After decades of secularization, Europe is showing signs of a modest religious comeback, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal.
The July 14 article says surveys show that belief in heaven, hell and religious concepts, such as the soul, has increased in parts of Europe, especially among the young. As well, religion is emerging in public discourse.
This increase is explained, in part, by the influx of devout Christian and Muslim immigrants. At the same time, anxiety over social and economic issues has led some people to turn to the spiritual realm for solace and meaning.
The Wall Street Journal reports that some scholars and Christian activists, however, are offering a more controversial explanation: the laws of economics.
As centuries-old churches lose their monopoly, Europe's highly regulated religious market is opening up to a greater number of churches and religious sects. The result is a supply-side stimulus to faith.
Eva Hamberg, a professor at Lund University's Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, told the Wall Street Journal that Swedish data suggest a correlation between an increase in religious competition and an increase in churchgoing. While Europeans are deserting established churches, she says, "this does not mean they are not religious."
“The enemy of faith, say the supply-siders, is not modernity but state-regulated markets that shield big, established churches from competition,” says the newspaper report.
In the United States, where value is placed on the separation of church and state, more than 50 percent of the population worships at least once a month. In Europe, where the state has often supported churches, church attendance in many countries is 20 percent or less.
Europe's new churches are not attracting enough people to offset the post-World War II decline, but they are reviving the market for religion, Professor Rodney Stark told the newspaper. Stark is a pioneer of religious supply-side theory at Baylor University in Texas.
Stark first developed the notion of a "religious market" in the 1980s to explain America's persistent faith. It posits that people are naturally religious but their religiosity varies depending on the vigor of “religious suppliers”.
"Wherever churches are a little more energetic and competitive, you've got more people going to church," he was quoted as saying.
Stark told the Wall Street Journal that religious practice in the U.S. is relatively recent. In 1776, only 17 percent of Americans belonged to churches. (This is the same as the percentage of people who currently worship once a month in some European countries.)
But things changed with the American Revolution. Church authority in the 11 colonies ended and religious diversity and competition were unleashed. As Methodists, Baptists, Shakers and other churches proliferated, churchgoing increased, reaching around 50 percent in the early the 20th century, he told the newspaper.
Churches in Europe did not live through the same revolution. The Church of Sweden, the Church of England, and the Catholic Church in Italy and France, state-funded churches in Germany held their unchallenged monopolies for centuries on end, the newspaper notes.
However, as Europe begins to experience religious diversity and the emergence of new churches — many in the style of U.S. evangelical churches — the sense of the spiritual and the religious is on the rise.