The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Religion and Europe

June 29, 2005

John Hawkins’ interview with Mark Steyn recently made the rounds at conservative and right-leaning international-relations blogs. Since I spent part of last year involved in an edited book project on religion and Europe, I thought it might be interesting to look closely at Steyn’s arguments. The caveat, of course, is that my contribution involved the history of religious conflict in Europe.

John Hawkins: In your opinion, why is it that Europe has become so much more secular than the United States, where Christianity is still strong?

Mark Steyn: The short answer is separation of church and state – and I use that phrase as it was intended to be used: The founders’ distaste for “establishment of religion” simply means that they didn’t want President Washington also serving as head of the Church Of America and the Archbishop of Virginia sitting in the Unites States Senate – as to this day the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church Of England and the Archbishop of York sits in the House Of Lords. Most European countries either had de jure state churches, like England, or de facto ones, like Catholic Italy. One consequence of that is the lack of portability of faith: in America, when the Episcopalians and Congregationalists go all post-Christian and relativist, people find another church; in Britain, when Christians give up on the Church of England, they tend to give up on religion altogether.

So the dynamism of American faith exemplifies the virtues of the broader society: the US has a free market in religion, Europe had cosseted overregulated monopolies and cartels. The other salient point is that obviously Europe does have a religion: radical secularism. The era of the state church has been replaced by an age in which the state itself is the church. European progressives still don’t get this: they think the idea of a religion telling you how to live your life is primitive, but the government regulating every aspect of it is somehow advanced and enlightened.

It strikes me that Steyn’s comments reflect some confusion over the different meanings of secularization in the European context. Older theories (and largely discredited) theories of “secularization” proposed an inevitable set of processes associated with modernity: the replacement of traditional and charismatic authority with legal-rational principles of legitimacy, the triumph of the state over religious institutions, the expansion of scientific knowledge and procedures at the expense of religion, the differentiation of society such that religion is compartmentalized in increasingly narrow spheres, and the diminishment of the influence of religion in individual consciousness and choice. For Durkheimians, such processes do not imply the decreasing importance of religion – broadly understood – but a shift of in the objects of religious worship towards apparently “secular” institutions, such as the state and nation.

Steyn conflates, I think, a number of these different processes in his diagnosis of Europe. Europeans are, in fact, fairly religious in the sense that most believe in God. Christianity is reasonably strong in Europe, but it is more diffuse and less associated with participation in religious rituals. Levels of belief are also far from consistent; Ireland remains strongly religious, while some polls indicate that less than half of Swedes believe in God.

Indeed, supply-side accounts of religion contradict, both in their data and in their assumptions, the notion that Europe is highly secularized (in the sense of being atheistic or non-religious). As Rodney Stark (himself one of the progenitors of the “market” argument Mark Steyn uses to explain American religiosity) argues:

The second reason to reject claims about the secularization of Europe is that current data do not reveal the arrival of an age of “scientific atheism.” Levels of subjective religiousness remain high – to classify a nation as highly secularized when the large majority of its inhabitants believe in God is absurd. Indeed, the important question about religion in Europe is, as Grace Davie …. put it, not why do people no longer believe, but why do they “persist in believing but see no need to participate with even minimal regularity in their religious institutions?”

“Believing without belonging,” of course, is Davie’s famous phrase for European attitudes towards religion.

Before I return to Steyn’s diagnosis of Europe, I should also note a potential contradiction in his argument. Steyn takes pains to argue that “separation of Church and State” does not mean a “wall” between the two. If we look strictly at some of the arguments made by the some of the architects of the Bill of Rights or by a subset of the founders, he’s got a point. But if we take the “market” explanation for the vibrancy of American religious movements to its logical conclusion, it follows that the “wall” is a very good idea. Why? The more the state embraces or affirms particular religious beliefs – whether diffusely Christian or more specifically oriented to particular variants of Christianity – the more it “intervenes” in the market and, in doing so, distorts it. Consider support for “faith-based” groups. Having the state picking and choosing which religious institutions to channel money or financial support to is the first step along the way to precisely the kind of religious “cartelization” Steyn criticizes in European societies.

If we think, however, of secularization as the “compartmentalization of religion from politics,” then much of Europe fits Steyn’s description. As José Casanova argues,

We need to entertain seriously the proposition that secularization became a self-fulfilling prophecy in Europe, once large sectors of the population of Western European societies, including the Christian churches, accepted the basic premises of the theory of secularization: that secularization is a teleological process of modern social change; that the more modern a society the more secular it becomes; that “secularity” is “a sign of the times.” If such proposition is correct, then the secularization of Western European societies can be explained better in terms of the triumph of the knowledge regime of secularism, than in terms of structural processes of socio-economic development such as urbanization, education, rationalization, etc.

Again, is this radical atheism? No. Is it the worship of the state, as Steyn suggests? European orientations do tend to be more “statist” then the various flavors of liberalism (conservative, New Deal, etc.) that dominate American political culture. But Steyn’s playing fast and loose here: favoring higher levels of government intervention in civil society is not the same thing as treating the state as the Church. Put differently, Europe is more secular in the sense that religion plays less of a role in politics. There is no clear connection between this state of affairs and being nonreligious.

Moreover, if the Durkheimian interpretation of secularization fits Europe, it clearly fits the US as well. After all, American nationalism is profoundly providentialist; banning flag burning remains politically popular; the Founding Fathers are basically canonized….

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.