For Whom the Bell Tolls: Is It Too Early to Sound the Death Knell for Religion in Europe?

By Datta, Neil | Conscience, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Is It Too Early to Sound the Death Knell for Religion in Europe?


Datta, Neil, Conscience


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IN DENMARK, THORKILD GROSBOEL, a Lutheran priest, declares, "There is no heavenly God, there is no eternal life and there is no resurrection." His local bishop, LiseLotte Rebel, suspends but cannot dismiss him. Not surprising in a country where just over 3 percent of the population attends church on a regular basis. Throughout Europe, church attendance is falling precipitously. In the United Kingdom, just over in percent of 16- to 24-year-olds attend church at least once a month, and fully 63 percent describe themselves as "closed to the church." The situation is not very different in Catholic Spain, where 14 percent of young Spaniards attend church regularly, down 50 percent in four years. According to the Vatican, Europe is home to 200,000 of the world's 400,000 Catholic priests. Yet for a decade the number in Europe has seen a net decline. In 200 the decline in European priests (3,010) was greater than the increased number of priests on all other continents combined.

Does this mean that the question of the separation of church and state, or religion and politics, is over and done with and that Europe is inexorably becoming secular and atheist? Far from it. In 2007 alone, the interplay of religion and politics brought down a government, led to numerous lawsuits to further refine personal religious freedom, led us to seek a new balance in several countries regarding religious teachings and a community's values, and called into question the European Union's global leadership on protecting (and funding) sexual and reproductive health and rights. The Godlessness of Europeans has in fact opened up new and unexpected frontiers in the debates over the separation of church and state.

FREEDOM FROM A DOMINANT RELIGION

In Europe, the traditional process of separating religion from politics has sought to limit the powers of a dominant religion or religious authority in the public, personal and political life of Europeans. Two models emerged. The first, which predominated in mainly Catholic countries (France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy and Portugal), is based on a process of formally limiting religious authority through a series of laws, decrees and international treaties. A second model evolved in countries where the decisionmaking center of the predominant religion was closer to home and where there was not an overall religious authority for all members of a given faith, such as in many predominantly Protestant and Orthodox countries. This involved a gradual co-option of the religious institutions into the purview of the state. This was possible in many of these countries because of the strong identification that many Protestant and Orthodox religions have with a particular nation. Indeed, in many cases, specific Protestant and Orthodox creeds owe their very genesis to a national rupture with a geographically and culturally distant religious center, such as Rome for Catholicism or Moscow for Orthodoxy. The proximity between the various Protestant and Orthodox religions and their respective nations means that the religions were essential components in forming and defining national identity. Being perceived as an essential element in national identity, religious institutions gradually were absorbed into the functioning of the state, either formally or informally. This is most noticeable in northern Europe, where the predominant Protestant creeds have for a long time been official state religions and the national religion's infrastructure was supported by the state, as in Denmark, where priests are employees of the government, or in the United Kingdom, were the reigning monarch is also the defender of the Anglican faith. It is for this reason that Bishop Lise-Lotte Rebel could not dismiss the atheist pastor Thorkild Grosboel, who is an employee of the Danish government, not the Lutheran church.

A consequence of this "merger" between the state and the church in many Protestant countries has been a gradual softening of the church's positions on a range of moral issues, which ensures that they are more in line with the evolving values of the society it serves. …

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