Religion in Europe

Roberto Cipriani


The scenario of European societies is rapidly changing, particularly in the field of religion and Churches. Culture plays an important role for the presence of religion and Churches in single nations. Actually religions and Churches have crossed Europe also exerting a certain political power, thus influencing economy and linked aspects.

There is a common datum in religions and the Churches in Europe: a visible reduction of religious practice. Changes are also evident in other religions of non European origins but present in almost all of Europe.

The different religions and Churches operating in Europe manifest a variety of behaviours towards religious pluralism. And the the difference between religions of Western and Eastern Europe is given by the presence of a problem of national identity connected to religious belonging.

Religious Europe is not only a map of territories characterized by this or that religious culture, Religious Europe has also and moreover the presence of a wide number of minorities: Orthodox or Protestants in Catholic countries, Catholic and Orthodox in Protestant countries, Jews and Muslims in the majority of European countries.

Roberto Cipriani (University Roma Tre)

Religion in Europe

Religious Europe at the beginning

The scenario of European societies is rapidly changing, particularly in the field of religion and Churches. New streams of believers and religious organizations are reaching different places in Europe, sometimes very far from their countries of historical origin. The phenomenon of religious acculturation is a kind of challenge between religious movements and local people and culture. European geography has changed a lot in the last decades and is expected to change even more (especially after new countries will be joining the European Union).

There aren’t major hindrances in crossing European continent. This is why migrations, invasions, incursions and expansions have easily occurred as well as cultural exchanges of various origins, on a linguistic and political level, as well as economic and legal, ethic and religious.

In ancient times polytheistic religions were prevailing in European territories, followed by monotheistic religions of “salvation” such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Ancient Germans are considered to be Indo-European. A complex mythology accompanied their religious traditions, influenced by the trinitarian structure of ancient religions of oriental origin. When the Romans, and Indo-Europeans as well, met the ancient Germans, they called them barbarians because they had a completely different culture and religion from that of ancient Italy.

The religious outline of contemporary Europe as historically rooted

The Catholic Church is the main religious influence in the central and southern area (Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, Centre and South Ireland, Italy, Malta, Southern Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, part of The Netherlands, Latvia and Ukraine);

Protestantism is the main religious influence in the centre and northern area (Iceland, England and Northern Ireland, Central and Northern Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, part of Hungary, of The Netherlands, of Belarus);

Greek and Russian Orthodox is the main religious influence in the south-western area (Greece and part of Cyprus and Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, Armenia, Russia, part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, of Kazakhstan, of Estonia, of Latvia and Byelarus);

Muslim is the main religious influence in oriental areas of Europe (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Albania, part of Macedonia, of Kazakhstan, of Georgia, of Bulgaria and of Bosnia-­Herzegovina).

In the eastern part of the continent Christianity faces Islam, which is the less consistent religious group among the book religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) notwithstanding a growing number of adepts.

Other religions and other Churches have crossed Europe also exerting a certain political power, thus influencing economy and linked aspects. Compact and fragmented Islamic groups were present in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania.

Mobility inside Europe should also not be undervalued, with various religious characteristics, marked by oriental countries going to western countries, for example from Russia to Estonia, Lithuania and Germany, or from Czechia, Slovakia as well as ex Yugoslavia towards Germany, or even from Poland to France, from Estonia and Lithuania toSweden and Northern Europe.

If Christianity occupies a major position in Europe, other religions have significant presence almost everywhere but mostly in the great urban centres, where non-Christian worship places have dimensions, capacity and visibility which cannot be ignored. At the same time in Greece, where Orthodox religion prevails, there is a Roman Catholic cathedral; the same happens in Moscow. Regarding higher education and scientific levels, Moscow and St. Petersburg both have an Orthodox university and Russia has 37 seminars and 38 religious secondary schools. “Even if belief in God has increased since the end of the communist regime, people’s basic knowledge about religion is still poor”. But “most people have a positive, ‘open’ attitude towards religion and towards the Russian Orthodox Church”, which, “with its 1000-year history, represents stability in a society where many institutions of the previous regime have collapsed” (Kääriäinen 1999: 44). Therefore, Russian Orthodox Church would be a sort of “diffused religion” (Cipriani 2001) that, being historically rooted, emerges again whenever favourable circumstances occur for its presence and further canalization.

