What role can religion play in Europe today?
When Pope Benedict XVI visited the United Kingdom in September last year, many objections were raised to the fact that the hosting state was paying for the visit (and, as a result, in the end British taxpayers only covered the security costs). When the Pope went to Spain last month, he had to face the same kind of opposition, though more vociferous, since thousands of “indignados” demonstrated against the visit and asked to use the money of the papal visit to balance the budget and implement social and economic policies.
This is not just a reaction to the austerity budgets imposed by many European states, but one of the signs that even in ultra-Catholic Spain, the process of secularisation has been gaining ground in the last few years. Amongst the others is the renowned legislation introducing same-sex marriage (fiercely opposed by the Catholic Church and passed by the Zapatero Government) and the introduction of Islam as one of the religions taught in public schools.
Even in Spain nowadays, according to the Eurobarometer 2005, people believing in God is less than 60% of the total population, and, though it is impossible to count them, those regularly attending religious functions are estimated in less than a quarter of Spanish citizens.
This is a general trend across Europe, where church attendance and church membership are falling.
In Europe, established churches, whether formal (as the Church of England) or informal (as the Catholic Church in Italy and Spain) are losing their political and social role. Confronted by scientific advances, the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation, the introduction of ideological politics and mass political mobilisation poses problems for religious institutions. In spite of the protests for the papal visit, Europe is today a more secular society than, for instance, the United States, not to mention Middle Eastern and Asian countries.
According to the most recent European Value Study, today only 21 % of European say religion is “very important” to them, while a similar survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 59% of Americans ranked their faith at the same level of importance.
Just to give a last example, contrary to the Churches desires (and pressures), the final version of the European Union Constitution made no mention of God at all and, while the Pledge of Allegiance, with whom Congressional sessions in the US open, still contain the phrase “one nation under God”.
With a decline in religions leading role in public life and its diminishing influence on politics in Europe, the continent is facing new challenges. Confronted by secularism, atheism and more materialistic philosophies, the universal ethics on which European politics are grounded on are fading, while at the same time the situation is complicated by the difficulties in integrating the fast growing Muslim immigration (and its controversial extremist version) in and around the European continent.
The European Union, thanks to its growing secularism, is today an institution based (as the introduction to the Lisbon treaty states) “on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights”.
Europe is a place where politics and religion are two completely separated bodies, but hostility and indifference to religions can not (and should not) prevail.
As former President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi said, back in 2003, “As we build the new, enlarged Europe, we cannot marginalize religions and the movements that have played a part in European integration and Europe’s cultural development and that are showing renewed interest and desire for dialogue with the Union’s institutions.”