After Secularization (special double issue)   /   Spring/Summer 2006   /    Articles

Is Europe an Exceptional Case?

Grace Davie

A number of factors must be taken into account if we are to understand the place of religion in twenty-first-century Europe.11xOverviews of the place of religion in European societies can be found in Gerhard Robbers, ed., State and Church in the European Union (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1996); René Rémond, Religion and Society in Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Andrew M. Greeley, Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium: A Sociological Profile (London: Transaction, 2003); John Madeley and Zsolt Enyedi, eds., Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality (London: Frank Cass, 2003); Hugh McLeod and Werner Ustorf, eds., The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and in the publications emerging from the European Values Study, listed on the frequently updated EVS website . Alongside these overviews, there is a rapidly growing literature on the presence of Islam in Europe; see Jorgen Nielsen, Muslims in Western Europe (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2004) for a useful summary of this material. These include the legacies of the past, more particularly the role of the historic churches in shaping European culture; an awareness that these churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of modern Europeans, even though they are no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behavior of the great majority of the population; an observable change in the churchgoing constituencies of the continent, which operate increasingly on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty; and the arrival in Europe of groups of people from many different parts of the world, notably the global South, with very different religious aspirations from those seen in the host societies.


Each of these factors will be taken in turn in order to answer the question set out in the title: is Europe an exceptional case in terms of its patterns of religious life? The answer leads in turn to more questions. If we conclude that Europe is indeed “exceptional,” why is this so? Or, conversely, why not? And what can we say about the future? Will Europe continue within the trajectory set by its past or will it become more like the patterns found elsewhere? Or—it must be asked—will the rest of the world become more like Europe?



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