Europe has always had religion and it always will. The far more interesting question is what kind of religion will Europe have in the future and what relation will it have with other social institutions, above all the liberal state.
There’s a lot of double-think about religion’s relation to the state. It’s evident whenever someone says that religion should be “a purely private matter” and that there needs to be a clearer separation between state and religion. To say this assumes that such a thing can be engineered. But by what agency? By the state and legislation, of course. In other words, the call for state-religion separation is actually a call for more, not less, state interference in religion. It implicitly recognises that the “secular” helps construct religion, and never really leaves it alone.
The privatisation of religion is a pipe dream. Europe’s historical entanglement with religion is deep and ancient. The very idea of “Europe” is a product of Christianity’s attempt to bring unity to the region under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire. Moreover, the rise of European nation states in the early modern period is bound up with the simultaneous creation of national churches. In the form in which we know them today, European states and churches rose together. Only in combination did they have the economic, bureaucratic and cultural capacity to create unified territorial polities.
The residue of this symbiotic relationship makes it impossible for European countries to make religion purely private without engaging in some of the merciless coercion exercised by those communist countries which attempted – with only partial success – to achieve such a thing. Imagine the actual costs and consequences of withdrawing state-support from Christian educational foundations, for example, given that in a number of countries they include many primary and secondary schools as well as universities and colleges.
Even if a genuine separation of religion and state were possible in Europe, it is the last thing we need if we truly value our liberal and democratic institutions. It is not simply that a majority of people in most European countries still identify themselves as religious – and do not want a purely secular settlement. It is that the consequences of removing state entanglement in religion are dangerous.
Most religious people in Europe today are liberal, tolerant and progressive. Their attitudes and values differ little from the general population (of which they are, after all, a large part). This is not because they have been civilised by secular liberalism, it is because the liberal project always was a Christian as well as a secular project.
Of course there are also non-liberal religious people, some of whom are ambivalent or hostile towards the liberal state, and most of whom are counter-cultural in their attitudes towards many moral issues, including the status of women, gay people, and the unborn foetus. To give some sense of their numerical significance, a survey I designed this year to inform the Westminster Faith Debates found that the religious moral minority which is non-liberal on abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia constitutes 2% of the adult population of Great Britain (an additional 4% hold the same non-liberal moral views, but they are not as strictly religious).
The majority of religious people, in all traditions, are liberal on these issues. This is true even of Baptists and Muslims, even though they have the highest proportions of moral non-liberals. If this seems surprising, it is because the voices of religious leaders are often mistaken for the views of their so-called followers. It is true, for example, that the Catholic Church opposes abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and contraception. But our survey found that only 14% of British Catholics want a ban on abortion, only 9% feel guilty using contraception, 44% support legal recognition for same-sex marriage (41% against), and 56% support a change in the law to make assisted dying possible under certain conditions (30% against).
One of the reasons why Europe has such a tiny moral minority and a relatively large liberal religious majority compared with the USA is almost certainly that we do not have a separation of state and church. When religion is made purely private, it also becomes removed from the cultural mainstream. Remove religious education from state schools, for example, or faith-based organisations from statutory regulation, and you also remove the moderating influence of debate and contestation.
Where religion is concerned, the most counter-productive course that Europe could pursue is to try to push it out of public life. At a stroke, this would remove the ability of democratic institutions to influence and regulate it – and, in turn to be challenged by it – and would strengthen the religious moral minority over against the liberal religious mainstream. The former would rightly say that the so-called liberal democracy has proved itself to be as intolerant and coercive as they always suspected.
Europe needs religion. It is bound up with its majority values and its liberal institutions. They support one another. The centre needs to hold steady, retaining its sense of humour and proportion, as two strident minorities – the religious and anti-religious – trade noisy insults.