By Noelle Knox, USA TODAY
DUBLIN, Ireland — "I don't go to church, and I don't know one person who does," says Brian Kenny, 39, who is studying psychotherapy and counseling at Dublin Business School. "Fifteen years ago, I didn't know one person who didn't."
Church attendance in Ireland, though still among the highest in Western Europe, has fallen from about 85% to 60% from 1975 to 2004, according to the Dublin Archdiocese.
While it is still illegal for a woman to have an abortion in this mostly Roman Catholic country, Health Minister Mary Harney made front-page news in July when she said birth control pills should be available for girls as young as 11 in some circumstances. And for the first time, according to church records, not one priest will be ordained this year in Dublin.
Mary Haugh, who has gone to Mass here seven days a week for almost all of her 79 years, is saddened by these changes. "It's a Godless society," she says.
Ireland is not an exception. Every major religion except Islam is declining in Western Europe, according to the Center for the Study on Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. The drop is most evident in France, Sweden and the Netherlands, where church attendance is less than 10% in some areas.
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the weakening of churches in Europe, Australia and the USA. "There's no longer evidence for a need of God, even less of Christ," he told Italian priests. "The so-called traditional churches look like they are dying."
The forces driving the decline include Europe's turbulent history, an increasing separation between the church and government — and perhaps ... most of all, the continent's unprecedented affluence.
"For most of history, people have been on the borderline of survival," says Ronald Inglehart, director of the World Values Survey, a Swedish-based group that tracks church attendance. "That's changed dramatically. Survival is certain for almost everyone (in the West). So one of the reasons people are drawn to religion has eroded."
Though many Europeans say they consider themselves Christians, far fewer actually attend services. One need only see the overwhelming number of gray-haired heads in church pews to know attendance will keep falling if something doesn't change dramatically.
Benedict, who visits Cologne, Germany, next week for World Youth Day, is expected to tell some 400,000 young people there that they are the future of the church. But the pope and other leaders of traditional churches admit that their struggle for souls in Western Europe is their greatest challenge.
One result: Fewer children
DECLINE BY COUNTRY
A 2000 study by the Swedish-based World Values Survey shows nearly half — or more — don't regularly attend church in several Western European countries. percentage of people who "never" or "practically never" attend church in 14 democracies:
Country 1981 2000
France 59% 60%
Britain 48% 55%
Netherlands 41% 48%
Belgium 35% 46%
Sweden 38% 46%
Denmark 45% 43%
Norway 38% 42%
Spain 26% 33%
West Germany 23% 30%
Finland 15% 28%
Canada 22% 26%
Italy 22% 17%
United States 18% 16%
Ireland 4% 8%
Mean 31% 36%
Source: World Values Survey
The need to revive the Roman Catholic Church in Europe was among the main reasons Benedict, a German cardinal, was chosen to succeed Pope John Paul II. "Nobody is better informed than Pope Benedict on the European scene and the secularism of Europe," British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor told the Associated Press shortly after Benedict was named pope. "I think all of us ... are concerned about this question."
One result: Fewer children
Among the most striking consequences of the decline of religion has been fewer children. The birth rate throughout much of Western Europe has fallen so drastically that the population in many countries is shrinking, indicating that women throughout Europe now routinely use artificial birth control, in defiance of the Roman Catholic Church's teachings.
"The biggest single consequence of the declining role of the church is the huge decline in fertility rates," Inglehart says. With fewer people entering the workforce, countries like Italy, Germany and France won't be able to maintain the generous welfare programs that have given most workers a lifetime of economic security.
The waning influence of religion also has brought a change in attitudes and laws on issues such as divorce, abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research.
In June, for example, Spain became the fourth country in the world to legalize gay marriage, after the Netherlands, Belgium and Canada. The measure was supported by more than 60% of Spaniards, according to a poll in December by the Center for Sociological Investigation. In the USA, where religion and church attendance are comparatively stronger, 11 states voted last year to amend their constitutions to ban gay marriage.
Europeans debate whether these changes are positive or negative for society. But it is evident people feel freer to make decisions within their own moral framework.
"The declining (church) attendance is really dramatic, but what is even more important is that the churches are losing the ability to dictate to people how to live their lives," Inglehart says.
The Roman Catholic Church still wields some power. In May, the Vatican helped defeat a referendum in Italy that would have made fertility treatments more accessible. The Vatican urged people not to vote. Because turnout was less than 50%, the results were invalid.
Nevertheless, slightly more than a mile from the Vatican, at the Sant' Anastasia church, there were just 28 worshipers at a recent Sunday Mass. The mostly gray-haired women sat in pews built to hold up to 400. "Now, it's only a wedding or maybe the funeral of someone important that can fill the whole church," says Giovanna Lutti, 79.
