The End of Secularisation in Europe?

book-shall-the-religious1-227x300There has been much hand-wringing among Western Christians about the so-called process of secularisation. Many seem to feel threatened by the various measurements of religious decline that are provided as evidence of secularisation, such as declines in:

  • attendance at church or other religious services
  • traditional beliefs about God, heaven, hell, etc.
  • the influence of religion on state policy
  • the level of religion present in public culture and in public discourses

The process of secularisation is also much debated among sociologists, with some arguing that it is a foregone conclusion and will eventually occur all over the globe.

Others point to evidence of religious revitalisation, or a ‘re-sacralisation’ of the public sphere – usually, but not exclusively, in non-Western contexts – as evidence that secularisation is not inevitable or irreversible.

An interesting article in the latest issue of the academic journal Sociology of Religion outlines a different perspective to that debate. Titling their research ‘The End of Secularization in Europe?: A Socio-Demographic Perspective,’ Eric Kaufmann, Anne Goujon, and Vergard Skirbekk run the numbers and suggest (p. 69):

‘that Western Europe may be more religious at the end of our century than at its beginning.’

Kaufmann, Goujon and Skirbekk’s argument takes into account data on ‘fertility and immigration’ from the European Values Surveys and European Social Surveys (1981-2008). In short, they demonstrate that:

  • people who have remained religious in a secularising Europe tend to have more children (which can in many cases be linked to their religious values around family);
  • and immigrants from more religious parts of the world (who also tend to have more children) are likely to retain their religious commitments even in their more secular European homes.

This leads them to propose that while measurements of religiosity will continue to decline in most European countries for the next ‘several decades’ (p. 86):

Thereafter, aggregate religious revival will begin to escalate unless people once again begin to leave religion at the rapid rates recorded during the mid-twentieth century.

… the steady-state outlook for Western Europe by the mid-twenty-first century is one of gradual, long-term reversal [of secularisation], probably around 2050. The dramatic impact of immigration and Muslim religious retention will bring this process forward – even in Catholic countries – such that we begin to see “de-secularization” in Western Europe in the coming decades.

The researchers are of course somewhat cautious in their conclusions, noting that secularisation in mainly Protestant, Northwest European societies seems to have stabilised while it is proceeding more rapidly in largely Catholic, Southern European societies (as well as in the Republic of Ireland). This means that the trend they identify will look uneven across Europe.

They also list a number of possible future factors – like changes in immigration laws or unexpected changes in fertility rates – which could counteract the process that they predict (p. 86).

Further, the fact that many of the immigrants who maintain their religious faith are Muslim means that while Europe may become more ‘religious,’ that doesn’t mean it will necessarily become more ‘Christian.’

Fertility and immigration may seem like rather mundane sources of religious revival for the faithful.

But I think that Kaufmann, Goujon and Skirbekk provide an interesting perspective and that their work could prompt (European) Christians to start thinking about what it might look like to be a believer and/or a church-goer in the (perhaps?) less secular, and more religiously plural, decades ahead.

Image: Cover of Eric Kaufmann’s book, which offers a more sustained argument around the topic of this blog post, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the 21st Century.

Full article citation: ‘The End of Secularization in Europe? A Socio-Demographic Perspective, Sociology of Religion, 73(1): pp. 69-91

2 thoughts on “The End of Secularisation in Europe?”

  1. Thanks for an interesting post Gladys.
    Christianity is certainly changing. We may not all like what new variants look like but one cannot look at 15000 people at a Hillsong event without coming to the conclusion that spirituality has a future. That future will look very different to the past. It will have abondoned much from the past but it will still be a vibrant faith. It will be more ‘intelligent’ (as per Rollins) and more ‘spiritual’ (as per charismata and/or new monasticism etc) but I see a bright future for Christianity. I do not take the view that it has no long term future with eventual consumption by a secular world. Indeed, I am old enough to remember a time when books with titles like ‘The Secular Christ’ were still published.

  2. Excellent post. Eric Kaufman gave an excellent talk on this subject at an Iona Institute conference last year.

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