Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Decline of Christian Europe

            The influence of Christianity in Europe is hard to deny. With its beautiful monasteries, cathedrals and religious history European culture is surrounded by memories of a past lifetime and pious society. Yet things have changed in the last generation or so rapidly towards a post-Christian Europe. But what has caused this dramatic shift away from veneration, reverence and adoration for God?
            In this essay I intend to explore four causes that have lent themselves to the decline of Christianity in Europe. First we will look into the influence of the Enlightenment, particularly at the work of David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Next we shall delve into the idea of syncretism and how this has shaped the religious milieu of the continent. Next we will survey the changing social and family structure particularly the size of families and the role of inheritance in strategic powers of Europe chiefly Germany. Finally we will briefly cover the influences of the “New Atheist” and how this is shaping the landscape of European morality and life.

The Influx of Reason[1]
            Christianity in the eighteenth century began to face some new challenges that would rock the landscape of European thought. Beginning in the late seventeenth century the rationalist, those whose attitudes could be typified by an interest in the world and conviction in the strength of reason, began to influence the way people in Europe thought and how they came to an epistemic stance.[2] However following the initial rationalist incursion came a bright skeptic of the rationalist position.
David Hume employed his own method of experience and knowledge that shaped the thoughts of his day. Truth, as Hume saw it, is not that we see an apple, rather that we perceive its attributes such as size, color, flavor and so on.[3] Hume also struck at the core of Christian belief by asserting that belief in God, most notably the Christian God, is not something that comes from a pure love of the truth but rather out of an anxiety, a desire for joy, pleasure or a fear of death.[4] Naturally this sort of “experience skepticism” could have a profound impact on any who would read his work, and at this time with the aid of the printing press, was easier to access than ever.
Following Hume came, considered by many one the most notable philosophers of all time, Immanuel Kant. Kant, who had been awakened from his “dogmatic slumber” by reviewing the work of Hume, expounded upon this idea of reasonable knowledge in his work Critique of Pure Reason.[5] Kant makes a distinction in this work between phenomenon that are spatiotemporal objects, and noumena which are neither spatial nor temporal, thus these two worlds are separate.[6] God falls into the realm of noumena that Kant claims we cannot have intuition nor experience of. This means we can’t even begin to have knowledge of God let alone be able to describe his attributes.
Though claims made by Kant and Hume are not certain facts, what is certain is that their thoughts still impact an ever increasingly secular Europe. This impact thus requires a response from philosophers and theologians in the defense of knowledge and God to help turn the cultural tides back in the favor of theism.

Syncretism: The Harmful Ecumenical Movement
            When a culture that is largely dominated by one religion, as was the case in Europe’s past, encounters other religious traditions or sees an influx of foreign people to their lands change is inevitable. In this instance, the change we are speaking of is that of syncretism. Syncretism is the idea that as new influences on society are introduced, most principally religious views of immigrating peoples, they begin to borrow and adapt traits from one another until you have a religion that is not what the founders would have intended it. For example, if you have a stream of Hindus in England you may find the Anglican Church laity adapting the same respect of cows as do the Hindus and thus a blending of cultures would have taken place.
            Certainly there are good things that can come from blending of cultures such as the sharing of spices or the advancement of technologies not seen in the existing population. However, when you begin to allow other cultures, particularly religious cultures, into a society dominated by one sect it is likely things will shift and a decline of the dominant faith can be expected. Nonetheless, the case in Europe is a bit more troubling for Christians. It has been recognized that cultures and religions, particularly Islam, who had no defined historical heritage in Europe are now being integrated into the continent with a certain degree of success.[7] This success is at the expense of Christianity and the reaction to regain the landscape in Europe for Christians has been ineffective.

A Cultural Identity and the Shrinking Family
            Another of the main issues in the decline of Christian Europe is the changing social structure of religion. In times past the religion of the home, in this case Christianity, was passed on from father to son and so on. This in no way ensured the salvation of the son, however the cultural trait of sharing the family’s faith was a major part of the development of the church as a whole. If your parents were Christian there was a greater probability that you too would hold this same religious affiliation. According to Hans Joas, there is a decline in the practice of handing down faith within families, although he notes the effectiveness of highly religious families to succeed in this practices, nonetheless the actual population of such highly religious groups is also shrinking.[8]
            In addition to the lessening impact of family religious heritage in Christian Europe, there is also another trend that may be affecting this transmission of faith. The average size of European families are shrinking and most notably since the turn of the millennium. The birth rate in Germany for example has been in sharp decline since 2000 and though it has recovered somewhat in 2010 and 2011 the recovery is still far short of the birthrate a decade previous.[9]  What all of this is telling us is when you combine a falling birth rate with a declining tendency towards families to pass on their Christian heritage the end result is a decline in the overall cultural impact and population of Christian believers.
            A last point on the culture of Christians in decline, it may appear that some numbers do not actually show the results of Christianity declining, however this may be explained when you look at the cultural identity of Europeans. It has been a joke for sometime that atheists in Northern Ireland are identified with Christianity; they are either Catholic or Protestant Atheist.[10] This cultural tag allows some to be lulled into thinking Christianity is alive and well in Europe but the post-modern culture screams otherwise.

