Religion will be yet more hotly debated in future

13 February 2008

New patterns — including growing Muslim populations — mean faith will matter more, argues Grace Davie

A number of factors must be taken into account if we are to understand the place of religion in 21st-century Europe.

These include the legacies of the past, particularly the role of the historic Churches in shaping European culture; an awareness that these Churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of modern Europeans, even though they are no longer able to discipline the beliefs and behaviour of the great majority of the population; an observable change in the churchgoing constituencies of the continent, which operate increasingly on a model of choice rather than one of obligation; and the arrival in Europe of groups of people from many different parts of the world, notably the Global South, with very different religious aspirations from those seen in the host societies.

The Churches have not entirely lost their significance as markers of religious identity. I have explored this continuing ambiguity through the concept of “vicarious religion”. By vicarious, I mean the notion of religion performed by an active minority, but on behalf of a much larger number, who (implicitly at least) not only understand, but approve of what the minority is doing.

Religion can operate vicariously in a wide variety of ways: Churches and church leaders perform rituals on behalf of others; church leaders and churchgoers believe on behalf of others; thirdly, church leaders and churchgoers embody moral codes on behalf of others.

Another possibility with respect to vicariousness develops the idea more provocatively. Could it be that churches offer space for debate regarding particular, and often controversial, topics that are difficult to address elsewhere in society?

The current debate about homosexuality in the Church of England offers a possible example, an interpretation encouraged by the intense media attention directed at this issue — and not only in Britain. Is this simply an internal debate about senior clergy appointments, in which different lobbies within the Church are exerting pressure? Or is this one way in which society as a whole comes to terms with profound shifts in the moral climate?


If the latter is not true, it is hard to understand why so much attention is being paid to the Churches in this respect. If it is true, sociological thinking must take this factor into account.

Either way, large sections of the European media are, it seems, wanting to have their cake and eat it, too, pointing the spotlight at controversies within the Church while maintaining that religious institutions must, by their very nature, be marginal to modern society.

ANOTHER point reflects a shift that is taking place right across Europe. The growing presence of other faith communities in general, and of the Muslim population in particular, is challenging some deeply held European assumptions.

The notion that faith is a private matter, and should, therefore, be proscribed from public life — notably from the state and from the education system — is widespread in Europe. Conversely, many of those who are currently arriving in this part of the world have markedly different convictions, and offer — simply by their presence — a challenge to the European way of doing things.

Reactions to this challenge vary from place to place, but, at the very least, European societies have been obliged to reopen debates about the place of religion in public as well as private life — hence the heated controversies about the wearing of the veil in the school system, and about the rights or wrongs of publishing material that one faith community in particular finds offensive.

An Ebor Lecture based on it was delivered in York Minster on Wednesday.

An Ebor Lecture based on it was delivered in York Minster on Wednesday.

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