February 23, 2005


In a secular ocean, waves of spirituality (Peter Ford, 2/23/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

On the face of it, religion has continued to suffer setbacks in Europe recently. Just last year, the French government reinforced its secular approach by banning Muslim head scarves and other religious symbols from schools.

Catholic teaching on such questions as abortion, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality, meanwhile, is honored more in the breach than in the observance.

That would seem to continue a secularist trend visible in Europe for several decades. That trend is offset, however, by a growing awareness that European secularism is an aberration in a world where religion is largely on the rise.

The prominent role that religion continues to play in American public life, meanwhile, has undermined the widespread European view that modern societies inevitably grow more secular, and that religion is an attribute of underdevelopment.

"A preoccupation with spirituality is much more present now at a religious and philosophical level" than it was a few years ago, says Dominique Moisi, a French political analyst.

In Britain, the country's largest bookseller has noticed that preoccupation, and moved to meet it. Expanding the shelf space it devotes to religious and spiritual books, "we have increased our range over the last few years," says Lucy Avery, a spokeswoman for the Waterstone's chain.

Sales of such books rose by nearly 4 percent last year, she adds, and titles such as the Dalai Lama's "The Art of Happiness" and a modern-language "Street Bible" have become bestsellers.

"I have noticed that a lot of general-interest publishers are turning to religious books now for commercial reasons, because that is what the public wants," says Laurence Vandamme, a spokeswoman for Cerf, the largest French religious publisher.

In France, leading philosopher Régis Debray, once a comrade in arms of Che Guevara in the Bolivian mountains, has devoted two of his most recent books to explorations of God and religion. Le Monde, the French establishment's newspaper of record, this year launched a glossy bimonthly "World of Religion."

"The need for meaning affects the secularized and de- ideologized West most of all," wrote Frédéric Lenoir, the editor of the new magazine, in his first editorial. "Ultramodern individuals mistrust religious institutions ... and they no longer believe in the radiant tomorrow promised by science and politics; they are still confronted, though, by the big questions about origins, suffering, and death."

Rocco Buttiglione, a confidant of the pope who was denied a bid to join the European Commission last year because of his staunch Catholic views on social issues, has a ready answer to such questions. "For a long time they told us that science and maths would give us the identity we need," he says. "Both failed. Now when Europeans ask themselves 'Who are we?' they don't have an answer. I suggest we are Christians."

That opinion is not widely shared. Critics point to the millions of immigrant Muslim Europeans living in France, Germany, Britain, and Spain, not to mention Europe's indigenous Muslims in the Balkans.

Nor are there many signs of a resurgence of organized religion on a continent where church attendance has been plummeting almost everywhere in recent decades.

Yet 74 percent of Europeans say they believe in a God, a spirit, or a life force, according to the latest findings of the European Values Study, a 30-year, Continentwide survey. And youth workers in Britain are finding "consistent evidence ... that a secular generation is being replaced by a generation much more interested in spiritual issues," says Stuart Murray-Williams, a theologian at Oxford University who recently published a book entitled "After Christendom."

A wide array of religious groups has sprung up across Europe to meet that generation's needs, most notably Buddhist communities.

"I've noticed a steady increase in interest," says Suvannavira, a Russian-born, British-educated monk who runs the Western Buddhist Order's Paris outpost in a cramped storefront meditation center. "Our order has doubled in size since 1990."

"The discourse has changed," Dr. Murray-Williams says. "Ten or 15 years ago, any mention of spiritual experiences would have drawn blank looks. Today people are hungry to talk about them." Murray-Williams says it's too soon to say what all this portends.

"There is a kind of inchoate spirituality that could be significant, or it could be a passing trend," he says. "It will be a while before we know whether or not it is strong enough to challenge the culture of secularism."

That culture is showing signs of wear, argues Jacques Delors, who once bemoaned Europe's lack of "soul" when he was president of the European Commission. "I fear that the construction of Europe is sinking into absolute materialism," he worries. "Things aren't going well for society, so society is little by little going to start asking itself what life is for, what death is, and what happens afterwards."

We've examples of great civilizations, cultures, and nations that sank into a materialist wallow but rather fewer instances (none?) of such stopping the slide and reviving themselves. The reasons are obvious: everyone would like to be relieved of the burden of morality and personal responsibility. The question now is, once relieved will they resume the weight? It doesn't seem overlikely.

Economists want to know: Do Europeans work less because they believe less in God? (Joshua S. Burek, 2/22/05, CS Monitor)

[R]esearchers are reexamining whether there might be a link between religious belief and economic performance.

In a 2003 study of nearly 60 countries, Harvard researchers Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary found that certain religious beliefs did contribute to economic growth. Notably, they concluded that a belief in hell was a slightly more potent economic spur than a belief in heaven.

Last year, Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard University, examined the connections between faith and work ethic in light of divergent trends he found in the United States and Europe.

Religious belief in North America has "been amazingly resilient" amid big economic gains, he says, disputing the notion that wealthier countries necessarily become less religious.

But abroad, Ferguson noted that a decline in European working hours coincided with a decline in faith.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2005 2:41 PM

You highlight a deadly serious question: once your diet consists exclusively of apples can you ever recover a taste for life? The possibility of the sinner repenting and taking up the light yoke is real and actualized often enough. But once sinners put their stamp on a culture can the turnabout be achieved? One can hope, pray, and try, knowing that temporal success with our brothers should not be confused with eternal victory.

Posted by: Luciferous at February 23, 2005 3:12 PM

There's a covert pun in there about Dover soul, too. Hypomania, thy name is legion.

Posted by: ghostcat at February 23, 2005 4:58 PM

Mr. Lewis: "When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?"

Aside from the UN, yes.

Posted by: Noel at February 24, 2005 7:35 AM

I was surfing around Blogspot one day and happened upon one rambling diary where an entry stuck out: she was wondering why, of all of her friends, she liked the Christian ones best. She admitted that she did not understand nor have any interest in Christianity, and that was the cause of her musing.

Obviously many people use "hypocrisy" as the excuse for their dislike of religion; but we all go through life looking for excuses to leave one thing and join another, and what we seek, we find. Here was a girl who honestly had no repulsion nor attraction to religion.

It was just the people.

Posted by: Randall Voth at February 24, 2005 7:44 AM