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Atheist Young Europe

Staggering numbers from Europe help explain why a) The Benedict Option is a surprise hit in Europe, and b) the young adult Christians I meet there are really and admirably serious about the faith. From The Guardian:

Europe’s march towards a post-Christian society has been starkly illustrated by research showing a majority of young people in a dozen countries do not follow a religion.

The survey of 16- to 29-year-olds found the Czech Republic is the least religious country in Europe, with 91% of that age group saying they have no religious affiliation. Between 70% and 80% of young adults in Estonia, Sweden and the Netherlands also categorise themselves as non-religious.

The most religious country is Poland, where 17% of young adults define themselves as non-religious, followed by Lithuania with 25%.

In the UK, only 7% of young adults identify as Anglican, fewer than the 10% who categorise themselves as Catholic. Young Muslims, at 6%, are on the brink of overtaking those who consider themselves part of the country’s established church.

More young Muslims than young Anglicans in the UK. Think about that. More:

The figures are published in a report, Europe’s Young Adults and Religion, by Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University in London. They are based on data from the European social survey 2014-16.

Religion was “moribund”, he said. “With some notable exceptions, young adults increasingly are not identifying with or practising religion.”

The trajectory was likely to become more marked. “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good – or at least for the next 100 years,” Bullivant said.


According to Bullivant, many young Europeans “will have been baptised and then never darken the door of a church again. Cultural religious identities just aren’t being passed on from parents to children. It just washes straight off them.”

“In 20 or 30 years’ time, mainstream churches will be smaller, but the few people left will be highly committed.”

Just as Joseph Ratzinger prophesied in 1969. I meet young Christians like this every time I go over. They are a true inspiration … but they are a drop in the societal bucket in post-Christian Europe.

Read the whole thing. 

It’s interesting to observe how countries that are geographically close can have dramatically different religious cultures. Slovakia is not included in that survey, but when I was in the Czech Republic last week, I learned that Slovaks are significantly more observant than Czechs. Also, the Czech Republic borders Poland, and Hungary is nearby, separated only by the small country of Slovakia. All three were Communist countries. But the differing rates of religious identification and participation between Poland and her two neighbors are massive. (See the graphic included with the Guardian story for a visual comparison.)

What accounts for the differences? Can any of your European readers enlighten me?

Also, notice who’s missing from that study: Italy. An Italian Catholic friend e-mailed me a 2016 story from La Stampa reporting the results from a study of 18-29 year olds in Italy. The results, via Google Translate:

72% of those interviewed declared that they believed in God (even if intermittent faith now prevails over the certain one); over 70% are defined in some way “catholic”; about one in four young people (27%) say they pray a few times a week or more. The data on weekly attendance at the rites is decidedly lower, involving 13% of young people (followed by a 12% who participates at least once a month), although it is the best in the European scene. We are still “catholic” overall, Garelli observes. We can not therefore speak of a religious collapse, but rather of a continuation of “sweet secularization”.

The survey goes on to say that atheists and those who practice a “soft religiosity” find it much easier to transmit those beliefs to their children than those who are religiously committed and active. In fact, of the families who identify as convinced and active Catholics, only 22 percent of their children retain a convinced and active Catholicism in their young adulthood.

This is a very important finding, whose significance must not be underplayed. To pass on your faith to your children, it is necessary for them to be raised in a convinced and observant Christian family, but it is not sufficient — not when the default setting of the broader culture is to atheism or a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Pope Francis keeps telling Christians to go out to the “peripheries” with the Gospel message, but in most Western countries, we can’t even keep our own children in the faith!

From The Benedict Option:

Though parental influence is critical, research shows that nothing forms a young person’s character like their peers. The culture of the group of which your child is a part growing up will be the culture he or she adopts as their own. Engaged parents can’t outsource the moral and spiritual formation of their kids to their church or parachurch organization.

Interviewing a wide variety of Christians for this book, I often heard complaints that church-affiliated youth groups were about keeping kids entertained more than disciplined. One older Evangelical teenager told me she dropped out of her local chapter of a national parachurch group because she grew weary of her peers smoking, drinking, and having sex.

“Honestly, I would rather hang out with the kids who don’t believe,” she told me. “They accept me even though they know I’m a believer. At least around them, I know what being a Christian really is.”

Peer pressure really begins to happen in middle childhood. Psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris, in her classic book The Nurture Assumption, says that kids at that age model their own behavior around their peer group’s. Writes Harris, “The new behaviors become habitual—internalized, if you will—and eventually become part of the public personality. The public personality is the one that a child adopts when he or she is not at home. It is the one that will develop into the adult personality.”

Harris points to the example of immigrants and their children. Study after study shows that no matter how strong the home culture, first-generation offspring almost always conform to the values of the broader culture.

“The old culture is lost in a single generation,” she writes. “Cultures are not passed on from parents to children; the children of immigrant parents adopt the culture of their peers.”

On the other hand, says Harris, is that in most cases, it’s not too late for kids who have been exposed to bad influences. Researchers find that damage to a child’s moral core can be repaired if he is taken away from a bad peer group. What’s more, determined parents who run a disciplined home, and who immerse their children in a good peer group, can lay a good foundation, no matter how lax they have been until now. The bad news about the fragility of culture is also good news, according to Harris: “Cultures can be changed, or formed from scratch, in a single generation.”

Taking this passage in tandem with the social science data from Europe reveals the daunting challenge facing Christian parents. Your family environment not only has to be convinced and active in the faith, but you also need to embed yourself within a social matrix of other believers — that is, a community in which believing and living as Christians is plausible.

This is what Father Cassian Folsom, then the prior of the Norcia monastery, meant when he told me that any Christian family who hoped to make it through what’s to come with their faith intact would have no choice but to live in some kind of community like the Tipi Loschi, the lay Catholic community I ended up writing about in my book. We have no choice.

In the US, we think we have a choice, because far more of us identify as Christian. As I have demonstrated in my book and in this space time and time again, citing the research of Christian Smith and others, as well as anecdotal reports from pastors and Christian college professors, this is a façade. We know that the faith is collapsing among the Millennial generation and younger Americans. The key thing to bear in mind is we are seeing the emergence of young Americans who no longer have any cultural memory of Christianity. They don’t know what they don’t know, or why they should care. We are going to look a lot more like Europe’s spiritually barren desert in the decades to come than we realize.

Yesterday, one of my Christian friends who works with young people told me how frustrating it is to see even the more conservative, engaged Christian parents around him completely misreading the cultural situation. They think it’s enough to take measures to protect their children from what they consider to be “liberalism,” he said, while at the same time immersing their kids in the competitive, consumeristic culture of the American mainstream.

That’s not going to work. It’s just not. Stop lying to yourself. Europe’s present is our American future. We have the gift of time to prepare the resistance. We cannot afford to squander it.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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