In 1900, almost everyone in Europe was Christian. Now, three out of four people identify themselves as adherents to Christianity. At the same time, the percentage of Europeans who say they are non-religious has soared from less than 1% of the population to 15%. Another 3% say they don't believe in God at all, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
In 12 major European countries, 38% of people say they never or practically never attend church, according to the World Values Survey in 2000. France's 60% non-attendance rate is the highest in that group. In the USA, only 16% say they rarely go to church.
When the trend began varies from country to country. Wars and revolutions have played a decisive role in shaping faith in Europe. The spread of religion and the conversion of the masses often were bloody affairs — from the Crusades and the papal wars to the Spanish Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation. Uprisings against ruling religious powers were equally brutal, as was the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland pitting Protestants against Catholics. That battle may only now be nearing an end with last month's promise by the separatist — and Catholic — Irish Republic Army to disarm.
When Gen. Francisco Franco seized control of Spain during the civil war in the 1930s, for instance, he worked with the clergy to spread a "National Catholicism" that enforced his social and political codes. Since Franco's death in 1975, Spain has become more secular. Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, elected in March 2004, has eliminated the one-year separation period before a divorce, authorized stem cell research and is working on a bill that would make religious education in public schools elective.
The government initiatives are a response to a changing society, says Luis López Guerra, the undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice in charge of religious and social affairs. "Spain's a Catholic country in the sense that virtually everyone born here is baptized a Catholic," he says. "But Spanish society has become much more open, more tolerant, more secular."
Not just the Catholic Church
Andrew Greeley, a priest, professor at the University of Chicago and prolific author on Christianity, argues that despite the drop in church attendance, Christianity is not on the wane everywhere in Europe. "Religion declined abruptly in England and the Netherlands. It is stagnant in West Germany, and it is flourishing in Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia," he says. "I get upset about the sweeping generalization about the decline in religion. Religion is always declining and always reviving."
It is not just the Catholic Church that has seen its numbers fall; some Protestant churches have been affected. Among the most striking examples is the Swedish Lutheran Church. For generations, "You didn't become a member when you were baptized. You became a member when you were born," says Carl Johan Lidén, a priest for the church in Stockholm.
In 2000, the church was separated from the state as part of the country's secular trend. People now can write to their local parish telling the vicar they no longer wish to be members and opt not to pay taxes to the church, which range from 2% to 3% of their income.
Although some 85% of Swedes are church members, only 11% of women and 7% of men go to church, the government says.
In Sweden, and throughout Scandinavia, the decline of the church also has been matched by a drop in the number of marriages. There is virtually no social stigma for unmarried parents. More than half of the children in Sweden and Norway are born to unmarried mothers, according to the European Union. In Denmark, it's 45%.
The separation between church and state in Europe is becoming standard. After vigorous debate, European leaders rejected any mention of the role of Christianity in a new constitution for the 25 European Union countries. Italy's nominee for justice minister of the EU, Rocco Buttiglione, was rejected because he was openly religious and condemned homosexuality.
Asked by USA TODAY about the consequences of the decline of religion, Buttiglione said, "If we ignore our pasts and try to create a Godless society where things like money or ambition or property are worshiped, then the society loses. ... It is a battle we are fighting at the current time."
The battle is more apparent in Western Europe, where a half-century of peace has meant economic and political stability. World Bank data show the per capita gross domestic product in Western Europe has tripled since 1980.
It's a different story in Eastern Europe, where the economies are weaker — and citizens less secure. That partly explains why religion remains strong in countries such as Russia, Poland and Ukraine. "For the masses, religion provides a sense of certainty in an uncertain world," he says. And since the collapse of communism and its anti-religious ideology, people in Eastern Europe are taking advantage of their new freedom to worship.
As Western Europeans have moved away from traditional worship, more people say they are "spiritual" rather than religious. Steve Hollinghurst, an Anglican priest, says, "It's very much what's appealing to people now — spirituality that works with my lifestyle. ... Faith and spirituality are now viewed as consumer products. And that's had an impact on the way people view institutional churches."
"Materialism has taken over. It has replaced God," says Haugh, the Dublin churchgoer.
But Kenny, the Dublin student, says he's merely typical of his generation. "I'm very spiritual," he says. "I speak to an energy force I call God, and I get answers," he says. "If you can get a spiritual connection without going to church, why go to church?"
Contributing: Geoff Pingree in Spain and Eric J. Lyman in Rome.
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)