Religion is still more vibrant in the U.S. than in Europe—but there are striking exceptions to the cliché
It is something of a cliché to contrast the religiousness of the United States with the godlessness of Europe. There is a great deal of truth to this observation but also much qualification. This is made clear in my recent report “Europe’s Young Adults and Religion,” recently published in advance of this fall’s Synod on Youth.
Generally speaking, it is not exactly a golden age for old-time religion. Nevertheless, U.S. religious belief has proven, if no longer buoyant, then at least more resilient than in other modernized, affluent countries. In 2016, 78 percent of Americans claimed a religious affiliation to the General Social Survey, compared with just 47 percent in a similar survey in Britain. At the same time, 25 percent of Americans claimed to attend religious services at least once a week; in Britain, only 14 percent did.
In 2016, 78 percent of Americans claimed a religious affiliation to the General Social Survey, compared with just 47 percent in a similar survey in Britain.
But the United States is a large and diverse place, with a wide range of religious climates (Portland, Oregon, simply feels different from, say, Atlanta) and even micro-climates (think of Austin in the middle of Texas). References to “American religion,” as though it could be plotted on a single line on a graph, are misleading. The same is true of Europe. Certainly, Europe has plenty of countries with large numbers of “nones” and few practicing Christians. Britain is by no means the best (or worst) example. For all kinds of historical, political, ethnic and economic reasons, Europe exhibits a great deal of religious diversity.
“Europe’s Young Adults and Religion” was jointly published by St Mary’s University—Britain’s biggest Catholic college—and the Institut Catholique de Paris. We analyzed 2014-16 data from from the highly respected European Social Survey, focusing on the religious affiliation and practices of 16- to 29-year-olds in 21 European nations and in Israel.
The highest share of young adults who said they had no religious affiliation was 91 percent in the Czech Republic, followed by 80 percent in Estonia and 75 percent in Sweden. In Britain, the figure was 70 percent. Compared to these European countries, the young adults of the United States looked almost devout. Again according to the General Social Survey, only 31 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identified as having no religion, somewhat less than in Austria (37 percent). In only three nations in our survey were “nones” less common than in the United States: majority-Catholic Lithuania (25 percent), majority-Catholic Poland (17 percent) and Israel (1 percent). Interestingly, Lithuania is only 240 miles south of “none”-dominated Estonia, which has a Lutheran history.
In only three nations in our survey were “nones” less common than in the United States: majority-Catholic Lithuania (25 percent), majority-Catholic Poland (17 percent) and Israel (1 percent).
While there was not so much variation in the United States, at the regional level we can see less uniformity. Forty-eight percent of young adults in the West North Central region—essentially the classic Midwest states, from Kansas and Missouri up—identified as nones. That was about the same proportion as in Germany, Switzerland or Russia. At the other extreme, the proportion of nones in the South Atlantic region (the Eastern Seaboard, more or less, from Delaware down) was 22 percent. In European terms, that was only a little more than in Poland.
Similar variations show up when we look at religious practice. Again, the Czech Republic was the most secular society according to the survey data, with only 3 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds attending religious services at least weekly and 70 percent saying they “never” attend. In Britain, by comparison, 6 percent attended church weekly, and 59 percent said they “never” attend. (Among Catholics in Britain, the figures were 11 percent and 18 percent, respectively.) This ratio was similar in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain, though among Catholics in these countries the percentage who “never” attend topped out at 39 percent, in Spain.
The Czech Republic was the most secular society according to the survey data, with only 3 percent of 16- to 29-year-olds attending religious services at least weekly and 70 percent saying they “never” attend.
Meanwhile, 17 percent of young Americans said they attend religious services at least weekly. (There is no recent comparison for Catholics of that precise age group, but according to Gallup this past April, 25 percent of Catholics ages 21-29 attend Mass at least weekly.) Concerning though that figure might be for parents and pastors, it compares favorably to all but three countries covered in our report: Israel (26 percent) and majority-Catholic Poland (39 percent) and Portugal (20 percent). Notably, the United States was at least as religiously observant as Ireland (where 15 percent overall attended religious services at least weekly, and 24 percent of Catholics attended Mass weekly). Whether that tells you more about Ireland or the United States, especially in light of recent events, you can judge for yourself.
Again, there are regional differences in the United States. A relatively high 27 percent of young adults in the region comprising Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas said they attend religious services at least weekly. Were those states to secede and join the European Union, only the Poles could boast more churchgoing zeal. Meanwhile, around 40 percent of young adults in both the West North Central region (see above) and the eight interior Western states of the Mountain region said they “never” attend. With those kind of numbers you might as well be in Germany, Switzerland, Finland or Estonia.
In general terms, then, “America” is indeed more religious than (most of) “Europe.” There are certainly exceptions to that rule: Poland or Portugal makes, say, Colorado look positively godless. Nevertheless, compared to the normalness of nonreligion across much of Europe—where, as I recently told the Guardian, “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone”—the United States looks set to remain if not a city on a hill, then at least a town on a fair-sized knoll, for a good while longer.