East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 12, No. 2, Spring 2004, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

The Third European Values Study (1999-2000): Selected Findings on Religion and Ethics

Loek Halman and Jan Kerkhofs

Trust in the Church?
Trust in the church is far from unanimous in Europe. There are major differences in the extent to which people say they trust the church, with Malta, Romania, and Portugal, where people say they place a great deal of trust in the church at one extreme, and the Czech Republic and, to a lesser extent, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, and Slovenia at the other. It is therefore not possible to identify a clear dividing line between East and West, North and South as regards this matter.

A Secular Europe?
In recent history, individualization and secularization have changed society dramatically, undermining traditional authoritarian religious power in favor of personal autonomy and individual freedom. In terms of religious faith, this is reflected in the gradual decline in church attendance and traditional beliefs, such as belief in a personal God.

However, this does not mean that people have suddenly turned atheist en masse. Only a small proportion of Europeans explicitly state that they are atheist: five percent in Europe as a whole, with quite a lot of variation. In France, 15 percent of people say they are atheist, while less than one percent of Romanians and Maltese say they are. In Russia, too, despite strong atheist propaganda, atheism, at five percent, is not widespread.

There is also great variation within Europe when it comes to belief in God. Whereas in countries like Poland, Portugal, Malta, and Italy the vast majority (around 80 percent) say they believe in a personal God, only a small minority do so in Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. Agnosticism is particularly common in Russia (31 percent), France (25 percent), Belarus (23 percent), Ukraine (22 percent), and Estonia (21 percent), and is limited to around 10 percent of the population of other countries. One notable fact to emerge from the latest study is that belief in a personal God actually increased slightly in some countries between 1990 and 1999. This is particularly true of Portugal, Finland, Lithuania, and Germany. There was a decline only in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Latvia, and the Czech Republic.

Church Attendance
The decline in the authority of the church has meant that fewer and fewer people attend church services. But here, again, there is no homogeneous picture throughout Europe. Church participation is high in Poland and Malta, where more than 80 percent of respondents attend church regularly (at least once a month). In Scandinavia and most of Eastern Europe, the reverse is true. Romania and Ukraine are important exceptions, however, as more than half of respondents said they regularly go to church. Church participation has fallen slightly in most countries over the past ten years, though not in all countries. Exceptions include Portugal, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, where more people regularly went to church in 1999 than ten years previously.

Moral Relativism
Many people no longer live according to the teachings of the church. Despite the church's strong opposition to contraception, abortion, divorce, homosexuality, and euthanasia, they are either already widespread or on the increase in society. (See chart, "What is Ethical/Unethical?" p.9.) In most countries, many people believe there are no absolutely unambiguous rules on what is good and evil that apply to everyone, irrespective of circumstances. The view that good and evil depend entirely on circumstances is common, particularly in Scandinavia. Only in Poland and Malta are people slightly more likely to believe there are unambiguous rules. Moral relativism would therefore appear to be predominant in Europe.

In general it would seem that a more permissive climate is developing in Europe. Whereas in 1981 abortion, divorce, and euthanasia were commonly accepted only in the Netherlands and Denmark, in 1999 acceptance is widespread among broad swathes of the European population. However, when it comes to behavior such as joyriding, tax evasion, bribery, and benefit abuse, people are much less forgiving. Acceptance of such behavior is significantly lower than acceptance of certain actions in the sexual and bioethical sphere. Virtually all people condemn joyriding and many are highly critical of bribery.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from "The European Values Study: Selected Results," http://www.romir.ru/eng/research/01_2001/European-values.htm.

Loek Halman is associate professor of sociology at Tilberg University, Tilburg, the Netherlands, and secretary to the steering committee of the European Values Study. Jan Kerkhofs, Society of Jesus, is emeritus professor, Catholic University of Louvain, Louvain, Belgium, and one of the originators of the European Values Study.

Loek Halman and Jan Kerkhofs, "The Third European Values Study (1999-2000): Selected Findings on Religion and Ethics," East-West Church & Ministry Report 12 (Spring 2004), 8.

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© 2004 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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