Changes are also evident in other religions of non European origins but present in almost all of Europe. In 2005, 1.472.587 persons officially passed through Europe with a high concentration in Germany, United Kingdom and France. The mixture of religions, Churches and temples, but also of new religious movements (Barker 1991) is a clear indicator of pluralism that registers (through the European Values Study of 1999-2000) specific convergences/divergences that also create a common shared plateau of values (Inglehart 2003) among areas usually homogeneous. There are traditional countries like Ireland and Portugal but in the predominantly Catholic countries of Czechia, Slovenia, France, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Spain as well as in the Anglican Great Britain and in Orthodox Greece there is a favourable tendency towards both propitious to secular and rational values and values of auto-expression.

The relation between state and religion is not the same everywhere throughout Europe: in some countries there is a clear separation even regulated by the law (as happened in France from 1905), in other countries there is a conservatory regime (Spain, Italy and Portugal), and there are also countries with state Churches (Scandinavian countries and Great Britain). As a matter of fact, there are in Europe some secular states that offer many privileges to religious communities. Another possibility is that state and religion do not have a shared identity but do not take complete opposite positions, sometimes they negotiate case by case, as it happens to majority Churches in a country or towards other minority Churches, movements and religious groups. Such de facto situation is also officially highlighted by the Catholic Church itself for example, by Pope John Paul II during his post-synod apostolic exhortation on June 28th 2003 with the title Ecclesia in Europe, where we can read at point 20: “Particular Churches in Europe are not simple entities or private organizations”.

There is a common datum in religions and the Churches in Europe: a visible reduction of religious practice. Apparently, except for wrong sampling, the only country among post-Communist Europe registering a countertendency is Georgia, as far as religious importance is concerned. Georgia apparently registers an outstanding increase of religious belief rates, as well as an increasing practice and value relevance. Therefore, as far religious awakening Orthodox Georgia can be considered on the same level as Orthodox Russia’s recent positions. In Europe France occupies the last place of the list.

Norris and Inglehart write (2004: 86): “traditional religious beliefs and involvement in institutionalized religion vary considerably from one country to another; and have steadily declined throughout Western Europe, particularly since the 1960s”. On the other hand the relation between religious participation and religious pluralism is quite interesting.

Culture plays an important role for the presence of religion and Churches in single nations. This division of religions by their belonging cultures seems to be quite founded because “belonging to a culture is the basic factor for self-accomplishment” (Lane 1978: 135).

Orthodox Churches

The Orthodox Church has its support overwhelmingly in rural areas. It is not by chance that Bulgaria has it own National Orthodox Church with six million believers, twelve dioceses and thousands of priests. But in comparison with Russia, Greece and Serbia, Bulgaria has a secondary role within Orthodoxy. In other areas there is a closer relation between the state and Church, as if it was to create a worship of state and its rulers. In this way it is the population itself that supports religion through culture. Apparently, traces of paganism are also present, forms of religion far off from high, intellectual and selected European culture. In recent times, and referring to the wide area of Orthodox culture the limits of  “canonical territories” have been revenged in order to stress supremacy rights, especially by the Russian Orthodox Church over the Catholic Church. Actually the article n. 14 of the Russian Constitution states: “Russian Federation is lay. No religion can be established as a state or compulsory religion”. Moreover the document Basis of the Social Conception of Russian Orthodox Church says that (III, 3): “the Church cannot take advantage of the points of view of the state”. The relation with modernity really makes the difference between Orthodoxy and Western religions (Kaufmann 1997). Leaving aside the significant theological and cultural differences between Western and Oriental Christianity, modernity did not represent an autonomous cultural development of Orthodox countries. Moreover,

“from the ‘800 the Church and the Orthodox culture entered a form of social development which is radically new and with no precedents. It also meant a new form of relationship between the Church and the State as well as new tensions and new alliances between religion and politics because, at least in Greece, but also in the rest of the Balkans, the institution of the Orthodox Church became a servant of the State and assumed a nationalist way of thinking. The Orthodox Church has also played, as for the migrations of the twentieth century, a decisive cultural role for the Orthodox Diaspora at a World level” (Kokosalakis 1996: 19-20).

