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           Secularization: Europe Yes, -- United States -- No

                                           [Skeptical Inquirer March/April 2004]


      Why has secularization occurred in Western Europe but not in the United States?    

                                An examination of the theories and research.


                                                          By Phil Zuckerman


Phil Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and religion at the Claremont Colleges. He is the author of Invitation to the Sociology of Religion (Routledge, 2003) and editor of Du Bois on Religion (AltaMira, 2000). He can be reached at phil_zuckerman@pitzer.edu.



A major concern for sociologists of religion—and a topic of heated debate—is secularization, the process of religious beliefs, symbols, and institutions becoming less influential and significant in society (Swatos and Olson 2000, Bruce 2002, Stark and Finke 2000, Berger 1967). The idea that religion is steadily dying has enjoyed widespread acceptance over the course of the last three centuries among social scientists, with prominent voices from within sociology, psychology, political science, economics, anthropology, history, and philosophy lending support. This is the gist of the theory: In the wake of the Enlightenment, with the rapid progress of scientific inquiry and industrial development, with emerging insights into the human mind and body, with the growth of broader and more accessible educational facilities, and amidst the mounting achievements of technology, irrational beliefs and superstitious rituals—the heart and soul of religion—will fade.


What the best available empirical research reveals is that secularization is unambiguously observable in most of Western Europe, but not in the United States. In fact, religion remains remarkably strong in the United States. For instance, more than 95 percent of Americans claim to believe in God or a universal spirit or life force, compared to 61 percent of the British; nearly 80 percent of Americans claim to believe in heaven, compared to 50 percent of the British; 84 percent of Americans believe that Jesus is God or the son of God, compared to 46 percent of the British (Gallup and Lindsay 1999). Comparing additional traditional religious beliefs, over 70 percent of Americans believe in life after death, compared to 46 percent of Italians, 43 percent of the French, and 35 percent of Scandinavians (Gallup 1979). And over 70 percent of Americans believe in hell, compared to only 28 percent of the British (Greeley 1995). Concerning traditional religious participation, nearly 45 percent of Americans attend church more than once a week, compared to 23 percent of Belgians, 19 percent of West Germans, 13 percent of the British, 10 percent of the French, 3 percent of Danes, and only 2 percent of Icelanders (Verweij, Ester, and Nauta 1997).


Interestingly enough, Canada maintains a sort of middle ground between the United States and Western Europe concerning traditional religious belief: In 1995, 70 percent of Canadians claimed to believe in God or a universal spirit, standing between over 90 percent of Americans and 61 percent of Britons; 61 percent of Canadians claim to believe in heaven, standing between 78 percent of Americans and 50 percent Britons (Gallup and Lindsay 1999). (Concerning church participation, 30 percent of Canadians attend church weekly (Bruce 1999), standing between 45 percent of Americans, 19 percent of West Germans, and 13 percent of Britons.


The dramatic weakening of religion in Western Europe—in terms of both belief and participation—alongside religions hearty resilience in the United States is the source of much ongoing speculation, theorizing, and research. Of course, gathering valid statistical data on religious belief and participation is always tricky; subjective meanings, ambiguous terminology, low response rates, and personal reluctance for honesty always hamper survey analyses of religiosity. However, granting the obvious limitations and shortcomings of quantitative analyses, we still must make due with the best data we have, and the picture that data paints is quite revealing.


Secularization in Western Europe

The last time I was in Europe, I was told by two different sets of friends that we would be "going out to the church" for the evening. In both cases (one in Oban, Scotland, and the other in Cologne, Germany) the churches turned out to be religious institutions in facade only; both were former churches that had been gutted and turned into popular pubs and night clubs. Indeed, throughout much of Western Europe—with the unique exception of Ireland—churches are being turned into bars, discos, warehouses, and laundromats. Not only is church attendance way down, but so is religious belief.


Consider the following data concerning Western European secularization:


  In Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1851, 60 percent of the adult population attended church; in 1995 that was down to 11 percent (Bruce 1999).

  In 1899, 98 percent of Dutch citizens claimed to belong to a particular church.  In 2001, only 40 percent did so (Grotenhuis and Checkers 2001).

•Only 34 percent of West Germans, 31 percent of Belgians, 24 percent of the British, 17 percent of the French, 11 percent of Finns, and 9 percent of Icelanders attend church at least monthly (Inglehart. Basanez, and Moreno 1998).

• Only 6 percent of Danes, 7 percent of Swedes, and 9 percent of Norwegians attend church at least monthly (Bruce 2000).

  Only 2 percent of Danes, 2 percent of Swedes, and 2 percent of Norwegians attend church on an average Sunday (Bruce 2000).


  12   percent of Danes claimed to "never attend church" in 1947; that was up to 34 percent in 1996 (Bruce 1999).


  32 percent of Swedes and 33 percent of Norwegians claim to "never" attend church (Bruce 2000).


  The percent of the population in the United   Kingdom in 1900   which had attended Sunday school as children was 55 percent; in 2000 it was down to 4 percent (Bruce 2002).


•Among West Germans in 1967, 42 percent believed that Jesus is the son of God; this dropped down to 29 percent in 1992; among East Germans, the number drops as low as 17 percent (Shand 1998).

• 43 percent of the British in 1940 claimed to believe in the existence of a personal God; that dropped to 26 percent in 2000 (Bruce 2002).


