A godless society

empy churchCan a godless society survive? That is the question that I believe USA Today's Noelle Knox failed to ask in her decent, if a bit shallow (USAT-style), article on the decline of religion in Western Europe.

Mary Haugh, who has gone to Mass here seven days a week for almost all of her 79 years, is saddened by these changes. "It's a Godless society," she says.

Ireland is not an exception. Every major religion except Islam is declining in Western Europe, according to the Center for the Study on Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. The drop is most evident in France, Sweden and the Netherlands, where church attendance is less than 10% in some areas.

Knox follows the familiar formula. Western Europe is prospering, there are no major conflicts, the birth rate has dropped precipitously, and thus, religion is on the decline. Somehow she tries to explain, without sourcing, the increasing separation of church and state, but that doesn't make any sense. Look at areas where church and state are most separated and you will see thriving religious groups. Perhaps it's the other way around?

The numbers Knox uses in her story can be a bit confusing, and I believe she often compares apples to oranges.

In 1900, almost everyone in Europe was Christian. Now, three out of four people identify themselves as adherents to Christianity. At the same time, the percentage of Europeans who say they are non-religious has soared from less than 1% of the population to 15%. Another 3% say they don't believe in God at all, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.

Knox does manage to find someone who isn't oh-so-depressed (or rejoicing) that the religious decline in Western Europe is bringing forth this supposed wave of tolerance unprecedented on the continent (Knox also fails to examine the ramifications of the said and supposed tolerance).

Andrew Greeley, a priest, professor at the University of Chicago and prolific author on Christianity, argues that despite the drop in church attendance, Christianity is not on the wane everywhere in Europe. "Religion declined abruptly in England and the Netherlands. It is stagnant in West Germany, and it is flourishing in Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia," he says. "I get upset about the sweeping generalization about the decline in religion. Religion is always declining and always reviving."

Overall, if you're looking for a casual read, this is it, but for more serious observers of religion or European culture, this article will only frustrate you with its lack of depth and precision.

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