Hamblin & Peterson: European religious apathy and the steep decline of Christianity in Britain

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Christianity appears to be dying in Great Britain, and it's weak across Western Europe. Why? Perhaps the same rules apply to the religious marketplace as to competition for other goods and services.

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Religiousness has always been low in Europe, the indispensable Rodney Stark observes in his fascinating 2012 book “America’s Blessings,” and certainly lower than in the United States. Average weekly church attendance is substantially less in every Western European country than America’s 36 percent. Only Italy, at 31 percent, even comes close.

But recent analysis of data taken from the 2011 British census shows that Christianity is declining in Great Britain at a rate 50 percent faster than had previously been recognized.

Initial readings of the figures revealed that the total number of people in England and Wales who described themselves as Christians had fallen by 4.1 million, or 10 percent, since the previous census.

However, the full extent of Christianity’s decline among British-born residents had been hidden, it now turns out, by a decade of mass immigration under the relatively liberal policies of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. An influx of roughly 1.2 million foreign-born Christians — notably Polish Catholics and African Evangelicals seeking economic betterment — had obscured the fact that 5.3 million fewer native British described themselves as Christians in the 2011 census. This represents a loss not of 10 but of 15 percent in just a decade. (Additionally, 6.4 million more respondents to the most recent census described themselves as belonging to no faith at all.)

Within 10 years, if current trends continue, only a minority of Britons will describe themselves as Christians for the first time since late antiquity.

The census data are perhaps even more striking when they’re broken down by age. For example, the proportion who consider themselves in any sense Christian has already dropped below 50 percent among British young people.

The same immigrant numbers that partially hid the catastrophic collapse of native British Christianity have also contributed to a 75 percent surge since the previous census in the population of Muslims in England and Wales — 600,000 Muslims immigrated to Great Britain during that period. Nearly 10 percent of the under-25 population in Britain is now Muslim. Moreover, almost half of British Muslims are below the age of 25, which is, in fact, the average age of Muslims in Britain. By contrast, nearly a quarter of British Christians are over 65, and their average age is nearly twice that of the Muslim population.

Thus, the future of Christianity in Great Britain seems rather bleak. Seeing the data, in fact, militant British secularists have renewed their calls for disestablishing the Church of England and even for secularizing the coronation ceremony of the next British monarch.

Reacting to the new analysis, an unnamed spokesman for the Church of England cited in “The Telegraph” appeared to whistle past the graveyard: “These figures highlight the diversity of Christianity in this country today,” the spokesman rather mysteriously explained, “something which has been increasing for decades and shows the relevance of Christianity to people from all backgrounds. These figures once again confirm that this remains a faithful nation.”

In professor Stark’s judgment, though, state religions like the Church of England — what he terms “monopoly churches” — contribute significantly to the problem by interfering with the free and vigorous marketplace of religions that is essential to the health of various faiths, including their own. Comfortably subsidized, they have less incentive to compete, or to serve their clientele. Furthermore, favored by the state over other religious organizations, whether through preferential tax policies or unequal treatment in public schools or through prejudicial withholding of building permits and the imposition of additional administrative burdens, they make it more difficult for their competitors to flourish.

In the Government Favoritism Index, a portion of the U.S. State Department’s well-regarded “International Religious Freedom Report” that measures the subsidies, privileges, support or other favorable treatment given to particular religious beliefs by various national governments, it’s unsurprising that certain countries rank high. On a scale from zero to 10, with zero indicating no favoritism and 10 representing “extreme favoritism,” Saudi Arabia and Iran (for example) tie at 9.3, while Taiwan and the United States score 0.0.

Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates score 7.8. But so, surprisingly, do Iceland, Spain, and Greece. Belgium is ranked at 7.5, slightly higher than Bangladesh (7.3) and India (7.0). Morocco scores a 6.3, while Denmark ranks at 6.7. Finland, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy and Norway range between 6.5 and 5.2.

State interference in the religious market isn’t the only factor behind European religious apathy. But, argues professor Stark, it plays a significant role.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. Among other things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” They speak only for themselves.

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