Friday, May 20, 2005

Secular Europe and Religious America: Implications for Transatlantic Relations :: Pew Forum

Americans are generally more comfortable with religion playing a major role in public life. In contrast, Europeans generally place much less importance on religion in their lives, and general indicators show that major churches in Europe are declining in terms of membership, recruitment of clergy, financial contributions and overall public influence. The Pew Forum convened distinguished experts Peter Berger, John Judis and Walter Russell Mead to analyze these differences between the U.S and Europe and to assess their impact on transatlantic relations.
Peter Berger, Professor of Sociology and Theology and Director, Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, Boston University

I think if one is to get a grip on this phenomenon, which obviously has rather timely interests, one has to get rid of two very common but, I think, mistaken ideas. One is the idea of American exceptionalism – an especially beloved idea in Europe. America is, indeed, a very exceptional country. However, this exceptionalism does not extend to the realm of religion. Most of the world is fiercely religious, and the United States is a strongly religious society. Thus, the exception is not the United States, but rather the exception is Europe. And when I say Europe, I mean specifically Western and Central Europe. You come across a different situation in the orthodox sections of Europe, especially Russia, the implications of which I can't pursue here. Europe is the exception, and the exception is always more interesting than the rule. When thinking in terms of the comparative cross-national sociology of religion, Western and Central Europe are the most interesting areas in the world, much more interesting than places like Iran. There have always been fanatical mullahs in Iran; it's the Swedish taxi drivers who are interesting, not to mention French intellectuals.

Okay. The other idea one has to put aside is the idea that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion. This notion of modernity, for obvious reasons, is an idea very much favored in Europe – modernity leads to secularization, in other words, presumably necessarily. This idea was very widely held by historians and social scientists in my youth, which now seems about 200 years ago. I had the same idea and then had to change my mind, not because of some philosophical or theological change, but because the evidence to the contrary was overwhelming. Modernity does not necessarily lead to a decline in religion. What it does lead to – and the evidence is around us on this – what is does lead to, I think necessarily, is pluralism, by which I simply mean the coexistence within the same society of very different religious groups (you can also apply it to racial or ethnic groups).
John Judis, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Senior Editor, The New Republic

I was in Germany after the election, this last election, and people were just freaking out about the Republicans and Jesus and George Bush and all this stuff. And so I was having this one conversation with a German and said, "well, you know, you have in your country a party called the Christian Democrats. Now, do you realize that if we had a party in the United States that was called that or was called the Christian Republicans, it would be a major scandal?" That's the kind of paradox on which you can build a whole understanding of the difference between Western and Central Europe and the United States.
Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations

In the United States, the multiplicity of religion meant that no single religious organization could aspire to rival the power of the state. Adam Smith, in "The Wealth of Nations," – likely using information about Philadelphia, Pennsylvania provided to him by Benjamin Franklin – asserted that an invisible hand stemming from sectarian competition would produce religious peace and toleration. This historical experience that the religious feeling of the populace could be tamed to a certain extent and made a part of civil society without challenging the state is one reason why Americans have not faced some of the choices that Europeans have. The closest we came to a Kulturkampf occurred in the 19th century. The arrival of large numbers of Catholic immigrants caused many Protestants to fear a religious interest would emerge that would try to rival or in some way affect the state. This was largely laid to rest in the 1950s – but up until then, the fear that we might be in one of those situations where some form of aggressive secularization might be necessary was in the background of the American intelligentsia's thinking.

Second, the association between modernity and secularization has broken down in the U.S. and in many other countries and parts of the world. The promise of the secular enlightenment – its ability to tame history and create a smooth peaceful future for the world – has been unfulfilled in the experience of many people.
Read the whole thing. The link comes via Titusonenine.

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