A faith vacuum haunts Europe

Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is the author of "Empire" (Basic Books, 2003) and "Colossus" (Penguin, 2004). He will be writing a weekly column for The Times.

The writer G.K. Chesterton once suggested that atheists were “balanced on the very edge of belief -- of belief in almost anything.” I was reminded of this critique last week by a report of a conversation between one of the would-be London bombers, Muktar Said Ibrahim, and a former neighbor of his in Stanmore, the suburb of North London where he grew up.

Americans tend to assume that what is going on in Europe today is a struggle between Islamic extremism and Western -- or Judeo-Christian, if you will -- tolerance. But this is only half right.

“He asked me,” Sarah Scott said, “if I was Catholic because I have Irish family, and I said I didn’t believe in anything. And he said I should. He told me he was going to have all these virgins when he got to heaven if he praises Allah. He said if you pray to Allah and if you have been loyal to Allah, you would get 80 virgins, or something like that.”


Now, it is the easiest thing in the world to make fun of the notion, apparently a commonplace among jihadists, that a suicide bomber who successfully blows up a decent number of infidels is rewarded in heaven with 80 virgins. (Wouldn’t you prefer, say, two desperate housewives?) But is it, I wonder, significantly stranger to believe, like Sarah Scott, in nothing at all?

Scott’s recollected conversation with Said is fascinating because it illuminates the gulf that now exists in Britain between a minority of fanatics and a majority of atheists. “He said,” Scott recalled last week, “people were afraid of religion, and people should not be afraid.”

I am not sure British people are necessarily afraid of religion, but they are certainly not much interested in it these days. Indeed, the decline of Christianity -- not just in Britain but across Europe -- stands out as one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times.

There was a time when Europe would justly refer to itself as “Christendom.” Europeans built the Continent’s loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarreled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the Earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith.

Now it is Europeans who are the heathens. According to the Gallup Millennium Survey of religious attitudes, barely 20% of West Europeans attend church services at least once a week, compared with 47% of North Americans and 82% of West Africans. Fewer than half of West Europeans say God is a “very important” part of their lives, as against 83% of Americans and virtually all West Africans. And fully 15% of West Europeans deny that there is any kind of “spirit, God or life force” -- seven times the American figure and 15 times the West African.

The exceptionally low level of British religiosity was perhaps the most striking revelation of a recent ICM poll. One in five Britons claim to “attend an organized religious service regularly,” less than half the American figure. Little more than a quarter say that they pray regularly, compared with two thirds of Americans and 95% of Nigerians. And barely one in 10 Britons would be willing to die for our God or our beliefs, compared with 71% of Americans.

The de-christianization of Britain is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to 1960, most marriages in England and Wales were solemnized in a church; then the slide began, down to around 40% in the late 1990s. Especially striking is the decline in confirmations as a percentage of children baptized. Fewer than a fifth of those baptized are now confirmed, about half the figure for the period from 1900 to 1960. For the Church of Scotland, the decline has been even more precipitous.

Some of the greatest British writers of the 20th century anticipated this decline. Evelyn Waugh knew, once he had finished his wartime “Sword of Honour” trilogy, that he had written the epitaph of a particular ancient kind of English Catholicism. C.S. Lewis wrote “The Screwtape Letters” in the hope that mocking the devil might keep him at bay. Both sensed, understandably enough, that the war posed a grave threat to Christian faith. Yet it was not really until the 1960s that their premonitions of secularization came true.

Why have the British lost their historic faith? Like so many difficult questions, this seems at first sight to have an easy answer. But before you blame it on “the ‘60s” -- the Beatles, the Pill and the miniskirt -- remember that the United States had all these earthly delights too, without ceasing to be a Christian country. To be frank, I have no idea what the answer is. But I do know that it matters.

Chesterton feared that if Christianity declined, “superstition” would “drown all your old rationalism and skepticism.” When educated friends tell me that they have invited a shaman to investigate their new house for bad juju, I see what Chesterton meant. Yet it is not the spread of such mumbo-jumbo that concerns me as much as the moral vacuum that de-Christianization has created. Sure, sermons are sometimes dull and congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine helps to provide an ethical framework for life. And it is not clear where else such a thing is available in modern Europe.

Over the last few weeks, Britons have heard a great deal from Tony Blair and others about the threat posed to their “way of life” by Muslim extremists like Muktar Said Ibrahim. But how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target -- not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?