Losing their religion: The increasing secularization of Europe

An article in yesterday’s Guardian, based on a report by Stephen Bullivant—a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St. Mary’s University (London)—paints a picture of Europe losing its religion. Almost everywhere on that continent, young people are abandoning faith, which I’ve predicted will become moribund as one generation replaces another (click on screenshot to read the article).

I give the three figures from the piece, the first (and the one Bullivant concentrates on) surveying the proportion of young people (16-29) who identify as Christians, non-Christians but religious, or no religion (this could be a deism or “spirituality,” not necessarily atheism; the second showing the proportion of young folk going to religious services; and the last showing the frequency of prayer.

The plot below shows that Czech youth are the least religious, with 91% professing no religious affiliation. You could attribute that to its status as a former Communist state, but that can’t account for the country with the most religious youth: Poland, with only 17% having no religious affiliation. The UK, while largely secular, has 7% of youth identifying as Anglican, 10% who identify as Catholic, 6% as Muslims, and about 70% identifying with no religion. Surprisingly (at least to me), Germany and Switzerland show most people identifying with one religion or another. But even in those countries, the proportion who never or rarely attend a religious service is about 85% in Ireland, over 90% in Germany, and over 85% in Switzerland.

Further, it’s not clear that “identifying with a religion” means you actually believe its tenets. As the second and third plots show, in general fewer people actually practice religion (i.e., pray or go to church) than identify with a religion. I suspect that much of this “identification” is simply tribalism for the historical culture, as in Scandinavia. I, for instance, could say I identify with Judaism, though I don’t believe a word of scripture and never go to synagogue; it’s a purely secular identification.

As you see in the second plot, in no European country do more than 40% of the youth go to church once a week or more, with Poland being the outlier. Poland excluded, no country has more than 20% of its youth going to church at least weekly.

Bullivant—and remember, he’s a professor of theology—is reported to have said this about his data:

Religion was “moribund”, he said. “With some notable exceptions, young adults increasingly are not identifying with or practising religion.”

The trajectory was likely to become more marked. “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good – or at least for the next 100 years,” Bullivant said.

It’s curious that Bullivant appears to entertain some notion that Christianity might return to Europe. I doubt it; once it’s gone, it’ll be gone for good. Immigration of Muslims may boost religiosity to some degree, but Christianity is circling the drain in most countries.

More summary from Bullivant:

. . . According to Bullivant, many young Europeans “will have been baptised and then never darken the door of a church again. Cultural religious identities just aren’t being passed on from parents to children. It just washes straight off them.”

. . . “The new default setting is ‘no religion’, and the few who are religious see themselves as swimming against the tide,” he said.

“In 20 or 30 years’ time, mainstream churches will be smaller, but the few people left will be highly committed.”

With respect to prayer, Poland is again an outlier, with 50% of Polish youth praying weekly or more, a bit more than go to church weekly or more.  About 35% of Irish youth pray weekly or more, but it’s less than 25% in every other country surveyed.

Now these data aren’t compared to earlier surveys using the same methods (if those surveys exist), but they don’t paint a picture of a particularly religious Europe. I don’t mourn the disappearance of faith, and I have no fear that it will lead to widespread immorality—the common but totally false picture painted by scared religionists.

h/t: Tom


  1. rgsherr
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I hope you’re right but I fear that as times turn bad again as will likely happen, religion will rise from the dead, so to speak, probably in the form of evangelical cults, more magical, mystical than ever.

    • eric
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      Yes. If there’s a causative relationship between a good standard of living (or lack of poverty, or even less difference between rich and poor) and lack of religion, then it would probably follow that declining social conditions or an increase in inequality would cause an upsurge in religion.

    • Historian
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Traditional Christianity may or may not die in Europe and elsewhere. But what won’t die is the tendency of humans to embrace irrational or supernatural explanations for events they don’t like. Thus, for example, conspiracy theories will always be with us for the purpose of finding scapegoats to explain undesirable happenings. Is the decline of religion in Europe due to a sudden commitment to reason and evidence? I hope that is the case, but I am skeptical. After all, this decline is happening simultaneously with the rise of political extremism. I do not know if there is any cause and effect, but the latter is a very disturbing trend and its negative effects may far outweigh the benefits of the decline of religion.

    • jay
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      Christianity won’t rise. But I strongly feel Islam will, and it creates a bigger risk to secularism.

      Its growth is fueled by rather high reproduction and immigration rates as well as the intensity of its believers. And the openly stated drive to replace secularism with sharia.

      In many areas (especially the schools) there is a large increase in the number of women covering up… partly influence of the newcomers and partly fear of the newcomers.

