A once thriving metropolis of the Christian faith, today most of Europe has become a secular society governed by the laws of humanism under the guise of naturalistic belief. As the homeland of both the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment, Europeans have served as the pioneers of not only modern Christianity but also Secularism. Over the past several hundred years belief in God, specifically the faith of Christianity, has been increasingly challenged by the assertions of secular society as critical minds have begun examining the purpose, the traditions, and the history of religion in light of scientific criticism. Countries such as France and Sweden are among the highest percentage of people today who explicitly deny the existence of God at 40% and 34% respectively and only 27% and 18% who still hold to belief, which leaves a large population in the middle that is ambiguous. What caused Christianity to fall behind as European secularism took the center stage of culture? Can Christianity survive in a European secular society where belief and church attendance has dramatically decreased? This article will attempt to address these questions as well as examine the reasons behind and the contemporary effects of the decline of European Christianity.
The cause of the decline of European Christianity can perhaps be traced back to one of the most significant moments in history, the Protestant Reformation. While Europe was under the dominant power of the Catholic Church much of Christianity had become a controlling force to subjugate the government and the people under the Church’s sovereignty. The Church had become the sole possessor of freedom as well as damnation for the individual by their control of scripture and revelation from God. This corruption of power would eventually be exposed and cause many to reject the authority of the Church ultimately leading to new denominations that would allow for the interpretation of scripture by the people. No longer would the Catholic Church dictate salvation by their rules. Once scripture was available to the masses a tidal wave of independent thought would emerge revealing new understandings of grace and contradicting the enactments under Papal authority. The European stage had been set for critical thinking and a liberated mindset that would lead to an age of enlightenment in which humans would begin to rely on their own reasoning and deny supernatural intervention.
The Enlightenment of the 18th Century
Perhaps the summation of The Enlightenment Period could be expressed in the writing of one of its most prolific philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, when he famously proclaimed, “God is dead”. During the 1700s, people were becoming critical thinkers who not only continued questioning the doctrines of the church but of every establishment. Eckman explains, “The method of the critic was the engine driving their analysis of society’s institutions, including the church, the law, and even government…with confidence in human reason and science, the Enlightenment championed the destruction of all barriers to human freedom and autonomy”. The future of mankind was bright in the dissipating shadow of God and a new time of reasoning and scientific discovery would replace religious obedience and ritual. By the late 1700s, revolution had begun in both America and France where people would shed the oppression of church/state government control and seek for freedom of and from religion. In America, the Christian faith would grow stronger in a successful attempt to separate from the Church of England and establish a country where religious freedom would prosper. However Europe was different, in France the revolution would move to eliminate religion from society all together and base its values on secular humanism without the involvement of God. Years later Nietzsche would reflect on the death of God with optimism, stating, “our hearts overflow with gratitude, astonishment, presentiment and expectation. At last the horizon seems open once more, granting even that it is not bright; our ships can at last put out to sea in face of every danger; every hazard is again permitted to the discerner; the sea, our sea, again lies open before us; perhaps never before did such an ‘open sea’ exist”. In the wake of enlightenment, Europe had professed its loyalty to human reasoning and science, and in the process ultimately declared its independence from God.
Scientific Discovery of the 19th Century
The next century would see an explosion in scientific discovery that would build upon the foundations of the 18th century and catapult human invention and innovation onward into the industrial revolution. During the 1800s, science would become the new faith of the masses. Where religion once held progress back by controlling the people, scientific discovery would lead to inventions that would change the course of human history and usher in technologies such as electricity and machine automation. The industrial revolution relied heavily on science and human innovation to create a world that was more efficient, prosperous, and smaller. There was no longer room for the old religious beliefs that held men down, the new world would be a place of limitless possibilities and freedom. Under the scientific discoveries made by men like Charles Darwin, God was not only no longer necessary for progress but he was not necessary for life itself. To many, science had now killed God and a new world of human dependence was on the horizon. Secularism would emerge as the replacement of religion and serve to satisfy the needs of European society. F.L. Cross explains, “Apart from its negative attitude to Christianity and religion in general, secularism advocated on the positive side social progress and the amelioration of material conditions for the working classes”. As the 19th century came to a close, European secularism, in the age of reason, would produce some of histories most notorious world leaders who would become hundreds of times more ruthless than any religious institution before them.
