Not my kind of Christian: a response to the Pew Research Center’s 2018 report, Being Christian in Europe

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Beliefs and behaviours in Western Europe are rarely researched beyond the national level. To address this knowledge gap, Pew Research conducted 24,599 telephone interviews in 15 countries between April and August 2017. Additionally, 12,000 ‘religiously unaffiliated’ individuals (atheists, agnostics, and people with ‘no particular view’ – or ‘nones’) were interviewed and their attitudes and practices also recorded. A comprehensive 156-page report was published in May 2018.

The report introduces several new indices that measure New Age engagement, religious commitment, and attitudes regarding nationality, immigration, and religious minorities (indices that echo Vista’s ‘Nova Index of Secularisation in Europe’, or NISE, featured in our October 2010 edition).

In describing Western Europeans, Pew’s researchers distinguish between several population categories: the baseline ‘Western Europeans’ (or WEs), the ‘religiously non-affiliated’ (or ‘nones’), non-practising or non-attending Christians, church-attending Christians (or the ‘religiously observant’), and the religiously committed. It’s important in reading the report to make sure that these categories are understood correctly. At times they appear to be used interchangeably or in ways that do not make the distinctions very clear. With this minor caution noted, it’s time to dip into the riches of the report.

What’s known about the prevailing beliefs of Western Europeans?
According to the report, 71 percent of WEs identify as Christian, though only 16 percent attend church at least monthly. Christian identity remains a meaningful marker for the individual – even where it might not mean what an evangelical missionary means by it. The report demonstrates that WEs are predominantly ‘non-practising Christians’ with 80 percent saying they know about Christianity and its practices, a clear contrast with the two out of every three WEs who profess ignorance of Islam and Judaism.

Belief in God is claimed by 58 percent of WEs, although only 15 percent claim to do with absolute certainty and only 15 percent believe in a biblical God. Half of these, or 29 percent of WEs, understand God as primarily ‘all-loving’. Notions of God as judge, all-knowing, or all-powerful, are far less commonly held by WEs. However, two-thirds of WEs believe they have a soul and 40 percent believe in an afterlife.

Just over one in ten Europeans describes themselves as ‘spiritual’, although a quarter claim to be both religious and spiritual (among whom are doubtless many of the church-attending Christians). Of those who self-identify as spiritual, two-thirds believe in a higher power or force. Only 12 percent of these believe in God as described in the Bible. However, they are more likely to engage in New Age, Eastern, or folk religions, fear the ‘evil eye’, practise yoga as a spiritual practice, and believe in reincarnation, horoscopes, tarot cards, and the abilities of fortune tellers.

Whilst only 8 percent of WEs try to persuade other people to adopt their religious views, a more significant 24 percent give money to their church. This reflects their generally positive assessment of the role of religious institutions in society: helping the poor and needy, bringing people together, strengthening community, and, for some, strengthening morality in society.

What do we know about the religiously unaffiliated (the ‘nones’)?
The ‘nones’ are typically younger, more highly educated, and disproportionately male. Two thirds of them say they were baptised and raised as Christians, gradually drifting away for various reasons, including the church’s negative stance towards homosexuality, abortion, or scandals within the church. Consequently, very few of them ever attend a religious service. It is this population group that is of interest to scholars of nominal belief and practice in Europe, who are likely to describe this group using the alternative definition of ‘nominal’.

Intriguingly, just under one third of the ‘nones’ say they believe in ‘a higher power’. This slice of the atheist/agnostic pie interested the Pew researchers, who labelled them ‘religiously unaffiliated believers’. They are highly likely to believe that they have a soul and less likely than other ‘nones’ to express anti-religious attitudes. They are also more likely than Christians to engage in alternative New Age or other spiritual practices.

‘Nones’ are much more likely to be found in Protestant countries than in Catholic countries and being raised as a ‘none’ makes it highly likely that one will die a ‘none’. Encouragingly, some people raised as ‘nones’ do embrace religious identity and/or practice later in life. Across Europe, 17 percent of the former ‘nones’ have embraced some form of religious affiliation (identity, non-attending, or attending and believing).
Identifying non-practising (or ‘non-attending’) Christians?

For this report, Pew researchers defined the category of ‘non-practising Christian’ by identifying individuals who no longer attend church services (‘non-practising’) but who retain religious beliefs that were sufficiently orthodox to be described as ‘Christian’. Across Europe, non-practising Christians outnumber the ‘nones’ although a majority say they are neither religious nor spiritual! They tend to believe in God (or a higher power), to be more positively inclined towards religious institutions, and favour legal abortion and same-sex marriage. A majority say they are raising their children as Christians but insist that religion should be kept out of government policy.

