European, Not Christian
An aggressive secularism sweeps the Continent
For a while last winter, Ruth Kelly, Britain's newly appointed education secretary, had to feel that she was getting the Buttiglione Treatment. Rocco Buttiglione, that is: Italy's nominee to the European Union's executive commission, who had only a few months before come under sharp attack--both from EU parliamentarians and the press--for his traditional Catholic views about the sinfulness of homosexual acts. He tried to hang in, but ultimately the controversy compelled him to stand down.
So what was Kelly's problem? She had been receiving spiritual counseling from the Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei. The British press went to town with lurid myths and half-truths about that organization, from its past associations with Franco's Spain (even though there were Opus Dei members opposed to Franco) to the fictive portrait of the murderous Opus Dei "monk" in Dan Brown's wildly popular novel, The Da Vinci Code (even though there are no monks in Opus Dei). The suggestion, clearly, was that anyone under the influence of such an organization could not support her party's position on such things as abortion and condom use.
Tough crowd. While Kelly survived the mini-tempest, her experience captures what many say is the prevailing attitude of European elites toward religion, particularly traditional religion and particularly in the public sphere. From the ban on the wearing of visible religious symbols in French public schools to the refusal of the EU to include specific mention of Christianity's influence on Europe's distinctive civilization in its first constitution, a mountain of anecdotal evidence suggests that an aggressive form of secularism--what the British religion writer Karen Armstrong calls "secular fundamentalism" --is afoot in Europe.
Numerous analysts suggest that the spreading "Christianophobia" is tied to a Europe-wide spiritual malaise that is pushing the Continent toward broad cultural and economic decline. Others describe a more complicated process, in which--as the last vestiges of established religions are disappearing in various European nations--a new spiritual awakening may be taking place. Either way, popular attitudes toward religion in Europe now stand in bold contrast to those in the United States. While 59 percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, only 11 percent of the French, 21 percent of Germans, and 33 percent of Britons do, according to the Pew Research Center. More to the point, a growing part of the U.S. electorate--and not just those associated with red America--would like religious values to play an even more prominent role in shaping the nation's laws and public life.
This sharp divide between American and European attitudes is anything but reassuring to George Weigel, a theologian and senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. In his new book, The Cube and the Cathedral, Weigel makes the case that Europe's problem "is also ours," and not only because it exacerbates differences between Americans and Europeans on matters like foreign policy. In Weigel's view, American high culture is vulnerable to the same kind of spiritual and philosophical amnesia that he believes has afflicted Europe. The culprit, in his telling, is the atheistic humanism that took shape in the 19th century. Whether in the form of Auguste Comte's positivism or Karl Marx's materialism, it attempted "to exclude transcendent reference points from cultural, social, and political life." In specific, it reversed the view that the Hebrew and Christian God was the source of human freedom and dignity and proposed that this God was the obstacle to both.
This humanism lay behind the rise of the worst ideologies of the 20th century, fascism and communism. All were testimony, Weigel writes, to a "failure of moral reason in a culture that had given the world the very concept of moral reason." And the "crisis of civilizational morale" that this failure gave rise to is still playing itself out today, contributing to what Weigel sees as the death of Europe. Specifically, he says, spiritual boredom gives rise to hyperindividualism and a lack of confidence in the future, attitudes that undercut the resilience of the family and ultimately lead to dwindling reproduction rates.
One consequence of this is the changing demographic character of the Continent. With Europe's native-born labor force declining since World War II, the need for more workers helped boost the Muslim population from about 1 million in 1945 to about 18 million today. By now, it is clear that many of the guest workers have come to stay--and the addition of Turkey to the EU would bring about 62 million more Muslims into the European fold. Islam scholar Bernard Lewis is not alone in saying that Europe will be Islamic by the end of the 21st century "at the very latest." To many who think that Europe is more a cultural than a geographic entity, this would alter the very core of European identity.
In judgment. But others take a less encompassing--and less dire--view of contemporary European secularism. Mark Lilla, a professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, argues in his forthcoming book, The Stillborn God, that Europe is experiencing the aftereffects of the failure of the liberal theology that took shape in the 19th century. Drawing from many sources, supporters of liberalized Christianity (and Judaism) believed that a less dogmatic and more rational faith would provide a moral prop to the liberal state. But even in the early 20th century, Lilla recently wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "Thinkers and ordinary believers began yearning for a more . . . critical faith, one that would stand in judgment over the modern world, not lend it support."
The devastations of World War I seemed to signal the inadequacy of such a tepid, comfortable religiosity. Many Europeans turned from reasonable Christianity to mystical or ecstatic forms of spiritual experience--and, in the political sphere, to antiliberal, utopian ideologies ranging from fascism to communism. "After World War II," says Lilla, "a number of factors, including the attempt to draw lessons from the earlier failure of institutional religion, the breakdown of traditional hierarchies, and even growing affluence left religious institutions in shambles." Thus while Christian churches in many European states such as Germany continued to receive direct government support, Europeans turned away from the faiths of their forebears in growing numbers.
But many say that Christianophobia is only part of the contemporary story. They point to a widespread upsurge of nonhierarchical, populist Christian movements across Europe and into other continents, claiming hundreds of thousands of mainly youngish followers who seek ways of making Christian beliefs real in their lives and work. While the Community of Sant'Egidio, started by Roman high school students in the late 1960s, devotes itself to charity, social justice, and peace (working as mediators to bring an end to Mozambique's civil strife, for example), Communion and Liberation, founded 50 years ago by Milanese priest Luigi Giussani, a theologian turned high school teacher, focuses on what one of the movement's followers, Paolo Carozza, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, calls "fundamental questions: What does it mean to be human? What does Christianity have to do with this humanity?"
In addition to signs of a spiritual reawakening, the long view of history puts today's European Christianophobia in clearer perspective. Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, fought hard but unsuccessfully for mention of Christianity in the EU constitution. He is still troubled by the Buttiglione affair and by the Spanish parliament's moves toward legalizing gay marriage. But standing in the Vatican on a recent spring day, Martino asked: "Those Roman emperors who wanted to get rid of us, where are they today? And Napoleon, he didn't like us either. And where is Napoleon today?"
This story appears in the May 30, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.