      The Handmaiden’s Tale mistook the direction that the war on secularism would come from.

      • nicky
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

        Yes, particularly in Western Europe the threat is Islam. The danger comes from the little grey bars in the first graph, they are growing.

        • jay
          Posted March 22, 2018 at 5:13 am | Permalink

          Christianity has become quite weak. The gelded toothless leaders just blow in the wind trying to look ‘progressive’. The followers have no commitment, it’s just a social club. Indeed it’s the Christian churches who are bending over backwards to appease the Muslims–even the Pope is consistent in the appeasement and constantly appeases the Imams (who have absolutely no interest in appeasing back.)

          Gives new meaning to the old joke: Is the Pope Catholic?

        • Posted March 22, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

          But there’s a general trend towards secularism and lower birthrates, at least among second and third generation immigrants.

          And better education and access to the internet are secularising influences. But …

          In the UK there’s a problem with public-funded faith schools – in principle! – but specifically those that are objecting to the requirement to promote tolerance to (among other groups) LGBT people, as well the requirement that they only teach creationism as as a religious concept, and not as a valid scientific theory on a par with evolution. I hope May doesn’t cave on this.


          • Posted March 22, 2018 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

            And more:

            Unfortunately, the support of successive governments for faith schools of all kinds – and for the influence of religion in education more generally – has encouraged religious groups and a minority of religious parents to believe that they personally have total control over children’s education, and never mind the rights of the child. Worse still, they think they have the right to have this education funded by the state and that any state oversight is an overreach.


  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    I think once you have a generation who no longer sell it to their children, the game is up. But that is a nice idea…default – no religion.

  3. Posted March 21, 2018 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    As a foreigner who’s lived in Germany for 20 years, I can report that religion does seem to have been domesticated here, after centuries of squabbling, fighting and political machinations between Catholics and Protestants. (I suspect it was the latter that drove the Catholic Church to sign on with Hitler so quickly — he offered protection against political domination by Protestants.)

    Religion seems to be seen more as a matter of personal identity these days, rather than a commitment to beliefs about the nature of reality.

    The only people here who seriously allow their spiritual views to determine their acceptance or non-acceptance of science are left wing/green spiritual folk. There you suddenly get extreme anti-science, especially in the medical profession as well as politics.

    Ironically, they are drawing on political power that alternative medicine practitioners gained by cooperating with the Nazis. Homeopathy and Anthroposophical Medicine (from Rudolf Steiner) were both supported and promoted by the Nazis, and are still explicitly protected from normal medical standards under German law.

    I would argue that these people as a far greater threat to science literacy than traditional Christians.

  4. Posted March 21, 2018 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Kids, these days.

    They’re less gullible than their parents.

    • jay
      Posted March 22, 2018 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      Not really

      Instead of religion, many have gone full bore into Mao, Stalin and Marx.

      No matter how badly these poisonous systems fail, there are new suckers born every generation. Just like religion.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted March 23, 2018 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        You must live in a very bizarre place. While I know large numbers of irreligious people (it’s far, far easier to count the people who do express a religious affiliation than those who don’t), the number of Maoists, Stalinists and Marxists is far, far lower. Unsurprisingly the strongest Marxists I know were also hard core union activists – one a union employee. But very bizarrely one of that couple (social sense) was also the only person I can remember ever admitting to going to church once a week. She’d drop her husband off to do leafleting at the airport while she went to church, then join him for a couple of hours before going home for lunch.
        The only person I can recall who seriously claimed to be a Stalinist was a freshman in InterRel, whose knowledge of 20th century history was execrable, and didn’t reappear for second year.

  5. Phil
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    I wonder why Italy isn’t included in these studies.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I suspect Poland might be explained in part by the John Paul II effect — a couple generations of Poles coming of age under the 27-year reign of first Polish pontiff.

    • Pikolo
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      If only…

      Among older people, being a member of the church used to be an act of protesting against the communist rule until 1989. After that ended, the generation in power made religion taught as a subject at schools which brought us to where we are.

      The problem is that religion is taught in schools, according to a program unilaterali set by the church, by personel who answer to the church, yet the taxpayers fund it. You can sign out(since 2012 the subject is opt in, but it’s frequently treated as opt out)

      It’s getting better, but Poland might even be behind the USA at this point

  7. Mark Reaume
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    “I doubt it; once it’s gone, it’ll be gone for good.”

    Agreed, I can’t think of a single religion that disappeared and then resurfaced at a later time.

    • alexander
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      Islam did in Europe, and in fact in much of the so-called Islamic world. I remember that among the students from the Middle East I knew when I was a student, practically nobody associated themselves with Islam. Now the situation is quite different.

