Why is Europe So Secular?
Going to church is an essential part of every tourist’s trip to Europe. Whether they are in Barcelona, Prague, or Paris, they shuffle quietly into some of the most stunning buildings in the world. They look at statues, stonework, paintings, and stained glass. The especially curious might attend a service. If they do, they will wonder why almost everyone there is, like them, a tourist.
Europeans don’t seem very interested in their rich religious heritage. They attend religious services less often than people in every other part of the world. In Denmark, France, and Sweden less than 5% of the population goes to church on any given Sunday. In the United States, the figure is over 30%.
So why is Europe so secular? It’s a tricky question to answer—how can we know what goes on in people’s minds when they wake up on Sunday mornings and are deciding whether to go to church or go on a bike ride? There are, however, several plausible explanations.
Most simply, in the days when Europeans built their great cathedrals they had to go to church. Either the law or their lord required them to do so. That’s no longer the case. Given the choice, most people decide they have better things to do on Sundays.
Europeans have also felt less of a need for God as the centuries have gone by. People used to pray for rain and good harvests so their families would survive. If they fell ill, doctors were too expensive, useless, or both. So they would go to church and ask God to help. Nowadays, people use fertilizers, pharmacies and other less supernatural solutions.
When Europeans moved from the countryside to cities, as most of them did, they were also less likely to go to church. For one, there were fewer churches in the towns. More importantly, people often left their parents behind in the village, so there was no one to tell them to get out of bed on a Sunday morning. In villages, the social expectation was that you go to church. That wasn’t so true in cities.
The growth in leisure was another factor. Eventually, people who worked in towns had a little extra money to spend. Church was free, but people could now buy a bicycle or a car, or take the bus for a weekend adventure. For unlimited distraction, they could buy a TV. Better yet, a smartphone. When people had more options, churches lost out.
All the above reasons help explain why fewer people now go to church in Europe, but there’s a problem—they also work well for the United States, where attendance is much higher. You could answer that by saying that going to church has also fallen in the US, which is true. Still, there’s something different about Europe. The next two reasons apply specifically to Europe and help explain why churches have declined more quickly there.
The first half of the twentieth century was awful for Europe. Tens of millions died too young. Fascists in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere made people join their armies and profess undying and then dying loyalty. When war ended, people just wanted to go home. And stay home. Fewer people now went to political meetings, dance halls, and cinemas. And, as part of this trend, fewer also went to church. People were much more inclined to spend their weekends planting vegetables, tending flowers, or repainting the living room.
Europeans also had to get used to their countries counting for less on the world stage. Teachers used to tell children in France, Germany, and Britain that their nation had good and godly work to do in the rest of the world. They stopped saying that as their empires disappeared and all that seemed to matter were American and Russian nuclear missiles. God didn’t seem to have much for the Brits to do anymore, so what was the point in going to church?
So far, I’ve talked only about large forces in society that were beyond the churches’ control. But that’s only half the picture. The truth is that church leaders in Europe had a role in their own fate. Their poor decisions had a lot to do with why people stopped going to church.
European churches were too often allies with the rich and the strong. In Catholic countries, the church usually had a cosy relationship with the king. Those who hated the king therefore found it easy to hate the church, too. In Protestant countries, the local minister might also be the local judge—which meant he had to enforce laws that made the poor grumble. When socialists called for better pay and working conditions for factory workers, some Christians joined them. But popes and bishops frowned.
In America, by contrast, church leaders did a much better job of staying in tune with popular culture. The constitution guaranteed religious freedom and ever since entrepreneur-preachers have found ways to present Christianity in ways that lots of people understood and liked.
In truth, Europe is probably more religious than you might think—and America less so. Few Europeans go to church, but many say that religion is important in their daily lives—more than 30% in Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands, and more than 70% in Portugal, Italy, and Poland. These numbers include immigrants to Europe, who are usually more devoted to their church, mosque, or temple than long-term residents are to their own. In the US, the Christianity on offer is more anemic than it was two generations’ ago, and fewer young people are going to church.
Besides, with all those wonderful old buildings—not just the cathedrals but the tens of thousands of small, village churches—Europeans aren’t likely to forget their Christian roots any time soon. Even as they struggle to integrate people from other religious traditions, their physical surroundings remind them of the faith that did so much to shape their societies, and continues to do so today.