Sweden and Germany and 9% in Hungary. Some countries had higher numbers of people who chose ten on the scale: 45% in Cyprus, 40% in Romania, 32% in Greece, 25% in Croatia, 22% in Malta, 20% in Poland, and 19% in Bulgaria.
The next step is to compare these figures with another question in the Eurobarometer poll, which asked how strongly one identifies with one’s religion, on a scale of zero to ten.
In Sweden, only 9% strongly identify themselves with their religion (nine or ten on the scale). In Germany, the number of those who strongly identify with their religion is higher, at 21%, while in Hungary, 47% strongly identify and 20% “tend to” identify themselves with their religion.
The percentage of Swedes who strongly or tend to identify with their religion and those who consider it important are numbered at 19% and 16%, respectively. There are thus slightly more people in Sweden who identify with their religion than those who consider it important.
In Hungary the relation is similar but to a much higher degree. 30% find religion important, while 67% either strongly or tend to identify with their religion. Many thus identify with a religion they do not find important.
In Germany, 24% think that religion is important, while 35% identify with religion. This difference is not as dramatic as in Hungary, but it is still more than 10%. Thus, there is generally a gap between those answering strongly in the affirmative to the question “How important is religion to you?” and “How much do you identify with your religion or beliefs?”
Traditional Values and Ways of Thinking
Another question in the Eurobarometer focused on the importance of tradition, which in many ways corroborates the previous picture. In Sweden, 23% think it is important to “maintain traditional values and ways of thinking,” but only 9% gave this the highest score on a scale of one to six. In Hungary, 36% chose six on the scale, and 30% chose five. Germany polled at 22 and 26%, respectively. Once again, there is a more substantial conservative-values basis (identification with a religion and upholding traditional values and ways of thinking) in these countries than in Sweden, where the minority who take their religion seriously is close to the number of people who identify with it and those who have traditional values. One preliminary conclusion is that the usefulness of religious discourse for social and political mobilization in Sweden is low, while in Hungary and Germany there is a potential for such discourse, despite the fact that few take religion very seriously.
Nevertheless, that the number of people in Sweden who give importance to traditional practices is similar to those who take their religion seriously indicates that other nations might approximate the Swedish condition if religious enthusiasm persists at low levels. That is, if there are no other social and ideological causes undergirding it. However, perhaps Sweden is an extreme and unique case.
Christian symbols might prove useful in some countries as elements of a vague collective identity, but such a Christian culture wields little power when it comes to important moral principles and civilizational ideals. For a religion to be efficacious in this respect, a higher level of commitment to its beliefs and practices is required. In fact, many who identify as Christians are not even Christians according to a minimal definition, that is, if this is not to be understood as merely an empty self-description.
Practicing the Christian Faith
A poll from 2017 taken by the Pew Research Center probed levels of church-attending Christians in Western Europe (that is, those who attend at least once a month). They make up only 10% percent in Belgium, 9% in Sweden (the same number who value traditional ways and take religion seriously), while they constitute 40% in Italy. There thus seems to be a large group of non-practicing Christians: 43% in Sweden, 55% in the UK, and 68% in Finland, due to a lower degree of unaffiliated than in Sweden (22 to 42%). But in what sense are these people Christian? And are the numbers stable?
Another question in the 2017 Pew poll was whether one believes in God as described in the Bible or in another higher power or spiritual force. Only 64% of Christians (based on an average of Christians in 15 European countries) who attend church believe in God as described in the Bible, while 32% believe in a higher power, which increases among non-practitioners to 51%. Interestingly, of those who are unaffiliated, 28% believe in a higher power, and among the population in general, 38% do so.
A 2016 British poll, presented with the telling headline “British people more likely to believe in ghosts than a Creator,” provides a more detailed view into the beliefs of self-identifying Christians. Only 40% of British Christians believe in a creator, slightly more think there is a heaven, but only around 30% believe that they have an “everlasting soul.” I presume this means that some 10% believe that they will somehow come to heaven without a soul. 50% of British Christians believe in an afterlife, but that is more than those who believe in heaven (45%) or hell (30%). What kind of afterlife do they look forward to? A hint is that 25% of British Christians believe in reincarnation and over 30% in ghosts.
