Europe’s Religious Future?

Published October 18, 2006

National Review Online

For a long time now, secular liberals have taken it for granted that history is with them.  In this view, secular quasi-socialist Scandinavia is the destiny toward which we all “progress.”  Even the image of conservatives standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” is a backhanded tribute to the assumed historical momentum of progressive secularism.  More recently, however, we’ve seen suggestions that history has changed direction.  Falling fertility rates in secular Europe, and in the relatively secular precincts of “Blue” America, seem to presage the coming dominance of religious and conservative “Red States,” and an increasingly Islamic Europe.

So is an ego-centered, non-reproductive secular liberalism destined for the ash heap of history?  Well, maybe.  But the difficulty of predicting the extent to which the children of religious parents might eventually secularize makes it tough to know for sure.  After all, secularism has grown by leaps and bounds in Europe, chiefly because the children of religious parents abandoned the faith in which they were raised.  If the conditions of modernity conduce to secularism, then the reproductive advantage of religious folks could easily be canceled out by high rates of apostasy.

In a new and fascinating essay in Prospect Magazine called, “Breeding for God,” British political scientist Eric Kaufmann argues that demographic trends really are pushing secular Europe in a more religious and conservative direction.  Even more than conversion, says Kaufmann, it was Christian fertility that delivered pagan Europe into the hands of Christianity.  And now, says Kaufmann, Christian conquest by fertility is set to happen again.

Kaufmann has developed a way of balancing off the likelihood of apostasy against fertility levels, and says the results show the momentum of European secularism slowing down, and even reversing, in the coming decades.  Inevitably, Kaufmann’s model is an extrapolation from current fertility and apostasy rates.  And unfortunately, that begs just about every important question.  It’s unclear how current rates of religious adherence will hold up under the complex economic, demographic, and cultural pressures that Europe will soon be facing.  (For more, see my “Demographics and the Culture Wars.”) Kaufmann also tends to lump all religions together, passing too quickly over the huge potential conflict between Christian and Muslim Europe.  Nor am I entirely convinced by Kaufmann’s claim that even non-Church-going European Christians are sufficiently religious for their faith to matter in their daily lives.

Despite these uncertainties, however, Kaufmann outlines a Western and European future every bit as plausible as the familiar vision of progressive secularist triumph.  In Kaufmann’s model, there will be, “a major reversal of the secularizing trends of the past 50 to 100 years….Europeans will become more ‘traditional’ on moral issues like abortion, family values, religious education and gay marriage….by the mid-21st century, the peak of secular European politics will be long past….Much will depend on whether conservative political parties opt for a multi-ethnic religious platform or instead mobilize a white nationalist majority across the secular/religious divide….Demographic currents are carrying Europe toward a more American model of modernity….Perhaps we are entering a new stage of history in which the demographic flaws in liberalism will become more apparent.”

Kaufmann has written a significant piece, fully conversant with the sociological literature on secularization in Europe and the United States.  Again, I see this particular vision less as a reliable prediction than as a useful outline of key factors pushing us toward one of several possible futures.  But the mere recognition that a secular, economically “progressive,” and socially liberal future can no longer be treated as the taken-for-granted destiny of mankind is itself revolutionary.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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