The Future of Europe: secular but not secularist, diverse but not divided

Over the past century, religion throughout Europe has been rapidly on the wane. The recent growth of Europe's Muslim population, however, has slowed this trend.
religion in europe empty church
Rays of sunshine streaming through the leaded-light windows in an empty church. Credit: Jim Holden / Alamy Stock Photo.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

This essay originally appeared in ’The Pursuit of Europe: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2016.

Religion is a sensitive subject, something not to be discussed in polite society. In the context of the Sturm und Drang of economic crisis, however, it may be a welcome distraction. Two forces are working in opposite directions to erode or augment the social significance of religion in Europe. The first is the secularisation of culture and consciousness; the second is the renewal of religion through immigration and higher fertility among religious people. The question is — which of these forces will dominate over the decades ahead? In trying to answer this question, we need to address two issues. The first is a traditional one for commentators on religion in Europe: is the erosion of religious involvement among native Europeans irreversible? Could we see a spiritual revival, or is a shift towards militant secular is more likely? The second issue is a more recent preoccupation. What is the religious trajectory of immigrants and their European-born children, especially Muslims? Will the continent’s heritage and values be changed, for good or ill?

The Secular Transition

The impact of modernisation on religion was a central concern of the founders of sociology. It was clear that the move from farms to factories, from the country to the city, from illiteracy to education, and from deference to democracy, had profound consequences for religion. For reasons that remain the subject of vigorous debate, religious involvement in most Western countries is far lower now, on most measures, than it was 50 or 100 years ago.

Social institutions have become largely secular since the Enlightenment. Church and state are now separated; law, education, science, and other spheres are subject to their own authority. What remains controversial is the claim made those such as the sociologist Steve Bruce that ‘modernisation undermines the power, popularity, and prestige of religious beliefs, behaviour, and institutions’ — with effects on the individual as well as the structural level.

Critics have offered a number of objections. The instigating forces may vary across different countries and times, making it difficult to argue that secularisation is a general feature of modern society. Likewise, they maintain, the levels of religious involvement and shifts in those levels are too variable to be accommodated by a general theory. If an earlier ‘golden age of faith’ did not exist, there is no great change to explain. In any case, reports of the death of religion are greatly exaggerated. And, as Eric Kaufmann argues in this volume, demographic forces — specifically immigration and fertility differentials — will ensure that the future belongs to the religious.

While the return of religion to the forefront of public attention in the West has been remarkable, however, it is not sufficient to refute the assertion that modernisation tends to produce religious decline. The renewed interest in religion is largely a function of phenomena originating in less developed countries: Islamist extremism, Pentecostal growth and large-scale immigration. These developments are important, but the fact remains that secularisation and various indicators of human development are closely related in cross-national comparisons. The challenge is to explain this association, if not with reference to mechanisms related to modernisation, then in some other way.

In most Western countries, there are large differences between the young and the old in various key indicators of religious involvement, in particular the willingness to identify with a religion, to attend services, or to describe religion as important in life. Age is far more important than any other characteristic in the strength of its association with religious commitment, easily trumping gender, education, employment, place of residence, denomination and so on.

There are two possible interpretations of these differences. The first is that religion is in long-term decline in northern, southern, western and eastern Europe, and that this decline is essentially generational: each birth cohort is somewhat less religious than the one before. The alternative interpretation is that, in every country on the continent, people become progressively more religious with age. On this view, there is no reason to expect decline, because the people who are highly secular today will be faithful tomorrow — or, at any rate, in 50 years.

The evidence we possess points unambiguously to the generational nature of religious decline and gives no support to the conjecture that most Europeans enter adulthood relatively unreligious and gradually become devout as they go through life. Society is changing religiously, not because individuals are changing, but rather because old people are gradually replaced by younger people with different characteristics. Much remains to be understood, though, about why recent generations are different.

We might naturally suppose that people who say that religion is very important in their lives would include religious faith in their list of qualities that are especially important for children to learn at home. As a matter of fact, however, an analysis of the European Values Study shows that only a bare majority do so. Of those who say that religion is ‘quite’ important to them, not much more than a quarter mention faith as something important for their children to acquire. In other words, even religious parents seem surprisingly reluctant to make inculcation of religion a priority in child rearing.

One possible explanation is that parents have become less committed to conformity in their children. The value attached to individual autonomy has increased, giving adolescents the option of avoiding church. Another possible explanation is that the practical utility of religious affiliation and values has declined and so parents feel less need to socialise their children religiously.

What is striking is that not only is decline in religiosity across the birth cohorts found across most of Europe — the only exceptions being in some formerly communist countries in eastern Europe — the rate of decline seems to have been essentially constant, both over time and across the continent. Although there is variety in levels of religious involvement, the differences are as much generational as cultural. The oldest cohort in every country outside Scandinavia is more religious than the overall mean; the youngest cohort in every country outside Greece and Poland (and, marginally, Italy and Ireland) is less religious than average. In terms of religiosity, young Italians are more like older Swedes than they are like their own grandparents.

