Global Extremes

What is the fate of religion in Europe?

Can Europe’s traditional norms of secularism be applied to an extra-Christian religious diversity that the continent has not known before?

Tina Magazzini Tariq Modood Anna Triandafyllidou Thomas Sealy
21 April 2020
Catholic church, Mosque and Serbian Orthodox Church in Bosanska Krupa, Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Picture by Mazbln / Wikipedia Commons. GNU Free Documentation License
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Europe is witnessing a (persistent) paradox: while Europeans become increasingly unchurched and religiously indifferent, there is also an opposed current that makes religion assertively present in the media, in politics and in everyday life through the vilification of religious minorities, Muslims in particular.

Two factors can explain this paradox: on one hand, while for most Europeans religion is sharply declining as a salient identity, it is not so for a number of minorities, especially Muslims; relatedly, a growing Islamophobia targets Muslims who are suspected not to be ‘loyal citizens’, and to instead adhere to radical currents of socially conservative Islam. On the other hand, this paradox is rooted in a growing feeling among Europeans that religion should not be in the public sphere.

As part of our EU-funded GREASE project we look at the ways in which religion is governed in different European countries. Indeed we have found that Europe today has ‘a bewildering variety’ of church-state models as well as legal, institutional and political arrangements when it comes to the management of religious diversity.

This variety renders attempts to talk of a ‘European’ approach to the governance of religious diversity extremely difficult if not something of a fool’s errand. There are a few common features, nevertheless, in how religious diversity is managed in Europe.

One aspect that is common to all European states is political autonomy and the guaranteeing of basic religious freedoms, but so are forms of state-religion connexions, and to different degrees the privileging of one or more religious traditions. These kinds of connexions are represented at a symbolic level, where some countries have one or more ‘national church’, or through various types of institutional arrangements, which one or more religion might benefit from more than others.

The trend towards institutional and political secularization that has accompanied the long term fading of Christianity can be observed across the continent, albeit with marked variations, and shows no sign of reversing. There continues to be (dis)establishments or loosening of ties between church and state, political parties like Christian Democrats becoming less or not at all confessional in appeal and base, while on the other hand, there is increased, closeness of some Orthodox churches to the state.

Increasing numbers of Europeans are happy to think of their countries and their continent as post-Christian. Yet, from their different starting points and in their own ways, European states face the same broad question: how to adapt existing church-state relations and norms of secularism to an extra-Christian religious diversity that the continent has not known before?

Muslim identity politics have become a particular concern for many States in Europe faced with significant Muslim populations. Two ‘political moments’ have been pivotal in this regard and done much to mark the governance of religion: the first was 1989, the year of the Rushdie affair in the UK and l’affaire du foulard in France, which marked a turning point in the presence of religion in the public sphere; the second is the ‘war on terror’ in many ways ongoing but beginning with the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Groups and controversies initially defined in terms of race or foreignness have come to be redefined in terms of religion; thus the accommodation of Muslims came to be the dominant issue in relation to multiculturalism and religious diversity and also gave it particular political characteristics.

All European states are thus seeking a balancing act between forms of majority privilege and the challenges raised by new and complex religious pluralism

Answers to the quest for recognising new religious communities and satisfying their claims have taken a national form: Nearly every Western European state has responded by emphasising national integration and desiring a national Islam, for example, a ‘French Islam’ or a ‘German Islam’, rather than simply Islam in France or Germany.

It is notable here that in cases concerning religious freedom brought before it, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) routinely defers to national understandings through the principle of the ‘margin of appreciation’. Prominent examples include the case when France was challenged over its so-called ‘burqa ban’ in the name of ‘public order’ (S.A.S vs France) and in Italy when the state was challenged over the presence of crucifixes in public schools (Lautsi vs Italy) – the Italian state arguing they were cultural rather than religious symbols.

In both cases the ECHR found for the respective governments and accepted their definitions. This same concern has also found a home in Eastern Europe, although the factors at play are rather different given their different historical trajectories. For example, in parts of Orthodox Europe there are historic Muslim populations, such as in Russia, Bulgaria and Greece, whereas in Catholic and Protestant Eastern Europe, in countries such as Poland and Lithuania, there are negligible Muslim populations but comparable discourses of anti-Muslim sentiment exist nonetheless. All European states are thus seeking a balancing act between forms of majority privilege and the challenges raised by new and complex religious pluralism.

Groups and controversies initially defined in terms of race or foreignness have come to be redefined in terms of religion

Twenty years after 9/11 and over 30 years after the Rushdie Affair, Europe is still grappling with contending forces and dilemmas within their public institutions and national identities:

  1. Christian churches are still privileged, albeit in varying ways, Christianity or its legacy suffuses most national cultures and public spheres
  2. Many European countries are multi-faith, with Islam often the second religion now whilst Christianity continues to decline even at the level of personal identification
  3. The long term and accelerating secularisation shows no sign of slowing down and some countries already have a non-religious or ‘Nones’ majority

In this situation, one of the key questions about the future is what will be the permutations, the alliances and the dynamics across this triangle. For example, will it take the form of Pope John-Paul II’s idea that the main dividing line is between religions, especially Abrahamic, and the non-religious? Or more like that expressed by Pope Benedict, who saw Christianity and the secular tradition of Enlightenment as sharing the same conception of Reason, from which Islam was excluded? Or is it the fate of Christianity to become a spiritually drained national or European identity, as is already visible in the neo-nationalist, populist far right?

*This article is based on ‘Managing Religious Diversity in Europe’ by Thomas Sealy (University of Bristol), Tina Magazzini (European University Institute), Tariq Modood (University of Bristol and Anna Triandafyllidou (Ryerson University, Toronto) to appear in Grace Davie and Lucian Leustan (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Religion in Europe, Oxford University Press.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, under the GREASE project (grant no. 770640) and the BRaVE project (grant no. 822189).

The opinions expressed in these blog posts are the sole responsibility of the authors. The European Union is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information or opinions contained herein.

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