Culture At Large

Does religious competition explain American religiousity and European secularism?

Andy Rau

What happened to Christianity in Europe? It's a question we've discussed here a fewtimes in the past. It's of course a major exaggeration to say that the church in Europe is dead. But there's no denying that Europe is less culturally religious than the U.S., and nobody seems to know exactly why.

In the wake of recent political discussions about the neverending church-and-state debate, several bloggers are discussing the possible reasons behind this religious discrepency. Matthew Yglesias argues that Europe's secularism can't be blamed on a lack of religious presence in public life:

For whatever you may say about Europe's relative lack of religiosity, it's not a lack of entanglement of religion in public life that led to it.

In the United Kingdom... there is, after all, an established church. And so it goes across northern Europe where each country traditionally had its own established Protestant church. And then across southern Europe, the Catholic Church always had official or quasi-official status. There was no question of pushing the church out of the public square. It's just that many people... wound up turning their backs on the church. This development most likely seems specifically related to the undue public-ification of religion in Europe. American religious groups, by contrast, have traditionally had to compete in a market of sorts for congregants. A church nobody wants to attend winds up shutting down, a popular church grows. Consequently, people have found ways to keep bringing people into the pews.

Elsewhere, Ross Douthat agrees to a point, but doesn't think that lack of competition between churches fully explains Europe's secular culture:

This point of view - that market competition is good for religious faith - has become the conventional wisdom nowadays. That doesn't make it wrong: America's most successful churches do behave a lot like successful corporations, and its most successful pastors like successful CEOs and pitchmen. I'm more convinced, though, that our free market in religion explains faith's success in America than that its supposed absence explains faith's eclipse in Europe. America, after all, doesn't just have a free market; it has a free-market culture, where people are used to be treated like consumers and thinking like consumers in almost every walk of life. The social geography of American life, in particular - car culture, suburbanization, and big-box stores - habituates people to constant mobility and competition, and thus makes the idea of church-shopping a natural fit in a way that isn't necessarily the case in Europe.

Douthat goes on to offer some interesting thoughts about the effect of the World Wars on European religious life and the difficulty of pinning down a convincing reason for the cultural shift away from religion.

What's your reaction to these posts? In particular, what do you think about the central question being debated: does religious competition explain the highly religious U.S., and does lack of religious competition explain the much less religious Europe? Reading these posts, the one thing I am sure of is that the reasons are a lot more complicated than you're likely to hear in soundbytes from either side of the great "Culture War" debate here in the U.S.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, News & Politics, Social Trends