Secularity v Fuzzy Fidelity

Unlike Americans, Europeans are accustomed to the idea of state-supported religious education, religious broadcasting on network television, religious parties in the legislature and so on. Perhaps as a result, some Europeans feel that they need protection from religious institutions. None the less, the implicit assumption seems to be that a modest dose of religion is good for people — or, at least, other people. The notion that God’s function is to make children well behaved, strangers helpful and shop-keepers honest means that outright secularism is less popular than one might suppose. But as we ourselves, having little desire for divine supervision, are mostly secular, the benign acceptance of public religion does little apart from frustrate secularists and religious leaders impartially.

As argued above, the religious changes we observe in Europe occur largely across, rather than within, generations. There is considerable stability in religious involvement over the course of adult life, especially, on average, for people born during the same period. That being so, the smooth continuous declines across birth cohorts may represent a changing mix of the religious and secular, rather than a progressive dilution of religiosity at the individual level.

We know, though, that religious commitment is not dichotomous: people tend not to divide simply into either the religious or the non-religious. Despite dramatic shifts in the prevalence of conventional Christian belief, practice and self-identification, residual involvement is considerable. Many people remain interested in church weddings and funerals, Christmas services and local festivals. They believe in ‘some-thing out there’, pay at least lip service to Christian values and may be willing to identify with a denomination. They are neither regular church-goers — now only a small minority of the population in most European countries — nor self-consciously non-religious. Because they retain some loyalty to tradition, though in a rather uncommitted way, I have called the phenomenon ‘fuzzy fidelity’.

Religion does not matter very much to most fuzzy Christians. Only in the most religious countries do more than a quarter think that religion is personally somewhat important rather than unimportant. Elsewhere, the very large majority of these respondents see religion as not very important and, for a quarter or more, it is very unimportant (0, 1 or 2 on a 0–10 scale).

The dominant attitude towards religion is not one of rejection or hostility. Many of those in the large middle group who are neither religious nor unreligious are willing to identify with a religion, are open the existence of God or a higher power, may use the church for rites of passage and might pray at least occasionally. What seems apparent, though, is that religion plays a very minor role (if any) in their lives and indifference is ultimately as damaging for religion as scepticism.

The Irreversibility of Secularisation

While there are indeed many interesting variations in European religion — countries may be high or low in affiliation, attendance and belief — there is also a single, inescapable theme. Religion is in decline. Each generation in every country surveyed is less religious than the last, measured by the best available index of religiosity. Although there are some minor differences in the speed of the decline — the most religious countries are changing more quickly than the least religious — the magnitude of the fall in religiosity over the past century has been remarkably constant across the continent.

Some scholars maintain that religious downturns are merely part of a cycle governed largely by what is on offer, or temporary effects that will be swept away by religious migration and reproduction. There are two key objections to this story: secularisation comes as part of the package of advanced modernity and modernisation is irreversible. Declines in demand for religion are usually permanent. To put the matter provocatively, religion is no more likely to be revived in modern secular societies than is child labour.

Predictions in social science are viewed with suspicion, especially when they seem to imply a kind of inevitability that the philosopher Karl Popper labelled ‘historicism’. Certainly, events may surprise us and no social predictions enjoy the sort of confidence we attach to physical regularities. That said, it seems clear that some social phenomena are cyclical or haphazard (eg conflict) and others are genuinely directional: it is hard to imagine going backwards. Does anyone think that slavery is going to be revived, or that polygamy will become more rather than less common throughout the world? Erosion of both fertility and religion appear to belong in the ‘directional’ rather than the cyclical category, though there will obviously be many revivals of a local and temporary nature.

The suggestion is simply that modernity has a kind of momentum that is difficult to resist and that, in consequence, all kinds of social changes will tend to occur in more and more places. Going up, one finds technology, industrialisation, urbanisation, bureaucratisation, communications, gender equality, liberal democracy, free markets, and individualism. Going down, we have poverty, insecurity, illiteracy, mortality, fertility, extended families, community, nationalism and religion. People, and even some societies, can swim against the tide for a while, but some outcomes seem more probable than others.

The inseparability of these changes could be regarded as the main element of modernisation theory. There is little point in talking about modernisation at all unless we believe that modernity is characterised by a number of essential features; the question is, simply, what are they?

Theories of modernisation were rightly attacked in recent decades fort heir quasi-Marxist flavour, whereby all changes were seen as being driven by economic transformations. If we include cultural or ideological characteristics in the package of modernity, however, and do not view them as necessarily secondary to material factors, then notions of modernisation seem much less suspect.

