Religion and secularism

Ross Douthat, writing in this month’s Atlantic, argues that the US is becoming increasingly secular, while Europe – thanks to Islam – may be turning back to its religious roots. Douthat makes an interesting case for the secularisation of the US:

A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 20 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds reported no religious affiliation, up from just 11 percent in the late 1980s. It’s visible on the best-seller lists, where books such as Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy make their pitches to liberal readers, and in the public comments of scientists who now seem eager to attack religion as a threat rather than dismiss it as a nuisance. And it’s found a home in the expanding world of the liberal blogosphere, which has provided a virtual parish for Americans united by their disdain for “godbags” and “fundies.” (A Pew study of Howard Dean activists, one of the first mass constituencies mobilized by “netroots” activism, found that 38 percent described themselves as “secular.”)

I must say I have noticed an increase in support for people like Dawkins – the popularity of his videos on YouTube is something I would not have imagined possible 10 years ago when I was reading River out of Eden. It was taken as given that Americans were religious. Or maybe it’s that the internet gives atheists a medium in which to vocalise their lack of belief in a divine entity.

Douthat makes another point, the facts of which I am unsure:

…when the Democrats finally shattered the Republican majority in the 2006 midterms, it was their consolidation of the secular vote that helped put them over the top. Despite all their efforts to close the God gap, the Democrats managed barely any gainsamong frequent churchgoers last November—but their share of the vote among Americans who never attend church at all leaped to 67 percent, from 55 percent in 2002.

Hmm. Was secularism really such a big factor in the midterms?

He then looks at Europe – and as someone living in Ireland, I find many of his points fanciful – but then I guess I might think differently if I lived in Holland or France.

Yet the Europe of tomorrow may look more like … the United States, with a politics that’s increasingly shaped by clashes between believers, or between belief and unbelief. Already, the Continent is experiencing a low-grade culture war, created by the collision between the religious zeal of Muslim immigrants and the secular culture that surrounds them. In flash points that range from the murder of the anti-Islamic filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Holland, to the controversy over the supposedly blasphemous Danish cartoons, to the question of whether to admit Turkey to the EU, secular Europe has found itself in unfamiliar, God-haunted, almost American territory. Such disputes may subside as Islamic immigrants assimilate to European norms, but for now, at least, resistance to assimilation by Muslims suggests that they may succeed in changing those norms as much as they are changed by them.

I note that he did not mention the European Constitution, and the lack of reference to any god, Christian or not.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Christianity, too, is emerging from its decades-long defensive crouch. Pope Benedict XVI has taken the re-Christianization of Europe as a theme of his papacy, and his church’s recent interventions in Spain’s debate over same-sex unions and in Italy’s referendum on whether to loosen restrictions on in vitro fertilization bear an unmistakable resemblance to the gauntlet-throwing that Americans have come to expect from their churchmen.

I really don’t get the sense that the Catholic Church is becoming any more influential in Europe, if anything it is becoming less so.

The Muslim birthrate in Europe is far higher than the birthrate among non-Muslims, and immigration from the Islamic world continues apace. Meanwhile, immigrants from Africa and Latin America have injected a new vitality into European Christianity, creating thriving Evangelical and Pentecostal communities in urban areas where many of the established churches stand empty. It was Christians’ demographic advantage in the ancient world, the sociologist Rodney Stark has suggested, that helped their faith take over Europe in the first place, and high fertility rates help explain the growth of evangelical Christianity and Mormonism in the United States over the last century. Now similar demographic forces, the political scientist Eric Kaufmann argued last year in the British magazine Prospect, may be “carrying Europe towards a more American model of modernity,” in which the wall of separation between church and state looks more like a picket fence, easily scaled or shimmied through.

He may have a point about birth rates. But what really goes to the core of this, and something he does not mention, is whether the institutions of the EU, or of her member states, are secular enough in tradition or law, to withstand any assault from a ‘new’ religion such as Islam. I would argue that despite growing numbers of Muslims – most if not all EU nations are secular enough politically to withstand the onslought of either evangelism or Islam.

Douthat concludes:

America has long avoided this trap by enjoying near-universal piety; Europe, at least lately, has escaped it by cultivating near-universal skepticism. But if the religious gulf between the two continents narrows, the divides within each one are likely to open ever wider, and religious peace turn increasingly to culture war—or worse.

And religious wars are the worst kind indeed.

3 thoughts on “Religion and secularism”

  1. I think his point on the secular vote in the US midterm elections is a bit of a stretch. I would be willing to concede the possibility that a number of secularists voted in reaction to Bush’s overt faith, but Douthat seems to blithely ignore the Iraq factor.

    The Democrats’ presidential hopefuls are busying canvassing the religious electorate — both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have hired strategists to make inroads among the faithful (see: http://www.usatoday.com/news/politics/2007-06-01-religion_N.htm?csp=34).

  2. Interesting read, however, I’d go along with Dave.

    I personally would doubt the 38% figure describing themselves as secular {which also means 62% don’t describe themselves as such}is reliable. Perhaps the non-secular portion of the population is simply quieter.

    Next to Ireland, the US houses more church goers “as well as professing a belief” than any other nation in the world {per capita}. Yet, after hard core touting of his religious beliefs, Bush won his first term by a sneeze. Personally, I do not believe secularists had anything to do with that … but I do believe most are middle of the road type folks who know where and when to draw the line.

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