      • Mark Reaume
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

        By “disappeared” I was meaning that there are no living believers. Admittedly, this wouldn’t be the case with Christianity disappearing in Europe since there are believers elsewhere that could migrate to Europe.

    • grasshopper
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Druidism seem to be undergoing a revival, from almost complete annihilation by the Romans. But I think that there are so few records of the original beliefs that it is being shoe-horned into the extant ‘spirituality’ of its modern practitioners.

  8. Barney
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    The report itself is here: https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/research/centres/benedict-xvi/docs/2018-mar-europe-young-people-report-eng.pdf

    As far as ‘secular but identifying with a religion’ goes, you can see that effect clearly in Israel, for which figures are also in the report (the data came from the European Social Survey, but that has a wide definition of Europe – Turkey has taken part in some years as well).

    In Israel, 78% of the age group identified as Jewish, and 20% Muslim. But 32% (not broken down between the 2 religions) never attend religious services, and 35% never pray.

  9. Posted March 21, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I am threading my own roots here in the US. My boys have never been to a religious service and they probably never will be.

    Amazing how quickly a tide can turn if indoctrination is eliminated.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 23, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Amazing how quickly a tide can turn if indoctrination is eliminated.

      When was the last time you were accused of indoctrinating your kids into irreligion?
      You’ll note that I ask “when”, not “if”.

  10. Posted March 21, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    In the past, and in the present in poorer places, religion provides answers to life’s challenges and mysteries. (I’m not suggesting they were good answers.) I doubt these fading religions will come back as they no longer do very well at helping with modern life. For example, in the past prayer could be seen as sometimes helping. Perhaps more importantly, it could not easily be seen that it didn’t help. Now we have news and statistics. It is much harder to see any positive effect of prayer.

  11. Posted March 21, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Hooray! At least the Euro kids have some senses … unlike our own.

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      If by ‘our own’ you mean the US (apologies if I wrong), it’s just a matter of time; the US is a generation behind Europe.

      When I stopped believing 50 years ago, I was very conscious of being a minority in a country which was overwhelmingly religious. However, the public dominance of and conventional respect for religion was probably much greater than the actual level of informed and committed belief. Today, some churches flourish, but religion is in steep decline.

      Unfortunately, a decline in religion has not meant a steep rise in rationality. Anti-science flourishes; indigenous superstitions now receive much more respect, and to criticise them is to invite accusations of racism.

  12. Posted March 21, 2018 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    So much for the much vaunted Danish & Norwegian atheism – the are more religiuous than Britons!

    Like Galton with the Royal Family, we could compare the praying countries with their success in other terms such as wealth, happiness etc… not looking so good Poland, despite your goddy-ness! See what prayer does – nothing!


    Not looking so brill for

    • Posted March 21, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      “religiuous” ??? or even religious! Arrgh!

  13. Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    What’s ‘prayer’ again? Kind of an intense wishful thinking? What’s the technique? Am I doing it right? Are you? Does it negate the Standard Model of modern physics which powers our civilisation? Gosh, I think I’ll just imagine something more interesting.


    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      I do not know about “negate”,but I do know the philosopher & theologian cohort [what is the difference?] as usual is Doin’ It ‘Rong, They still claim that religious magic cannot be rejected; never mind that claims of miracles failed for millenniums. But the last few decades have seen tremendous progress on that:

      – Used to be that laws were potentially universal, but now we _know_ that the energy-matter content of the universe – and so the power of interactions – that is not accounted for is about a tenth of a percent.

      So the universe has no religious magic at over 3 sigma. This is problematic for common religion.

      – The generic state of eternal inflation, which is what our observations conform to (see e.g. ESA’s Efstadiou on that), is that local universes are the result of “the ghost of quantum fluctuations”. When the tail of the inflation state is no longer kicked back up the potential slope by a random series of quantum fluctuations, the universe will classically roll down locally.

      The structure formation of the universe is more tangible results of later quantum fluctuations (density variations seeds).

      So the universe is not made by a religious magic agent, looks like. This is problematic for common theism.

      – And while we cannot test that ours is the only universe, or that there are more than one, the state of our universe seems to be the result of selection bias at some 10^-120 likelihood against some other mechanism.

      So the laws of the universe is not made by a religious magic agent, looks like. This is problematic for common deism.

      – Finally, we can indeed add the Standard Model as the 3d strike against religious promises of utility if you move your hands and/or think _just so_ (prayer). Jerry notes narcosis and evolution as historical strikes against the magic ‘soul’concept. But the recent LHC result implies a 4 sigma (a factor 1/10,000) difference between what is allowed to go unnoticed and what is needed to record the synapse state of our brains for prayer or “death backup” purposes. It is a continuity constraint, it would be hard to measure the rest heat from religious magic demanded by the coherence of the quantum vacuum.

