A recent article in The Guardian by Stephen Bullivant documents the low level of participation in Christian churches by young people in Europe.
This is no surprise; it confirms and extends what was already known. His data comes from European Social Survey, 2014-16.
In extracting and analysing data from that survey, Bullivant has focused on young adults. That accentuates the findings. There are huge demographic changes under way, with very marked differences between younger and older people. The predominant religiosity of those born before WWII contrasts markedly with that of the under 30s. The changes are rapid, as this article illustrates. The decline in religion among young adults is steep and dramatic.
An interesting feature of the survey is the comparison of different countries. Poland emerges as most religious country in Europe, and the Czech Republic as the least. There are thus big disparities, even in the former Eastern block. The UK emerges as one of the least religious countries in Europe, similar to the Netherlands, despite (or perhaps because of) having an Established Church with the Queen as its Head.
The basic facts are clear enough, but the situation on the ground may be more complex than at first appears. The most effective advocate of that ‘complexity’ position over the last 25 years has been Professor Grace Davie at the University of Exeter, and I think she is right.
Bullivant’s data draws attention to the geographical unevenness, even within Europe, of the move away from organised religion. Davie has also drawn attention to the fact that, in global terms, Europe is the exception, and that the rest of the world remains much more religious than we are in Europe.
Another complexity is that not all indices of religiousness recede at the same rate. Churchgoing is declining most dramatically. However, as Davie has pointed out, many people who don’t go to church still believe in God. There are also many who are more spiritual than religious, and who are inventing new patterns of spirituality outside organised religion.
There are also efforts to buck the trend of decline, which are meeting with some success. In England the most successful is probably Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), a remarkable success story that now has offshoots in most major towns. Last week I had a long conversation with the leader of the newly-formed Nottingham HTB which, in just under a year since their building opened, is proving remarkably successful.
Stephen Bullivant, though he writes about the data on religious decline in The Guardian in a neutral and dispassionate way, is actually a committed Catholic who can be found writing in the Catholic Herald about how this religious decline can be reversed, albeit not in our lifetimes.
Those responsible for the Reform and Renewal Programme in the Church of England also think that decline can be reversed.
Who is right? The situation is too complex and uneven for us to be sure. My own hunch is that the tide of decline in traditional forms of organised religion is running too strongly to be reversed. However, I don’t think religion will be wiped out; there will always, here and there, be ways of bucking the trend. I think the religious instinct is in part ‘hard-wired’, and will always find some form of expression.