The Serbian Orthodox Church dramatically lived through the end of Yugoslavia, with the rising ethnic conflicts in 1991 and the confrontation between Catholics and Muslims. Political, ethnic and religious reasons were bound together giving as outcome an explosive mixture with tragic consequences.

“Ethnocentrism and Church dependence on the State are probably the most important issues of the Orthodox Church today” (Makrides 1996: 70). Even if an Orthodox Commonwealth will not be realized (Roudometof, Agadjanian, Pankhurst 2005), nonetheless with the entering of Bulgaria and Romania by 2007 the presence of Orthodox people has increased. Many of them are already operating in Western Europe, Sweden, France, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Croatia and Austria.

Politics and Religion

Politicizing culture and religion is what Vrcan (2006) points out. Moreover, many particular situations throughout ex Yugoslavian territories show that national-­oriented culture and religious politicization processes were widely popular. In fact Catholicism in Herzegovina was a “religion in a border region”, but actually it has become a “border religion” (Vrcan 2006: 222).

Tomka’s contribution in particular is very relevant and faces diverse issues of East and Western Europe with a comparative approach. He begins with three remarks: religious influence is declining in Western Europe; while Western young people seem to be increasingly less religious, the Eastern and Central situation seems to register an inverted tendency; in ex-Communist countries the role of Churches is increasingly popular. Some central European countries play a different role and are more modernized and represent a solid reference for East countries, which are quite marginal in comparison with Western countries. There are two main guiding factors at the origins of Western Christian Churches: Church as an institution and individual autonomy. However, when we want to distinguish what is peculiar of Oriental Churches respect to Western Churches we come to six differences, according to Tomka (2006: 259-262): a reduced control of the Church and dominance of local factors; the tendency to homologate forms with contents, beliefs with symbols, liturgy with art; a more collective than individual approach to religious belonging and a dominant position of the clergy within an ecclesiastic role hierarchy; religion and culture are mainly considered as one; a formally bombastic liturgy that does not allow adjustments, changes nor a direct participation of laymen; a basic unity between politics and religion, as well as state and Church, just like a “symphony”.

The most remarkable recovery is shown by the Russian Orthodox Church: “traditions of strong links and close ties between state and Church provided the basis for the submission of the Church and for co-operation with the state, whichever the state might be” (Borowik 2006: 269). Apparently opportunistic strategies were developed by the Orthodox Church in order to survive bad situations. This was also possible because national Orthodox Churches (in Greece as in Georgia, in Russia as in Serbia) lacked close relations; therefore there was no need for a similar behaviour. It will be part of a generic and omnicomprehensive spirituality that leads to an identification between religion, culture and state: “being Orthodox and Bulgarian, for instance, is almost the same, but withdrawing from religion as moral teachings or as based in religious practice is rather rare” (Borowik 2006: 270). This happens in contexts where Orthodox religion prevails.

“With the collapse of Communism, the countries of Eastern and Central Europe joined the world of growing differentiation and globalization” (Borowik 2006: 272). The operation was easier in Central European countries, especially Poland, in the Baltic area, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia. Finally, the difference between religions of Western and Eastern Europe is given by the presence of a problem of national identity connected to religious belonging.

In Croatia as well as in Poland, for instance, the Catholic Church has fostered the birth of a modern nation-state (Martin 2005: 81, quoted by Marinović Jerolimov and Zrinščak 2006: 289). That of Serbians and the Serbian Orthodox Church, thus sharing a common destiny with other oriental Orthodox nations, is a peculiar case. Ethnical and religious conflicts occurred between Serbian Orthodoxes against Bosnian Muslims and against Serbian Catholics with Croatian habits.

It is also important to remember that in 1967 an autocephalous Macedonian Orthodox Church was auto-proclaimed in Macedonia, independent from the Serbian Church.

