Is Europe Losing Its Soul?

Interview with Grace Davie, Sociologist of Religion

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EXETER, England, JAN. 30, 2003 ( The crisis in religious practice in Europe is singular in relation to other continents, says a sociologist.

Grace Davie, president of the Sociology of Religion Committee of the International Sociological Association and a professor of sociology of religion at the University of Exeter, is the author of «Europe: The Exceptional Case. Parameters of Faith in the Modern World» (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002).

Director of Exeter’s Center for European Studies, the author is convinced that the formula «believing without belonging» has been imposed in Europe — that is, to believe without belonging necessarily to institutions or communities.

In this interview with ZENIT, Davie explains that this phenomenon is due, in part, to an anti-religious Enlightenment lived in Europe, a factor that in the United States was exactly the opposite. In the United States, the Enlightenment favored religious liberty, whereas in Europe it silenced it.

Q: Whereas the religious phenomenon is increasingly important in the world, in Europe it would seem to carry no weight. Why is Europe an exception in terms of faith?

Davie: The important element is that the relation between modernization and secularization is explained starting from the circumstances of the European reality at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

For example, the traditional churches were profoundly rooted in pre-modern and pre-industrial ways of life. For this reason, they were threatened by the pressures of industrialization and urbanization.

It is also interesting to note that the particular nature of the European Enlightenment, especially in its French forms, took an anti-religious line in Europe.

This factor did not happen in other areas, as for example in the United States, where the process of modernization advanced in a very different way: The Enlightenment facilitated religious practices and religious liberty.

Q: Is Europe losing its soul?

Davie: Europe’s «soul» is changing. People are no longer religious out of obligation. However, a significant number of Europeans continue to choose to live their religion.

There are ever-greater options. Novel forms of religion appear. People who have arrived in Europe, especially for economic reasons, bring with them different forms of religiosity, some Christian, others not. In addition to the movements that arrive, Europeans travel around the world and experience religious diversity in a considerable way.

For me, the crucial question is not the existence of different religious possibilities, but Europeans’ capacity to opt for them. This is the greatest point of contrast with the United States.

I begin to wonder when an authentically European mutation will take place, both within as well as outside historical churches. What before was simply imposed or inherited, now is a personal choice. There has been a change from obligation to choice.

It is interesting to note that many people prefer to be active in religion and not in politics.

Some classical theories of secularization assumed that the notion of choosing religion necessarily privatized it. I do not agree; on the contrary, I think that those who seriously opt for religion in European societies will want their view heard in public, and not only in the private realm.

Q: Will the formula of «believing without belonging to institutions» increase in the European context?

Davie: Yes and no. In a certain sense, I would prefer the term «vicarious religion.»

By vicarious religion I understand the notion of religion proper to an active minority that acts on behalf of a much greater number that not only understands but approves what the minority does.

If it is true that the weight of churches as institutions has declined in a gradual way in the postwar period, it is also true that something similar has happened to other entities, such as political parties and labor unions, which in one way or another require meetings and affiliation.

We must situate churches in a larger context — economic and social — to understand what is happening.

The reduction of the churches’ activity, especially in northern Europe, must be understood as part of a change in the nature of social life and not as an unequivocal sign of religious indifference, as some have wished to see it.

In other words, to believe without belonging is a persistent dimension in modern European societies, and it is not just confined to religious life. Vicariousness perhaps will no longer be the norm. It is too early, however, to predict the end of European churches.

Long before this would happen, new forms of religion would emerge, within and outside traditional churches. Perhaps they will be numerically small groups, but I think they will be nuclei capable of carrying out substantial forms of religiosity that will become a crucial variable amid the others in the requirements of Europeans.

Q: Will Europe respond to Islam’s social demands?

Davie: It is doing so. It is no surprise that Muslim communities increasingly claim a place in the public space of European societies, inconveniencing on many occasions the societies that have accepted them, especially those whose prevailing way of religious life has been to believe without belonging.

A privatized Islam makes no sense; in fact, it is a contradiction.

In other words, Islam bothers those who are Christians in name — for example, in the growing privatized forms of inherited religion. It bothers much less Christians who have «chosen» to belong to a specific church.

The argument appears thus: If the small and recently arrived Muslim communities can claim a public space in Europe, Christians can do likewise.

Christians already claim their role in complex moral debates in modern society, or in the struggle for adequate institutional support in all European societies that take religion seriously, whether or not Christian.

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