      But the Standard Model is not broken, so religious magic is not operating. This – the failed potential utility of religious magic – is problematic for common attempts of religious brainwashing.

      When I grew up it was still rational to be a “philosophic” agnostic. No more: Nature killed ‘God’.

      • Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Let me see if I understood you correctly: We know the interactions of “normal” matter, dark matter (only through gravity), and dark energy (drives universe expansion), so the greatest possible unknown interaction can only occupy up to 0.001 of the entire universe’s energy.

        Eternal inflation is most likely true, which implies a multiverse, so there is a natural explanation for the apparent “fine tuning”. And didn’t Sean Carroll once say that the proper derivation of tye expansion rate of the universe results in a 1 in 1 chance of getting the current value?

        Your final point is that there are no possible interactions that allow a soul to exist.

        It seems convincing. The first point probably requires an mention of the homogeneity of the universe though.

        • Torbjörn Larsson
          Posted March 22, 2018 at 2:44 am | Permalink

          Yes, you got it!

          On the first point I was thinking random sampling, but in that case there is a hidden constraint of homogeneity. Thank you for the catch!

  14. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    According to Bullivant, many young Europeans “will have been baptised and then never darken the door of a church again.

    Not in Sweden, they aren’t. Timely today there was an article about the “Swedish Church” (now independent) statistics:

    The frequence of baptism dropped from 73 % 2003 to 42 % 2017 [http://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=83&artikel=6910474 ].

    Baptism is moribund.

  15. Pierluigi Ballabeni
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    I am surprised about Switzerland’s data. According to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office, only 23% of the population identify with no religion (vs 37% catholics, 25% protestants and 7% mus,ims, plus others).

    The new Swiss federal constitution of 1999 has as its first sentence in the preamble: In the name of Almighty God! And then follows some bla bla about the creation. In 1999!!! For these reasons I was considering voting against the new Constitution but I voted in favour because it brought some real advancement. But the constitution can be modified any time by referendums, as it happens.

    • Pierluigi Ballabeni
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Oops, I did not realize that the data above are about young people only. The Swiss statistical data are obviously about the whole population.

  16. Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    I think that for many people (especially women) religious affiliation provides a source of social support and psychological well being. Dropping religion is probably the ultimate “red pill,” but can leave many lonely and pessimistic. For others it’s the reality that there’s no alien life visiting our planet to try to save us, no crystal power, and no ghosts. Like my son’s former mother-in-law said, “I’m not religious, but I’m very spiritual.”

  17. pablo
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    That survey is good news, now to work on deconverting Europe’s Muslims.

  18. Bob
    Posted March 22, 2018 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    I lived in Germany for over twenty years between 1980 and 2008 with a five-year break in Florida until returning to the US of A just over ten years ago. My German wife and I return to visit friends and family for a few weeks each year. My observation is that Germans celebrate Christian holidays more as Jahrzeit events rather than religious events. After all, who would not attend a Weihnachtsmarkt? Marriage is optional among the younger generation and unwed mothers quite common. The Catholic church has been forced to close many churches for lack of funding and staffing despite Germany having a religious income tax. Few seem to care what the church says. While touring Ireland last year, I heard many say that although they may have their children baptized, they would send them to religious instruction. Second and third generations Muslims are seen more often in the gasthaus having a beer than in a mosque too.

    • Posted March 22, 2018 at 11:33 am | Permalink

      The interesting question to me is if the traditions that aren’t directly religious will expand (or are expanding) to include new things. For example, maybe doner and kebab for the holiday meal?

      • Barney
        Posted March 22, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        A doner kebab is already traditional in the UK – after large amounts of alcohol. I don’t think there’s any food for which the proportion of people eating it drunk to those eat it sober is higher. Which is ironic for a food originating in a (high) majority Muslim country.

        I don’t think it gets up to “holiday meal” territory, though. It’s strictly a fast food takeaway.

        • Posted March 22, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

          That probably says more about the quality of done kebabs than anything else … 


        • Posted March 22, 2018 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

          “Love their food, not their religion.”

        • Posted March 23, 2018 at 11:36 am | Permalink

          Holiday and take-away are not inconsistent. In Montreal, a tradition is to buy a pizza as housewarming gift and to feed all the moving help. And moving day is often a repurposed Canada Day, so …

  19. Posted March 24, 2018 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    The reported perspective of Richard Dawkins:


    (I am sorry that the source is “Christian Post”, but the alternative is giving a link to Fox News.)

%d bloggers like this: