In the past centuries, societies throughout the world existed in inseparable union with religion that defined their basic features and distinctions. Today, there is an increasing push for secularization of all public domains. In Europe this trend has been especially palpable, giving reason to speak of large-scale secularization in Europe.
Secular vs. Religious Societies
Secular societies are characterized for their adherence to the principle of freedom of religion, as citizens are supposed to believe whatever religion they choose and are allowed to be atheists. Contemporary Western societies are generally taken to be secular, as there “religion does not dictate political decisions, though the moral views originating in religious traditions remain important in political debate in some countries, such as the United States” (Wikipedia). Unlike religious societies, secular societies permit religion to exist as an academic endeavour or a matter of preference; imposition of religious norms on all citizens is considered inappropriate.
Speaking of more specific features of a secular society, the organisation called Iranian Secular Society (n.d.) states that it should be grounded in “separation of religion from the state” and “separation of religion from education”. Besides, no religious institutions should be funded with public money, and a particular religion should not be taught in schools. A secular society is also supposed to guard its members from religious intolerance. A religious society is often the reverse: one state religion assumes a dominant position, suppressing others; atheists or believers of a different religion often face sanctions and persecution.
Secular Societies in Europe
European societies are usually recognized to be more secular than, for instance, US society where, as stated above, reference to religious views is considered normal in political debate. In France, political debate typically excludes religious references, at least in mainstream politics (Wikipedia). This trend is evidenced in the concept of “laïcité” that can be translated into English only broadly: it implies separation of religion and society, absence of special status for any religion, and religious tolerance. In France, for instance, Christine Boutin, who tried to use Christian values to ground his position against gay marriages, “was quickly marginalized” (Wikipedia).
The evidence of religion losing its positions in what was the cradle of Christianity, the largest faith on the globe, is not only present in politics, but also in the lives of common people. Europeans visit churches on a considerably more modest scale than before. According to a survey from the European Values Study (EVS) “in France, only one in twenty people now attends a religious service every week, and the demographic skews to the aged”, and this number is about 15% in Italy (Anderson, 2004). In Germany, only 30% of the people attend church service at least once a month or more often (Anderson, 2004). This contrasts with growing Muslim populations that often display religious devotion.
Numbers of church attendees are only superficial manifestation of lesser importance of religion in the life of contemporary Europeans, whereas their accounts of their beliefs and relative importance of religion in their lives give insight into more fundamental processes.
The attitude expressed in surveys speaks for itself: “a mere 21 percent of Europeans hold religion to be “very important”, with the same number for France being only 10% (Anderson, 2004). Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, archbishop of Milan, stated in a New York Times publication that some children these days cannot even make the sign of the cross (Anderson, 2004). Europeans simply no longer believe in God, at least the number of believers has declined. Speaking of traditional Christian religious beliefs, only 46% of the British believe that Jesus Christ is son of God (Zuckerman, 2004). Only 46 % of Italians, 43 % of the French, and 35 % of Scandinavians believe in life after death, against 70% of the Americans (Zuckerman, 2004).
This evidence points to the large-scale secularization that has become a fact in Europe. Europeans are no longer disciplined church-goers, they do not hold religious beliefs in esteem, and do not want to vote for politicians who draw on religion to justify their position.
Will Secularization Progress in Europe?
To understand whether secularization is likely to continue, one needs to understand why it is happening. Perhaps the foremost reason is the emerging moral relativism that has come with democratization of societies. Romir, a Russian market research company, has found that many Europeans now hold that “there are no absolutely unambiguous rules on what is good and evil that apply to everyone, irrespective of the circumstances” (Anderson, 2004). This view is especially evident when it comes to sensitive issues like homosexual rights or bioethical problems. To make sure that the values of democracy are secure and that everybody has a chance to make one’s opinion heard, Europeans give up on religion and are likely to continue doing so to secure the achievement of greater tolerance. The European Union even refused to incorporate any mention of Christianity in its Constitution despite the vehement protests of the Vatican, eager to point out the role of Christianity in the development of the continent (Anderson, 2004). All this signifies a greater inclination towards secularism and individualism.
With the influx of immigrant population into Europe, however, a contrary trend may emerge: religious institutions will become a refuge for newcomers isolated in the new, strange environment. This is similar to the situation in the still religious US where “black churches provided a social space and communal refuge in an often hostile world” (Zuckermann, 2004). Thus, in Europe the need to alienate themselves from the other ethnic groups can lead both Christians and Muslims to embrace their religious values on a new scale.
Despite this factor, it seems plausible that people in Europe will move toward a greater appreciation of secularism that stands for democracy and individualism. The trend to give greater weight to the liberal individual rights is there to stay, and religion will hardly overcome it. Thus, if Europeans embrace religious revival, the issue of homosexual marriages may stay unresolved, while it seems today that their legalisation everywhere is only a matter of time. The trend of co-habitation prior to marriage is also there to stay, and will have to be preserved. Christian beliefs could create a difficult situation for these couples. Thus, it seems that the values of individual rights and religious tolerance will prevail, and secularization will continue.
Secularization in Europe is reflected in empty pews in European parishes, diminishing role of religion in social life, and greater value of religious tolerance. The trend continues at present and will likely persist in the future. Secularization reflects the core values of the European societies that will not vanish any time soon – individual rights, moral relativism, cultural and religious tolerance, and acceptance of many differing viewpoints.
Anderson, B.C. (2004, Spring). Secular Europe, religious America. Public Interest. Retrieved January 3, 2005 from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0377/is_155/ai_n6143340.
Falk, G. Secularization. Retrieved January 3, 2005 from http://www.jbuff.com/c062801.htm.
Iranian Secular Society (ISS). Manifesto. Retrieved January 3, 2005 from http://www.iransecularsociety.com/.
Secularism. Wikipedia. Retrieved January 3, 2005 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secularism.
Zuckerman, P. (2004, March-April). Secularization: Europe—yes, United States—no: why has secularization occurred in Western Europe but not in the United States? An examination of the theories and research. Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved January 3, 2005 from http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2843/is_2_28/ai_114090210/pg_2.
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