The non-practising Christian is described by Pew researchers with reference to religious belief, views about the place of religion in society, and views about national identity, immigration, and religious minorities. (Vista’s editors note with some measure of satisfaction, that these are themes that Vista has constantly kept in view from the first edition).

When can a Western European be considered a Church-attending Christian?
Perhaps frustratingly for an evangelical mission or church leader, church-attending Christians are predominantly to be found in the traditionally Roman Catholic countries of WE. Moreover, on the Pew measure of religious commitment (measuring frequency of attendance, frequency of prayer, the degree of importance of religion, and personal belief in God), the most religiously committed, on this index are Portugal, Italy, Ireland, and Spain. The least observant are the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. A neutral observer with limited knowledge of Protestant evaluations of Roman Catholic Christianity might wonder why missionaries from the latter countries are being sent to the former(!).

When Pew measured for the highest level of religious commitment (by an individual scoring two from four of the following list: attending church at least monthly, praying daily, belief in God with certainty, and religion being very important to them), it’s clear that most Christians in WE show only moderate to low levels of religious commitment. Despite this, they are more likely than others to report that God rewards, punishes, communicates, and interacts with them. At least half of these believe in a biblical God.

The Pew researchers highlight the very strong link between religious observance (not just identity) and civic participation. This results in highly committed Christians also being involved in charitable, voluntary, and community groups and activities. It’s possible that this spills over into their increased likelihood of expressing nationalist views and saying that ancestry is key to national identity. It may also be connected to the fact that they are more likely to express negative views of Muslims, Jews and immigrants, than do the ‘nones’, and are more likely to describe immigrants from Africa and the Middle East as neither honest nor hardworking.

What questions does the Report raise for missionaries serving in, and sent from, the countries of Western Europe?
The report makes important comparisons for missionaries bound for Europe from the USA. These are valuable and, for example, Pew researchers note that 53 percent of Americans say that religion is important to them whilst for WEs the figure is a mere 11 percent. Missionaries from the USA must adjust assumptions and expectations when talking to people about faith and belief.

Even where a missionary, or church leader, might struggle with a non-practising Western European’s claim to Christian identity, there remains the need to take such claims seriously and to discern what meaning is attached to such self-descriptions. Being comfortable in working with such expressions of implicit faith is a necessary skill for the missionary in Western Europe. The report shows clearly that there are many WEs for whom Christianity serves as a religious, social, and cultural marker. Accepting this need not imply a negation of the evangelistic motivation, but it might require a revision of evangelistic assumptions.

Occasionally people ask how a missiologist can write about Europe from an office in Sydney. It’s a fair question, but it’s also fair to ask, ‘How can a missionary from the irreligious Netherlands do mission in the highly religious context of Portugal?’ Of course, my Australian context inevitably influences how I engage with Europe. Equally, a Dutch missionary, shaped by his or her Dutch irreligious context (if the Pew report is correct), will be deeply influenced by this and it will impact on how they do mission among the highly religious Portuguese, sometimes with negative consequences. In fact, one might suggest that because the Netherlands is the only Western European country where ‘nones’ (48%) outnumber ‘Christians’ (41%) and where 40% of people have a negative view of religion, it is time for missionaries to turn their attention to the Netherlands as a mission-receiving field rather than Portugal, Italy, Spain, or France!

An effective national or cross-cultural worker might wisely reflect on how to build connections to the 65% of WEs who believe they have a soul, particularly those who say they are either religious and/or spiritual, for whom the level of belief in a soul increases to between 75-85 percent. Identifying the potential for such connections is a particular strength of this report and there are probably other leads that lie waiting to be discovered.

A final observation – Sport!
My co-editors will probably smile with me making this point! Although 36 percent of WEs are involved in a sports club, only 31 percent of highly committed Christians are similarly engaged. In contrast, 39 percent of the ‘nones’ are involved. If Christians want to meet non-believers, they will need to get a lot fitter and take up sporting activities to meet them! This is especially true for the soccer-mad (and Roman Catholic) European nations like Spain and Italy. Regular church attendance is almost certainly a constraint on regular involvement in sport or recreational activities for highly committed Christians. Even cross-cultural missionaries are prone to making similar mistakes. Pew’s researchers note the tendency for friendship circles to largely include people with a similar religious identity: ‘nones’ hang out with ‘nones’; church-attending Christians with other church-attending Christians, for example.

Making social connections no doubt contributes to the report’s observation that, for example, in France, 8 percent of those who have been raised religiously unaffiliated say that they are now Christian. This is encouraging. Across Europe, the number of former ‘nones’ who have embraced Christianity sits in the region of 10 to 12 percent.

Darrell Jackson is Associate Professor of missiology, Morling College, Sydney. Responses are welcome at darrellj@morling.edu.au
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