Is European Secularism the Exception to the Rule?
Jerry G. Pankhurst
The European Values Study (EVS) and the World Values Study (WVS), through repeated rounds of polling, have demonstrated significant differences (and some similarities, to be sure) between the American "open market" pattern of religion and the traditional "religious monopolies" pattern of most of Europe. "American exceptionalism," that is, the apparent religious vigor and diversity of the United States as compared to Europe, expresses itself in higher rates of belief in God, prayer, and church attendance.
Given the dramatic transformation of the Soviet Union into 15 separate states and the overthrow of every Communist regime in East Central Europe in the last years of the 20th century, many of us expected, or at least hoped, that the 21st century would witness the development of new, energized markets for religion across the region, like the pattern in the United States. However, EVS, WVS, and similar survey projects demonstrate that the societies of this region resemble more the West European secular model. As explanation, it has been argued that, historically, established churches have denied individuals the freedom of religious searching and religious entrepreneurship. This argument, growing in prominence in the sociology of religion on both sides of the Atlantic, suggests that we need to take a longer-term view of developments than Halman and Kerkhofs do when they state that:
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.
In fact, church attendance and indicators of traditional beliefs have been stronger for some time in the individualistic American open market than in countries such as Britain, France, or Sweden. While Poland and Ireland tell us there are other factors at work (perhaps, for example, Catholic Church participation in defensive nationalism), still, the overall pattern is that secularized Europe is the exception and the more vigorous American model may be more typical of much of the rest of the world. Grace Davie recently made this argument in Europe, the Exceptional Case: Parameters of Faith in the Modern World (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2002).
Here is where our concern for the post-Communist experience of East Central Europe and Eurasia confronts historical reality: namely, this region of the world is, indeed, dominated by secular, old-establishment patterns of indifference and low religious activity. Communism, no doubt, amplified these patterns, but they began to surface well before the Communist era. In religious terms, the essential division between East and West is not along the old European capitalist-Communist divide, but rather a line drawn down through the Atlantic. Not old secular ideologies, but religions with monopoly tendencies may be the greatest enemies of individual faith and freedom of conscience in the modern world.
Jerry G. Pankhurst is professor of sociology at Wittenberg University, Springfield, Ohio.
Jerry G. Pankhurst, "Is European Secularism the Exception to the Rule?," East-West Church & Ministry Report 12 (Spring 2004), 10.
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