The politics of religion in post-Christian Europe

Recent years have seen a startling rise in the political salience of religion. This seems to hold true in every corner of the globe, from the 9/11 atrocity in the U.S., to the embrace of Orthodoxy by Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the attacks on Muslims by militant Buddhists in Myanmar. And now, we have the brutal assaults on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and kosher market in Paris to add to the list.

Yet at the same time, religious belief and participation in religious rituals at the level of the individual has steadily declined. In the European Union, according to a 2005 Eurobarometer poll, only 52% of respondents agreed with the statement “I believe there is a God.”

How is one to explain this apparent paradox: the gap that has opened up between the politicization of religion at national level even as it recedes from the life of most individuals?

The answer lies in political changes, and the impact of globalization on the capacity for collective action at the national level.

The 1960s saw the onset of a sharp decline in church-going in Europe and the U.S. Hugh Mcleod, a historian at Birmingham University in England, explains that this was a result of multiple factors, from changes in family structure – including more rights for women – to a weakening of national identity. In subsequent decades the arrival of large numbers of non-Christian migrants forced European states to adapt by cutting state ties to Christian churches, changing school curricula, and seeking a new narrative of collective belonging.

While in France the state doubled down on assimilation (banning the wearing of the hijab in public schools), Britain opted for multiculturalism. Previously, the overwhelming majority of citizens had been baptized into the Church of England and had compulsory bible class in all state schools. But now British schools teach a world religions curriculum – or a Moslem curriculum, in certain Moslem-majority areas, as a recent scandal revealed.

Daniel Loss, a historian at Harvard, argues that this enabled the Church of England to find a new role as part of a national dialog on how to incorporate the new religious communities and preserve social unity. The Archbishop of Canterbury continues to play a prominent role in moral debate, even though less than 5% of the population are regular attendees at Anglican services. Religion shifted from being founded in a direct relationship between individuals and the state, to a question of communal group representation.

Some religious believers pushed back against the secularization trend by turning to more radical or dogmatic expressions of their faith. The 1980s saw a revival of religious activism in the U.S. and many other parts of the world, often through grass-roots organizations that had weak ties with the state. Examples range from the evangelicals in the U.S. to the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt. These groups became more prominent in part because mainstream congregations were continuing to shrink.

In the most extreme cases, the movement that grew in response to the secularization of the 1960s turned to violence. In Britain, the wake-up call showing the limits of the state’s multiculturalism strategy was the London bombings of July 2005. This has triggered a lively and as yet unresolved debate about how the state should respond. In France, the assault on Charlie Hebdo is the equivalent of the 7/7 bombings. In both cases, the perpetrators were home-grown, born and raised in Britain (three of the four) and France respectively, so the attacks could not entirely be blamed on foreign radicals. Both the British and French terrorists cited the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a reason for their anger. (This despite the fact that the French government at the time, under conservative President Jacques Chirac, had vociferously opposed the U.S.-led invasion.)

The shift to political violence arose because of a sense of frustration and powerlessness. Faith in democracy has been declining faster than faith in religion. The increased flow of people, ideas, and power across national borders undermined the democratic model of communities making collective decisions about their fate. Increasingly, decisions about a country’s economic policies or political direction seemed to be made in Brussels or Washington, and not in the national capital. This has caused the Christian and post-Christian majority populations to drift into apathy, consumerism, and alternative religions – and to offer their vote to populist and nationalist parties.

As for the ethnic minorities, majoritarian electoral systems and winner-take-all economic conditions made it increasingly unlikely that their voice would be heard – unless it was amplified through demonstrative atrocities. Radical Islamists see democracy as a threat to Shariah law, so they want to hasten its demise.

The rise of politicized religion is thus a product of deep and varied developments in the international political economy; it is not caused by some flaw in Islamic theology. Finding a solution to the problem will be equally complex and protracted.