Development is driven by rational choice, which is to say by people seeking to satisfy their preferences with the means available. These preferences are shared by most human beings. We all want to be healthy, to live longer, to live in greater comfort and to have more resources at our disposal. Occasionally, people choose differently, but they are very rare, even in societies that revere ascetics. Likewise, we all tend to want a measure of control, or at least influence, in our societies, to feel that we are at no one else’s mercy and are not inferior to any other person. We do not want our personal interests subordinated to the group’s without very good reason. To a very considerable extent, these more-or-less universal human desires determine the course of development in such a way that there are not, in fact, multiple modernities. What is true is that the preferences underlying some aspects of ideology in particular may push in multiple directions, so that change is slow and erratic. Different aspects of modernity may arrive in a different order, or after different lag times, depending on local conditions; that does not change the fact that they all do, eventually, arrive.

Islam in Europe

The argument above — that secularisation of Western consciousness will continue — must confront the reality of global migratory flows. We need to address four issues:

1. Will Europe receive as many immigrants over the next few decades as it has in the recent past?

2. Will people of immigrant origin have substantially more children than native Europeans?

3. Will Muslims in the West follow a path similar to that described above, with ‘fuzzy fidelity’ (or, perhaps, ‘symbolic religiosity’) serving as a staging post between traditionalism and secularity? Or will their high levels of religious commitment persist; indeed, will some members of the second generation turn to even stricter forms of religiosity?

4. Regardless of how religious or unreligious they might become, will Muslims in Europe have a profound effect on the culture, social attitudes and politics of their new countries? The answer to the first of these questions — concerning the volume of immigration — can only be guesswork. The economic and political pressures that drive people from Africa and Asia towards Europe are un-likely to disappear.

The economic and political climate in Europe, however, is far from favourable. Governments across the continent are adopting increasingly restrictive policies to limit immigration. Although it seems unlikely that any country could now adopt an equivalent of the US Immigration Act of 1924 — which effectively halted the influx of ‘un-desirable’ immigrants, mainly Jews and east Asians, now regarded in a very different light — the move is in that direction. Public concerns about security, employment, cultural preservation and social cohesion make large-scale immigration politically unsustainable. The high forecasts one sees (for example, Muslims comprising 20 per cent of the population in some European countries by mid-century) depend on immigration continuing at a rate that seems improbable.

Regarding the second question — whether Muslim fertility will be substantially higher than Europeans norms — we have much more evidence. The short answer is that family sizes converge very rapidly towards the mean, particularly in the second and subsequent generations. Because the European Muslim population is relatively young and fertility is still above replacement levels in most countries, it is certainly the case that this group will grow for a time, even with no further immigration. But while family size differentials can substantially change the ethno-religious character of the population if maintained over the long term, the dramatic shifts described by some commentators (for example, in favour of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel) are the product of extraordinarily high fertility. The situation is different for Muslims in Europe.

The especially interesting question is the third one: whether Muslims do, or do not, become more secular over time, or across generations. This is an issue I have investigated with Fenella Fleischmann in a 2012 article published in the Annual Review of Sociology, from which most of the following discussion is drawn. Nearly all Muslim immigrants come from societies that are comparatively religious and where, typically, Islam is the dominant religion, although India and some African countries are important exceptions. Of course, there is variation between origin countries and over time; the states in question vary from explicitly Islamic regimes (eg. Iran) to avowedly secular ones (eg Kemalist Turkey). More-over, it is often difficult to measure and compare religious involvement across groups or nations. Nevertheless, in comparison to the West, most countries of origin for Muslims are characterised by strong and ostensibly universal religious belief, given the social (and sometimes legal) norms that regulate expression of scepticism. Prayer is very frequent and regular attendance at mosque is usual, at least for men.

Classical theories of assimilation produce the expectation that Muslims in the West will become less religious over time, particularly as new generations raised in Europe replace their immigrant parents in the population. Migration itself can change personal priorities and disrupt religious participation, which might start a drift away from strong commitment. It is the social environment of the countries of settlement that seems particularly relevant, though. The Islamic ‘sacred canopy’ present in the countries of origin disappears; there is often little mainstream support for being religious, let alone Muslim, in the receiving societies. Instead of being constantly reminded that the future is in God’s hands, people are reminded of their own ability to choose. Increasing contact with the differently religious and the non-religious undermines the taken-for-granted character of inherited faith.

