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World > Europe
from the February 22, 2005 edition

PROFILE OF FAITH: Empty seats surround parishioners during Ash Wednesday mass at St. Gervais church in Paris. (Sunday attendance is higher.) Worship is declining across Europe.

What place for God in Europe?
Page 1 of 2
Across Europe,the conflicting currents of secularism, Christianity, and Islam are compelling Europeans to wrestle with their values as never before. In this first installment of a three-part series, the Monitor examines the forces that are shaping European identity - and explores why the Continent is debating what role, if any, religion should play in public life.
| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
As he urged closer ties with Europe Monday, President Bush played down the current political disputes. "No power on earth will ever divide us," he said.

That may be true when it comes to Iran's nuclear program. But his remark ironically hints at a transatlantic chasm over US and European values, and the role each side assigns to a fundamental facet of human life: religious faith.

Troubled spirit: Europe's struggle with religion
Part 1 of 3 - 02/22/05
Part 2 of 3 - 02/23/05
Part 3 of 3 - 02/24/05
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Thursday, 07/28/05

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Two events last year neatly frame the challenge: In the United States, a California man tried to remove "One Nation, Under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Americans cried foul - roughly 90 percent wanted to keep the phrase - and on June 15, the Supreme Court halted the bid on procedural grounds.

Three days later, in Brussels, officials agreed on the final text of the European Union's new Constitution. The charter made no mention of God, despite calls that it recognize Europe's Christian roots.

Indeed, its secularism has led to jokes that Europe is one big "blue" state. But Europeans aren't laughing. Buffeted by the crosscurrents of secularism, Christianity, and Islam - and mindful of a history of religious violence - they are wrestling with their values and identity as never before.

"The clash between those who believe and those who don't believe will be a dominant aspect of relations between the US and Europe in the coming years," says Jacques Delors, a former president of the European Commission. "This question of a values gap is being posed more sharply now than at any time in the history of European-US relations since 1945."

Religion's role in public life, and its influence on politics, have been center-stage questions worldwide since Sept. 11, 2001. But the debate in Europe has been complicated by the continent's difficulty in integrating its fast-growing Muslim immigrant minority. It has been sharpened by tragedies such as the bombing of a Madrid train station last March, and the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic extremist last fall.

Those incidents "will reinforce secularism" in Europe, predicts Patrick Weil, a sociologist of religion at the Sorbonne in Paris. "The tendency now in Europe is to say we have to be clear on the limits to religious intervention" in public life. "We are not going to sacrifice women's equality, democracy, and individual freedoms on the altar of a new religion."

Secularists who think like that are swimming in friendly waters in Europe, where religious convictions and practice have dropped sharply in recent decades, and where mainstream churches - especially the Catholic Church - continue to lose members and influence.

Today, just 21 percent of Europeans say religion is "very important" to them, according to the most recent European Values Study, which tracks attitudes in 32 European countries. A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly three times as many Americans, 59 percent, called their faith "very important."

Although a Gallup poll found last year that 44 percent of Americans say they attend a place of worship once a week, the average figure in Europe is only 15 percent, although the picture varies widely across the Continent.


Godless secularism?

For some Europeans, that slump marks a defeat for moral values at the hands of godless secularism.

"The new soft totalitarianism that is advancing on the left wants to have a state religion," complains Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian politician whose ambition to become the European commissioner for justice was thwarted last year by the European Parliament, which objected to his description of homosexuality as a sin.

"It is an atheist, nihilistic religion - but it is a religion that is obligatory for all," Mr. Buttiglione adds.

Luis Lopez Guerra, the Spanish government's point man in its campaign to wrest from Catholic influence social legislation on questions such as abortion, divorce, and gay marriage, sees things differently.

He wonders why, in a country where less than half the population ever goes to church, he should have found a Bible and a crucifix on his desk, along with the Constitution, when he was sworn in as undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice a year ago.

The Spanish government's plans to legalize gay marriage this spring, to liberalize divorce and abortion laws, and to permit stem-cell research, do not represent an attempt to impose an atheist state religion, he insists. Rather, he says, they "extend civil rights and make the law independent of Catholic dogma.

He adds, "The government has a responsibility to represent the majority of the people. Our policy has to depend on the people's will, not on the preferences of the Catholic church."

Spain is currently the front line in the Vatican's rear-guard battle to retain church influence over public policy in Europe. But with public opinion ranged firmly on the government's side, there seems little it can do but make its displeasure known.

Pope John Paul II lashed out at Madrid recently, accusing authorities of "restriction of religious freedom" and "relegating faith to the private sphere and opposing its public expression."

The changes in Spain, Catholic church leaders worry, are part of a broader trend. Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, recently attacked "a new holy inquisition ... motivated predominantly by prejudice toward all that is Christian."

Other traditional churches have felt the same cold winds. The president of the French Protestant Federation, Jean-Arnold de Clermont, warned Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin last December of a climate of "secularist zeal" that was undermining all faiths.

Such zeal has known peaks and troughs over the centuries, but it is not new to Europe, where political leaders and ordinary citizens experienced religion and felt its weight in ways quite unknown to Americans.

The differences are rooted in the 18th century, when the Enlightenment, the philosophical revolution that laid the foundations of the modern Western world, was interpreted quite differently by Americans and Europeans in one crucial respect.

Next: Enlightenment divergence | 1 | 2

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