Faith's Comeback; How Demographics Will Reawaken Religion in Europe

By Kaufmann, Eric | Newsweek International, November 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Faith's Comeback; How Demographics Will Reawaken Religion in Europe


Kaufmann, Eric, Newsweek International


Byline: Eric Kaufmann (Kaufmann, a professor at Birkbeck College, University of London, is author of "The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America." This article is abridged from the current issue of Prospect magazine in Britain.)

The modern western world is inseparable from the idea of secularism. From Socrates' refusal to acknowledge the Greek gods to Copernicus' heretical idea that the Earth revolved around the sun to the French revolution's overthrow of clerical authority, the path of modernity has seemed to lead away from the claims of religion. In our own time, the decline of church attendance in

Europe is seen as evidence that secular modernity has entered the lives of ordinary people. But amid the apparent dusk of faith in Europe, one can already spot the religious owl of Minerva taking flight. This religious revival may be as profound as that which changed the course of the Roman empire in the fourth century.

In his remarkable book "The Rise of Christianity," the American sociologist Rodney Stark explains how an obscure sect with just 40 converts in the year 30 A.D. became the official religion of Rome by 300 A.D. Standard histories point to Constantine's conversion; Stark looks to Christian demography. Unlike the pagans, he reports, Christians cared for their sick during plagues rather than abandoning them, which sharply lowered mortality. They emphasized male fidelity and marriage, which in turn attracted a higher percentage of female converts, who raised more Christian children. Moreover, says Stark, Christians had a higher fertility rate--yielding an even greater demographic advantage.

Latter-day religious groups have thrived for similar reasons. The population of Mormons, for example, has grown at a rate of 40 percent per decade for the last 100 years--three times faster than, say, Jews. Once a fringe sect, the Mormons today outnumber Jews among Americans under the age of 45. Demography also helps explain the rise of the religious right in America. A recent article in the American Journal of Sociology by Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley and Melissa Wilde finds that conservative Protestant denominations have increased their share of all-white Protestants from one third among those born in 1900 to two thirds for those born in 1975. As with the rise of Christianity itself, slow-moving sociological forces led to a political "tipping point." This time, Republican strategists played the role of Constantine's advisers, who saw which way the wind was blowing and moved to exploit the new social trends.

This effect is duplicating itself around the world. After a century of modest decline, the share of the world's population that is religious is growing--for the simple reason that the religious tend to have more children, irrespective of age, education or wealth. Nor is "secular" Europe an exception. In an analysis of data from 10 European countries for the years 1981-2004, I found that next to age and marital status, a woman's religiosity was the strongest predictor of her number of offspring.

Europe--especially western Europe--is seen as the world leader in secular modernization. Yet secularization is losing force in its own backyard. Western Europe can roughly be divided in two. On the one hand are Catholic countries like Spain or Ireland, where religiosity is still high (around 60 percent of the Irish regularly attend church) and secularization arrived relatively late. On the other are the largely Protestant nations (including Britain) and Catholic France, which secularized early and are the least religious. …

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