The New Atheists
            Since 9-11 and the rise of Islamaphobia in the West there has been a revival of atheism. However this is not the atheism of yesteryear, that of Bertrand Russell and even Antony Flew (the author is aware that Flew has recently accepted theism). This type of atheist, lead by the four horsemen Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, are a more belligerent type of atheist one who is bent on attacking Christianity in the private sphere. Their arguments are typically recycled rhetoric from the past and they dismiss many claims from professional Christian philosophers with an uniformed bravado. However their audience, who are less concerned with scholarship and more concerned with one living their own life of cultural and moral relativity, have latched on to such elementary arguments in support of their position.
            In order to gain a respectable footing Dawkins for instance espouses his own form of a moral ethic. In his work The God Delusion he declares that compassion and generosity are “noble emotions.”[11] He rails against the doctrine of original sin claiming it to be “morally obnoxious” and Dawkins even goes so far as to declare his own Ten Commandments.[12]
All of these efforts to show that one does not have to hold to theism, particularly Christian theism, in order to live a fulfilled and morally ethical life. This type of atheism is becoming more and more attractive to a culture that has fallen asleep at the wheel in reference to the piety of their past. This is yet another reason for the decline of Christendom in the once robust European social structure.

            From the various influences on the culture in Europe the trend towards a decline in Christianity is unmistaken. The Enlightenment thinkers who placed doubt on experience and knowledge rocked the very core of thought for centuries to come. As thoughts were beginning to grow so to was the culture of syncretism in Europe which helped to drown out the Christian culture. Contributing to the cultural changes were the downslide in birth rates and the influence of families on their children to carry the torch of Christianity to the next generation. Lastly the New Atheist with their rhetoric and attempt at ethical living in the face of a relativist milieu has gained quite more than just a cult following. The thoughts, habits and traditions of Europe are shifting farther and farther from the heritage that was once steeped in piety. As the secularization of Europe continues one cannot help but ponder when the final sun will go down on Christianity in the continent that saw its largest growth.


Allievi, Stefano. Reactive Identities and Islamophobia: Muslim minorities and the challenge of religious pluralism in Europe. Philosophy & Social Criticism 38, No. 4-5 (2012): 379-87. (accessed July 9, 2012).

Craig, William Lane. “Richard Dawkins on Arguments for God.” In God is Great, God is Good: Why Belief in God is Reasonable and Responsible, edited by William Lane Craig & Chad Meister 13-31. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009.

Demerath, N.J. III. The Rise of “Cultural Religion” in European Christianity: Learning from Poland, Northern Ireland and Sweden. Social Compass 2000 47, No. 1 (March 2000): 127-39. (accessed July 12, 2012).

Gonzalez, Justo L. “The Story of Christianity Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation.” (New York: Harper One, 2010).

Joas, Hans. The Future of Christianity. The Hedgehog Review 13, No. 1 (Spring 2011): 75-82. Academic OneFile. Web (accessed July 9, 2012).

Mundi, Index. “German Birth Rate 2000 to 2011.” (accessed July 14, 2012).

Plantinga, Alvin. “Warranted Christian Belief.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[1] The title of this section is not to imply that Christianity is devoid of reason but rather to point to the historical time in which the foundation of reason was challenged and took center stage
[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, “The Story of Christianity Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation” (New York: Harper One, 2010), 238.
[3] Ibid., 244.
[4] Alvin Plantinga, “Warranted Christian Belief” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 143.
[5] Gonzalez, 246.
[6] Plantinga, 11.
[7] Stefano Allievi, Reactive Identities and Islamophobia: Muslim Minorities and the Challenge of Religious Pluralism in Europe, Philosophy & Social Criticism 38, No. 4-5 (2012): 380, (accessed July 9, 2012).
[8] Hans Joas, The Future of Christianity, The Hedgehog Review 13, No. 1 (Spring 2011): 76, (accessed July 9, 2012).
[9] In Germany a birth rate of 9.35 (births/1,000 population) in 2000 was in sharp decline to 8.18 in 2009. This is a reduction of 12.5% in just nine years. Index Mundi, “German Birth Rate 2000 to 2011,” (accessed July 14, 2012).
[10] N.J. Demerath III, The Rise of “Cultural Religion” in European Christianity: Learning from Poland, Northern Ireland and Sweden, Social Compass 2000 47, No. 1 (March 2000): 131, (accessed July 12, 2012).
[11] William Lane Craig, “Richard Dawkins on Arguments for God,” in God is Great, God is Good: Why Belief in God is Reasonable and Responsible, ed. William Lane Craig & Chad Meister (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2009), 19.
[12] Ibid.

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