Religious Vitality in the United States


Alexis de Tocqueville was quite familiar with his fellow European Enlightenment thinkers' theory of impending secularization, but while touring the United States in the early nineteenth century, he found that "the facts by no means accord with their theory ... in America, one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world, the people fulfill with fervor all the outward duties of religion" (Tocqueville 1835, 308). Tocqueville’s characterization of American religiosity remains true to this day. Unlike the many European nations mentioned above, the United States has never had an official government-sponsored, enforced, or directly subsidized religion. Indeed, the separation of church and state—though per­petually and often vigorously challenged—is a hallmark of American democracy. And yet, despite this lack of state-enforced religion (or perhaps because of, as some theorists would argue), the United States is, in the words of Robert Fuller (2001, 1), "arguably one of the most religious nations on earth." From the professed faith and church participation of our presidents, to the thriving of Christian media, from Alabama courthouse prayer vigils to Madonna's obsession with the Cabala, secularization is hard to observe in the United States (at least once one steps off college campuses).


Consider the following data concerning American belief and participation:

  Over 95 percent of Americans believe in God or a "higher power," a percentage which has remained unchanged for over fifty years (Gallup and Lindsay 1999).

  60 percent of Americans describe religion as "very important" in their lives (Gallup and Lindsay 1999).

  68 percent of American believe in the devil (Kristoff 2003).

  58 percent of Americans believe that the devil sometimes possesses people on earth (Rice 2003).

  Between 39 and 46 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians (Kristoff 2003; Gallup and Lindsay 1999).

  Between 63 and 78 percent of Americans believe in heaven (Rice 2003; Gallup and Lindsay 1999).

  84 percent of Americans believe in the survival of the soul after death (Harris Poll 2003).

  83 percent of Americans believe that God answers prayers (Rice 2003).

•One third of Americans believe that the Bible is to be taken literally, word for word (Gallup and Lindsay 1999).

  76 percent of American teenagers believed in the existence of angels in 1992, up from 64 percent in 1978 (Gallup and Lindsay 1999).

  86 percent of American teenagers believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God (Gallup and Lindsay 1999).

  Nearly 70 percent of Americans are members of a church or synagogue (Gallup and Lindsay 1999).

  A greater proportion of Americans attend church now than at any other time in U.S. history (Finke and Stark 1992).


Explaining the Differences


"One of the most interesting puzzles in the sociology of religion," observes sociologist Peter Berger, "is why Americans are so much more religious as well as more churchly than Europeans" (Berger 1999, 10). The traditional theory that secularization is some sort of natural, given, or unavoidable consequence of modernity simply doesn't hold up when looking at the United States, a technologically advanced, industrialized, urbanized, relatively democratic society. What is happening (or not happening) on the eastern side of the Atlantic that has so weakened religion in Europe, yet simultaneously keeps religion alive and well on the western side? Like any such question concerning masses of populations, there is no single answer. Surely the relevant differences between the United States and various Western European nations involve an almost endless array of potentially significant variables, and include matters of history, culture, politics, demographics, economics, government, language, war, and education, as well as climate, sports, art, and music. Taking the "middle ground" nation of Canada into account—a country much less religious than the United States and yet not nearly as secular as much of Western Europe—further complicates the puzzle. However, despite the enormous differences and potential variables at play, sociologists of religion argue over a number of possible explanatory theories.


One theory involves the different histories of religious marketing over the last two centuries. Because religion has a long history of state sponsorship in Europe, religious bodies there have perhaps grown lazy. State-supported congregations need not aggressively recruit parishioners to "stay in business."  In the United States, however, religions must support themselves and therefore are more aggressive "marketers," going to much greater lengths to attract congregants than their European counterparts. In other words, American religious organizations spend a great deal of time and energy advertising, and their advertising nets results (Stark and Finke 2000).


A second theory involves the ethnic, racial, immigrant, and national diversity that typifies American society. Unlike certain European nations that are  made up of relatively homogenous populations (Iceland, for instance), the United States is permeated by an enormous array of different cultural groups, whose members may find solidarity and community in religious involvement (Warner and Wittner 1998; Herberg 1955). For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, the first American sociologist of religion, observed the unparalleled importance of the church to black Americans, noting that, beyond promulgating theology, the black churches provided a social space and communal refuge in an often hostile world (Zuckerman 2002). In sum, it is possible that a significant level of ethnic/cultural/racial heterogeneity, as typified by American society, spurs greater religious participation as people seek a sense of belonging or communal support.


A third consideration involves the possible impact of different social welfare systems. Perhaps when the government takes a greater role in providing social services, religion wanes, and when the government fails to provide extensive social services, religion thrives. For instance, religious belief and participation is the absolute lowest level in Scandinavia, whose countries are characterized by generous social support and extensive welfare systems. In contrast, the United States government offers far fewer social services and welfare programs than any European nation.


A fourth possibility may have to do with differing elementary and secondary educational systems. Perhaps the Europeans have done a better job of conveying rational thinking, scientific methodology, and skeptical inquiry to their children than have American educators.


Of course, numerous additional possibilities abound that could very possibly help explain the differences in secularization/religiosity between Western Europe and the United States, and an adequate summation of them all wouldn't be appropriate here. While we don't know for sure what has caused the religious differences between Western Europe and the United States, the differences are noteworthy and significant, and will surely affect how Europeans and Americans approach and struggle with the oncoming social, political, environmental, and global challenges of the twenty-first century.




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Kristoff, N.  2003. God. Satan, and the media. New York Times. March 4.

 Rice, T.  2003 Believe it or not: Religious and other paranormal beliefs in the United States. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41(1): 95-106.

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 Stark, R. , and R. Fine. 2000. Arts of Faith Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

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 Zuckerman, P. 2002 The sociology of religion of W.E.B. Du Bois  Sociology of Religion 63(2): 299-253.


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