Also Serbian nationalism contributed to a religious rebirth. Moreover interethnic disputes had a religious connotation: Catholics, Orthodoxes and Muslims were fighting one against the other. Finally Greek and Irish constitutions refer to religion, the German one permits Invocatio Dei, the European one does not give any reference at all.

Religious pluralism

Speaking of pluralism and respect for religion, Europe develops a number of different issues (Davie and Hervieu-Léger 1996; Davie 2000; Davie 2002; Bolgiani, Margiotta Broglio and Mazzola 2006). Independently of the type of preponderant religion, problems of freedom of expression and religion practices rise from minority confessions.

The different religions and Churches operating in Europe manifest a variety of behaviours towards religious pluralism; this is the result of a wide inquiry called RAMP (Religious And Moral Pluralism) carried out in many European countries: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Sweden (Dobbelaere and Riis 2002). The conclusions of this research are: “in the model explaining pluralism as a cultural enrichment … the effect of Church commitment is positive, meaning that people with a high degree of commitment to their Church also tend to appreciate the cultural enrichment of religious pluralism”. Actually “the Churches are challenged to change their positions. Formerly, the Churches as authoritative institutions could proclaim a truth that was taken for granted by Church members” (Billiet et al. 2003: 157). “Religious identity must then try to take into account the existence of other religious identities, aspects which modify its structure of belief” (Bontempi 2005: 164). Young people are the first ones to experience the dynamics of secularization, thus reducing rates of religious belonging feelings, of ritual practices and spiritual dependence. This impetus originates from below: with the diffusion of new religious identities, groups and organisations ranging from Buddhists to the new Churches of Protestant matrix and the different Islamic communities. “There are also pressures that come from above, from the effects of European integration that require a re-negotiation of long-standing Church-state relations” (Bontempi 2005: 166). Actually, “the elaboration of a European right to religion cannot result from any combination of national rights on the issue because the differences between the states are too great” (Bontempi 2005: 168).

Protestantism in Europe

Protestant immigrants arrived in Russia and established themselves mainly in Southern Russia. Dutch Protestants were also relevant presences, even if more interested in economic reasons: already in 1616 there was the reformed Church in Moscow.

“The origin of these Protestant currents in Russia, however, is never to be solely explained in terms of cultural and religious infiltration from Western Europe … That they finally established themselves as independent groups beside the Orthodox Church is due in large measure to the way in which the Church treated these believers” (Hebly 1976: 80). Later on they had a certain freedom as antagonists of the Orthodox Church.

The majority of Protestants is located in Northern European countries: in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Germany as well. This is quite a united group of countries where “there is a growing interest in the matter of the relationship between Church and state both within and outside the Churches” (Harmati 1984: 13). Also the folk Church of the Northern states is the Church of people because it is local and is therefore legitimated by a close relation with the referring nation.

In Finland there has been freedom of religion since 1923. The Lutheran Evangelical Church is recognized by Finnish constitution but it is quite autonomous, more than other Churches of the north. Pentecostals are the more numerous religious groups among non-officially registered congregations, while Methodists are mentioned as a free Church. Among Lutherans, Orthodoxes and Catholics there is some sort of collaboration.

“Religious Europe is not only a map of territories characterized by this or that religious culture, Religious Europe has also and moreover the presence of a wide number of minorities: Orthodox or Protestants in Catholic countries, Catholic and Orthodox in Protestant countries, Jews and Muslims in the majority of European countries” (Vincent and Willaime 1993: 91).

Resistances against Europe are also present in Protestantism, according to Dreyfus (1993: 128) who underlines that the Protestant states of Western Europe are highly doubtful over the construction of Europe.