War and Poverty in the 20th Century
The liberation from God, who was now considered dead, would release human accountability from divine authority. Secularism would now rely upon human intuition to determine what is better for society. Norman Geisler states, “In secularism the moral basis for government is reduced to situationalism, a secular humanist perspective that eschews all God-given moral absolutes”. He further explains, “What is morally right is what the constantly changing body politic decides is right, wherever it may be on the political spectrum—from monarchy to anarchy”. The explosion of the Enlightenment’s secularized worldview, absent from authority of God and explicitly atheistic, would introduce world leaders such as; Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Mao Ze-Dong, Pol Pot, and Kim Il Sung who collectively were responsible for the suppression and deaths of over 100 million people. Under the newly enlightened worldview, the 20th century would clearly become the bloodiest period of human history to be found guilty of genocide. Toward the end of the 1900s, Europe would respond in a partial return to religion but this time in the form of religious pluralism instead of traditional Christianity and a modified secularization with emphasis on human decency.
European Secularism in the 21st Century
Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, most Europeans have become content with a largely secularized society that values religion less and emphasizes humanism. Ronald Inglehart, Director of the World Values Survey in Sweden, discusses the transition from religion to secular humanism, “For most of history, people have been on the borderline of survival…that’s changed dramatically. Survival is certain for almost everyone (in the West). So one of the reasons people are drawn to religion has eroded”. In the new secular age of Europe there has been a dramatic decrease in church attendance in countries like France, Britain, and the Netherlands, where 60%, 55%, and 48% of the population respectively never attend church. USA Today’s, Noelle Knox has pointed out, “In Sweden, the government reports that 85 percent of Swedes are church members, yet only eleven percent of women and seven percent of men attend church services”. In addition to church attendance other decreases have been found in the number of marriages in Europe. This leads many to speculate that without the religious importance placed on committed marriage, secular European societies are now placing less importance on traditional family units. Mohler explains, “As Christian conviction declines, Christian morality gives way to the ethos of moral individualism, sexual libertinism, and eroding commitment to marriage, children, and family”. In support of this conclusion Knox further explains, “In Sweden, and throughout Scandinavia, the decline of the church also has been matched by a drop in the number of marriages. There is virtually no social stigma for unmarried parents. More than half of the children in Sweden and Norway are born to unmarried mothers, according to the European Union. In Denmark, it’s 45%”. While much of the secularization of Europe focuses on certain countries there are those who oppose the apparent decrease of European Christianity and claim it is merely a problem of isolated statistics. Andrew Greeley, a priest and professor at the University of Chicago defends the decline of Christianity stating, “Religion declined abruptly in England and the Netherlands. It is stagnant in West Germany, and it is flourishing in Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia…I get upset about the sweeping generalization about the decline in religion. Religion is always declining and always reviving”. In contrast to the dramatic decrease in church attendance, countries like Ireland and Italy only report 8% and 17% respectively who do not attend church.
There is no doubt that European Christianity has declined from its reformation roots to today’s secular society. While America follows suit with the European decline of Christianity, both would do well to consider the past. History has shown the danger in believing God to be dead and has led to some of the most horrific attacks against humanity. The experiment to create a harmonious secular society where God is not necessary and peace is dependent on human nature seems to be more of an ideal than a reality. If this experiment is to be tested it must prove that, where others have failed, current and future generations will succeed. This exercise has proven to be a costly experiment in the past that has produced more harm than it was worth.
- Special Eurobarometer: Biotechnology (Brussels, Belgium: European Commission, 2010), 318.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche Complete Works Collection 20+ Books And Biography – Including Zarathustra, Wagner, Twilight, Gay Science, Morals, Antichrist, Beyond Good And Evil, Birth Of Tragedy, Ecce Homo (Houston, TX: Everlasting Flames Publishing, 2010), Kindle Location 18910.
- James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 72.
- Nietzsche, Kindle Location 18911.
- F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1488.
- Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Four: Church, Last Things (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2005), 215-216.
- R.J. Rummel, “Power, Genocide, And Mass Murder.” (University of Hawai’i System, 2002).
- Hans Knippenberg, The Changing Religious Landscape of Europe (Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 2005), 7-9.
- Albert Mohler, “Christianity Recedes in Europe–Is America Next?” AlbertMohler.com.
- Noelle Knox, “Religion Takes a Back Seat in Western Europe.” USATODAY.com.