The conclusion is that one cannot in any way presume certain beliefs and moral principles from the self-identification as Christian. A better indicator is the number of people who think that religion is very important, and those who attend religious services weekly or hold unpopular Christian beliefs. This is, however, a small minority. The future in Europe could very well be that those with no religious affiliation approximate the numbers of those presently not taking religion seriously. What will be left in Western Europe is a small, committed Christian minority coexisting with an increasing number of Muslims. To this should be added the number of people who have vague religious beliefs. For example, in the UK 29% percent believe in God as described in the Bible, but 35% (of non Muslims) believe in an “other higher power or spiritual force.” This is in Portugal as high as 46% and in Spain, 48%. This represents a potential for some kind of religious awakening in the future.
Various polls indicate that Christianity in Western Europe has outlived its usefulness as a social and political force. The gap still existing between religious conviction and identity in some countries will probably narrow, and the situation will become more like that in Sweden, where religious identity and conviction are more or less on the same level, below 10%. At the same time, the increasing strength of Islam is challenging the religious apathy in Europe. Polls on religious self-identification among young people show that in some European countries Islam and Christianity are almost on the same level. However, this is not the case in Central and Eastern Europe, as in Hungary, due to low levels of immigration.
For Christianity to be socially influential it must break out from the cultural-heritage category and establish itself once again as a lived reality. A religion is not merely a reservoir of culture—such as art, music, literature, and moral values—or a spacious container from which one occasionally can retrieve something useful. Instead, a religion provides a metaphysical foundation for a whole culture and dies when not practiced. Therefore, the crucial question for European Christianity is whether the 10% who take their faith very seriously is stable, shrinking, or growing.
Moreover, in a country like Spain, the neopagan belief in a higher power will probably acquire political significance, although most adherents of this vague spirituality presently do not consider it very important. Still, this reservoir of spiritualism might take religious and political form, challenging nominal Christian identities or simply reinterpreting and subsuming them under a new form of public spirituality.
For example, the famous Irish island Skellig Michael has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996. During the Middle Ages, it was the site of a monastery and then a priory of Augustinian canons. The extreme nature provided both beauty and ruggedness to the life of the hermits and monks. To choose such a life required full commitment, a ten score on the question of how important religion is for you. The lack of horizontal civilization and absence of comfort and pleasure points to the transcendent, vertical axis as the important foundation of life, symbolized by the sharply rising rocks.
In what sense is Skellig Michael part of the values, traditions, language, and knowledge handed down as part of the cultural heritage of Ireland, Europe, and the world? Why is it important to preserve the humble stone buildings? The UNESCO webpage states that, “[I]t illustrates, as no other property can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East, and Europe.” In what sense is extreme monasticism part of European cultural heritage, defined by the European Union as “a common good passed from previous generations as a legacy for those to come” and “a resource for the future, to be safeguarded, enhanced, and promoted.”
Interestingly, and tragically for some, the island is now famous for its role in the recent Star Wars movies The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi as the remote hideout for Luke Skywalker. In the space saga, God has been exchanged for a cosmic force that humans and other beings can use or misuse. The transcendence of Skellig Michael has, as the beliefs of Europeans, turned in a neopagan direction. Unsurprisingly, the site is now a destination for Star Wars tourism, and as it says on the web page SkelligMichael.com, one will find here, “aspiring Jedis making their pilgrimage to Ahch-To, to stand in front of the Wailing Woman rock where Rey trained or on Christ’s Saddle, where Rey met Luke Skywalker.” This symbolic shift from Christ to the Force is an indicator of the weakness of the category of cultural heritage. Material culture is not enough, especially in a situation of civilizational crisis when principles hidden beneath nominal identities are activated.