However, reality has its own way and develops towards other conceptions thus revealing that Europe is no longer a Western territory, because many Eastern influences can be found all over Europe. The change is clear enough if seen on the gross percentage of religious belonging (Willaime 2004: 19):

Islam in Europe

In Europe, Islamic East is a recurrent theme also for mass communication. It is not by chance that sociological bibliography on Islam in Europe has rapidly increased (Dassetto and Conrad 1996) and that now some sociologists of religion, who were once mainly experienced in the dominant religion of their home country, have now become Islam experts, studying the relationship between the state and Islamic religion, the integration of Muslims in Europe and the role of Islam inside European society. France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Spain and Switzerland are among the countries that care more about new themes of Islamic content, in relation to areas such as immigration, citizenship, political representatives, community organization, means of mass communication, identity processes, the perception of European Union, the identification with Europe, Islamization of Europe, Islamic associations in European territory, social and religious Islamic networks, youth education, inter-ethnic conflicts, the use of free time, criminality, entrepreneurship, work, polygamy, minority conditions, linguistic barriers, law statute, places of worship, woman’s role, religious practice and conversions.

The question is no more about Islam and Western countries: Islam is inside Western countries. Islam is therefore part of and integrated in Europe, especially as far as the second generations are concerned, who are completely socialized within European territories, speaking one or more European languages, and who are de facto Euro-Islamic generations (Allievi and Nielsen 2003; Maréchal 2003).

Europe becomes a decisive ground for “Muslim Geopolitics” as well. In the future there is, however, a “plural” Europe (Allievi 2002: 179). Islam itself is “one and multiple”, as Pace affirms (2004: 12), passing through the different solutions experienced in Europe for public acknowledgement and state regulation of Islam and Muslim identity. In Scandinavian countries jus loci is applied, as well as in France, thus facilitating the citizen’s access, but also helping immigrants of European origins limiting access.

To conclude about the Islam question in Europe (Bistolfi and Zabbal 1995) a comparative analysis concerning Buddhists and Muslims from European citizens’ perception can be interesting. According to some studies carried out in France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, United Kingdom, Scotland, Austria, Germany and other places in Europe, appreciation for Buddhism has increased, while appreciation for Muslims has reduced. Furthermore, Buddhism at least apparently could represent a future of Europe, except for conceiving Islam a sort of new Buddhism, based on some peculiar religious values.

Religions and/in Europe: a conclusion

The four blocks of religions (Catholics, Orthodoxes, Protestants and Muslims) are a fundamental basis for the construction of Europe. They are actually the corner-stones posed at the four angles of European chessboard: the point of convergence could be Brussels (or Belgium), where the presence of the four religions is clearly shown, with the Jewish religion at a side as a millenarian presence in Europe.

There are ancient issues where religion plays a strategic role. Larger divisions are those regarding the Caucasus people of Georgia (of Orthodox religion with a minority of Muslims), of Armenia (of Orthodox religion with a few Catholics using Armenian rites, and with a minority of Monophysites) and of Azerbaijan (of Muslim religion, above all Shiites, with a minority of Christians).

The perspectives for a European future (Greeley 2003; Knippenberg 2005) cannot leave out of consideration the responsibility for religious problems. In 2007 officially in the European Union are: Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg, Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and Malta with a Catholic prevalence; Germany, and The Netherlands with a mixed Catholic-Protestant prevalence; Latvia, with mixed Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox prevalence; Estonia with mixed Protestant-Orthodox prevalence; United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland with Protestant prevalence; Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania with Orthodox prevalence.

New arrivals, especially from Africa and Asia, are changing the inner composition of European nations, also on a religious level. But in particular the importance of new Islamic presences in Europe is far too evident.


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Roberto Cipriani is full professor of Sociology and chairman of the Department of Sciences of Education at the University of Rome 3, Italy. He has served as a visiting professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, at the University of Buenos Aires, and at Laval University in Quebec and has conducted research in Greece and Mexico. He has also served as editor in chief of International Sociology. He has been president of the International Sociological Association Research Committee for the Sociology of Religion and member of the Executive Committee of the International Association of French Speaking Socologists, and of the International Institute of Sociology. He is president of the Italian Sociological Association. His publications include: Sociology of Religion. An Historical Introduction (Aldine-de Gruyter, New York, 2000, and translated into Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish); The Sociology of Legitimation (Current Sociology, 1987, 35, 2); “Religions sans frontiers?” Present and future trends of migration, culture, and communication (Rome, 1994); more than 600 articles, and 40 books (as author, coauthor, main editor, in collaboration, or as editor) in Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and in Russian.