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Philip Jenkins

Godless Europe?

Questioning Europe's devout past and secular present.

Technology is a wonderful thing. The spread of global travel, news media, and communications networks means not only that opportunities for international rancor and misunderstanding have never been greater, but that societies can much more rapidly discover how much they are disliked around the globe.

In recent years, North Americans and Europeans have increasingly discovered that the vast and frigid Atlantic Ocean is emblematic of the deep differences between them in values and outlook. Take attitudes toward the Middle East. Most Americans, whether liberal or conservative, have a strong and largely uncritical view of the state of Israel, in marked contrast to the general hostility to Israel that exists across much of Europe. Explanations for this intercontinental divide are not immediately obvious. Certainly, Europe has larger Muslim minorities than the United States, and is more dependent on Middle Eastern oil. While the U.S. media have accused Europeans (and especially the French) of a continuing anti-Semitism, we might equally point to the strong American tradition of philo-Semitism, which grows so naturally from the nation's roots in the Old Testament and in apocalyptic. At least on this side of the water, it seems only natural that an overwhelmingly Christian country should see its fate intimately bound up with that of the Jewish state. Some recent surveys confirm this notion of religious America confronting godless Europe, to the extent that in terms of religious worldviews, U.S. Christians have more in common with Africans or Latin Americans than with the British or the Dutch.

Indeed, Europe seems prima facie to offer a classic model of the secularization thesis, the idea that religion inevitably declines as post-industrial society matures. Somewhere along the line, extensive remodeling seems to have removed the Sacred Canopy that had given Christian Europe its raison d'être. So familiar, in fact, is the notion of secular Europe that it is refreshing, and a little startling, to find a book that tries to battle the received wisdom. Not surprisingly, the would-be heretic is Andrew Greeley, an enormously accomplished sociologist who relishes nothing more than an academic controversy. (Incidentally, while challenging academic orthodoxies is a valuable task, does he have to be so wearyingly combative on every single issue with which he disagrees with other scholars?)

Greeley makes a number of excellent points that deserve careful consideration. One is historical. He argues that the secularization thesis wrongly assumes a decline in religiosity from some past Age of Faith, which in fact never existed. The more we examine the beliefs of ordinary Europeans in bygone times, Greeley maintains, the less evidence we see of monolithic orthodoxy or even of the near-universal notional adherence to Christianity posited by many scholars.

Turning to modern times, he is equally dismissive of the core claims of secularization. Using survey evidence, he argues that Europeans still affirm a surprising level of continuing belief in religious and supernatural doctrines, overwhelmingly in the case of the existence of God, but also with large numbers accepting life after death and miracles. Even in Britain and the former West Germany, 40 percent of respondents claim to believe in miracles. Greeley also argues, very fairly, that Europe is anything but homogenous, and that it is unwise to extrapolate from secular Britain or the Netherlands. The smaller countries often demonstrate higher levels of religious commitment, though sometimes in bizarre or wildly heterodox forms, and occult and New Age doctrines are especially strong in the former Soviet Bloc. (Oddly, in stressing the diversity of European countries and societies, he says virtually nothing about the overseas immigrants, the Asians, Africans, and Afro-Caribbeans who are reinvigorating Christian churches in so many regions).

Clearly, I am doing no more than sketching the arguments of a complex and idea-rich book, but even this brief summary raises many questions. With any luck, Greeley's work will generate a major debate about the evidence for European (and, by implication, American) religious belief and practice. Having said this, though, I want to suggest several critical areas in which his argument is questionable.

Let us begin with the history, the debunking of the Age of Faith: "The golden age of religion never existed." Everything in this debate depends on terminology, and especially the use of words like "religion." Using a number of standard social histories of medieval and modern Europe, Greeley questions whether "save in some times and some places, religious practice was ever all that intense." I would argue that the studies he cites prove the exact opposite. They demonstrate a massive commitment to religious belief and practice, defined as interest in a supernatural reality that could be accessed by ritual conduct, although these accounts raise real doubts about how much of this was carried on under the auspices of orthodox Christianity, or with the consent of established church authorities. But does Greeley want to talk about religious practice or orthodox observance? If he says that the religious life of early modern Europe was not uniformly Catholic or Protestant, fine, but that is not the conclusion he actually draws. If we define religion in broad terms, then we certainly see a massive decline in religion with the advance of industry and modern medicine, and the growth of cities: in other words, a process of secularization.

And there are other issues. Greeley's surveys show Europeans agreeing in large numbers with certain beliefs and assertions, but with little sense of the strength or cultural meaning of these statements. Based on impressions of European media and public discourse, of ethnographic observations of European communities, I would see strong support for the idea of secularization, which is quite at odds with Greeley's survey data. But then there are strict limits to what can be determined by such surveys, or at least what real indications they give of the role of religion in politics, society, or culture. The statement "I believe in life after death" has radically different cultural connotations in (say) Nashville as opposed to Frankfurt, and these different meanings reflect the very different history of religious change and secularization in the two regions.

Though my critique may seem subjective, what I am offering is in fact a standard social-scientific criticism, namely that Greeley's data might be reconciled with theoretical interpretations other than those he offers, and which he does not explore. His interpretation might or might not be correct, but this cannot be decided definitely unless a test is devised to assess those other interpretations.

The issue of methodology is critical. Greeley has a thorough (if not Gradgrindian) commitment to a positivist quantitative approach, and if this leads to conclusions that seem frankly silly, then the fault must lie in public perceptions, not in the statistics. The introduction offers a gorgeously Greeleyan piece of rhetoric: "Data from probability samples do not make for easy cocktail party chatter, but they are a lot more reliable than the repetition of clichés about 'what everybody knows.' " Well, clichés are never worth defending, and I would be the last to reaffirm the truthfulness of "what everybody knows." But the argument here is that on the one side, we have Andrew Greeley with his hard statistics, and on the other we find only feather-brained dilettantes at their cocktail parties. It really is not that simple.

Quantitative methods involve a great deal more than surveys: they might be used, for instance, to explore the content analysis of media, of political speeches, of public discourse. My hypothesis at least would be that such studies would detect a dramatic contrast between the amount and plausibility of God-talk in public discourse on this side of the Atlantic and in Europe. (Now there's a project for an ambitious young researcher.) And the most sophisticated quantitative analysis ever devised is worthless unless it can be integrated with theoretical approaches that offer testable hypotheses.

In addition, qualitative methods have a vast amount to contribute not just to history but to sociology and political science, and qualitative and ethnographic observations raise real doubts about Greeley's portrait of European religiosity. I have already suggested the flaws with Greeley's use of one particular kind of qualitative analysis, namely the historical. A similar picture might emerge if we traced the presence of religion in mass media, in high culture and popular culture, and above all in politics.

For all these criticisms, Greeley's Religion in Europe eminently deserves to be read and discussed. If in seeking to test it, future scholars find that its arguments are incorrect, then fine, that is how social science advances. My final complaint about the book, though, is that it represents Greeley the social scientist to the near exclusion to Greeley the religious and cultural commentator, whose book The Catholic Imagination was such a delight. Readers looking for that kind of book must turn instead to Colm Tóibín's superb travelogue The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe (1994). Sometimes the journalists and novelists can tell us quite as much about social realities as the number-crunchers.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author most recently of The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (Oxford Univ. Press), reviewed in this issue.

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