It is clear, however, that gradual acculturation is not the whole story, nor even the main story. In the first place, we are interested in the level as well as the long-term trend in religiosity. A number of factors contribute to relatively high religiosity among Muslims in the West: a) origin in less developed regions and socioeconomic selectivity produced by recruitment for manual labour; b) high residential concentration in destination countries; c) involvement in religious communities that offer meeting places and provide support; and d) endogamy, continued spousal migration from the origin countries and ensuing family formation. There is nothing particularly unusual about Muslims, though, in relation to these factors. All immigrants are subject to similar influences. If the trajectory of Muslim religiosity in the West is different, it must be for other reasons. One can see three respects in which this group might, at the moment, be distinctive.

First, there is often a wide gulf between the customs of the sending and receiving societies. The West can seem alarmingly decadent to Muslims with traditional values. There is a natural urge — particularly among religious leaders — to try to reassert old forms of social control, with discipline being increased rather than relaxed. This impulse was labelled ‘immigrant puritanism’ by the American historian, Marcus Hansen.

Second, with the benefit of education, idealism and Western individualism, some children of Muslim immigrants look for a ‘real Islam’ that is free from the defects they see in the parental culture. Instead of blaming the religion for troubles in their families’ countries of origin, not to mention their own upbringing, they attribute all ills to local customs. In the striking image used by sociologist Stephen Warner, Islam becomes a Teflon religion, to which nothing bad can stick — unlike Catholicism, to which problems adhere like Velcro.

Finally, the inescapable pressure of contemporary Western suspicion of Islam and Muslims makes this identity particularly salient. Muslims currently encounter far greater hostility than members of any other religious group, although Catholic and Jewish immigrants faced similar prejudice at points in the past. With external evaluations being so negative, there is a natural tendency to react by upholding what is being disparaged. Some scholars speculate that Islamophobia has led to ‘reactive religiosity’ among many Muslims in Western societies, but as yet the evidence is inconclusive.

The Muslim second generation is thus confounding ‘Hansen’s law’ that children of immigrants distance themselves from the parental culture and religion, only for their children to reclaim it. Although there are generational cycles at work, some of the pressures are currently strengthening rather than weakening religious involvement in the second generation. It would be a mistake to suppose, however, that all movement is in one direction. Many young Muslims in the West are drifting away from religious practice; they are less visible to people in the social mainstream, being either more assimilated or more marginalised. It is tempting to conjecture that the difference in religiosity between the second generation and their parents is less a matter of the mean (higher versus lower) than the dispersion (more versus less varied).

The Future of European Values

And finally to the last question: even assuming that Muslims remain very religious on average, will European values and culture change as their numbers increase? I think not. Liberal, secular culture is simply too strong. People can be devout in these societies, but they cannot turn the tide of individualism and free choice.

A parallel case may help to explain why. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons) has grown rapidly over the past century. It is socially conservative to a degree that makes it deeply counter-cultural, even in the United States. Quintessentially American activities such as drinking beer, drinking coffee and sexual contact before marriage are all banned. The Church uses its growing size, wealth and influence to fight permissiveness in public policy. It is hard to see, however, that it has had any real or lasting success in turning the tide against secular values. Many parts of Utah (the Mormon heartland) resemble an earlier era and the Church was active in the 2008 campaign to ban same-sex marriage in California, but in most respects the country has become increasingly liberal over the whole period that Mormons and evangelical Christians have taken a growing share of the religious market.

Similarly, one might have supposed that, if a Mormon ever ran for president, he (and it would almost have to be ‘he’, given the gender-traditionalism of the Church) would represent the most conservative tendencies in America. In the event, the faithful Mormon Mitt Romney was seen as the most liberal of the serious candidates for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2012. And contrary to the suspicion that a deeply religious person would rigidly adhere to hard-and-fast principles, he was widely criticised as an unprincipled opportunist, ready to shift in which-ever direction seemed most likely to produce electoral advantage.

In short, it is tempting to look at religious minorities, to be impressed by their differentness, to suppose that they will never assimilate and that the world will change if they don’t. It is what many people in the United States and northern Europe have believed about Catholics and Jews, or indeed Mormons, and believe today about Muslims. The unexciting but reassuring evidence of history is quite the contrary.

Muslim populations in the West are expected to grow rapidly over the next few decades and prejudice and discrimination are unlikely to disappear quickly. The forces that produce reactive religiosity and religious perfectionism will persist. That said, the evidence from earlier episodes of large-scale migration (in particular the flows of Irish Catholics to Great Britain and the United States, of southern and eastern European Catholics across the Atlantic and of Jews from Russia into western Europe and the United States) suggests that religious minorities tend to lose their distinctiveness over successive generations. Although Muslims in the West will remain highly religious into the medium term, it seems likely that the secular, nominal, lapsed, or inactive will ultimately outnumber the committed. Adherents and opponents of Islam see it as exceptional; sociologists are harder to persuade.

David Voas

David Voas is Professor of Social Science in the UCL Social Research Institute, which he led until 2020. He is a demographer and sociologist of religion.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.


Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.