Religion and the secularisation of Europe

According to the latest British census, the country is increasingly leaning into secularisation as more of its people are professing a lack of religion. As stated by The Economist’s report of the said census, “just over a quarter of people in England and Wales say they have no religion, up from 14.8% a decade earlier”, while “the proportion of Christians has fallen from 71.8% to 59.3%”. This is arguably reflective of the European region’s general secularisation.

In a study by sociologist Peter Berger, Scandinavian neighbours Norway and Sweden turned out to be two of the world’s most secular nations, with Sweden topping the list. In fact, last year, Norway removed the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the state religion. These figures and discoveries may be interpreted in several ways. It may indicate that some religions might be losing ground, or it could be that people just aren’t interested in committing to a single organized faith anymore. Either way, it is highly remarkable how religion has come to be a major interest in public and academic discussions in the 21 st century.

For one, the free market of ideas that emerged alongside the growth of the Internet has encouraged widespread debates about religion. In the past, religious talks were confined only to “sacred” forums such as churches or temples. Today, however, there is more freedom and openness among people to express their thoughts about previously shunned or tabooed topics. Moreover, the anonymity offered by most online platforms allows internet users to take part in religious discussions without the fear of being denounced and/or excommunicated. This is also the reason why several religious leaders have turned to the Internet to reach out to their constituents and the general public. Quite recently Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church, joined the popular microblogging site Twitter under the handle @pontifex. Other leaders from major world religions (such as the Dalai Lama) have also been using Twitter as a platform for connecting with the online populace.

Publishers would know how compelling a topic religion (or the lack thereof) can be. Release an article about business or economics and you get a comment or two; but publish a piece about religion and the comments section will soon be flooded by an array of different opinions, ranging from the academically theological to the humorously sarcastic. For instance, when The Economist published a brief piece – consisting of an infographic and a single short paragraph – about the abovementioned British census, it warranted a flurry of comments reaching up to three pages (and counting). In fact, just the use of the phrase “descent into godlessness” was enough to set off a heated debate about whether leaning into godlessness is to be considered an ascent or descent of British society.

Clearly, religion and national culture are intertwined in a web so complicated that the ends are indistinguishable – much like a chicken-and- egg cycle, only more complex. However, the supposed “secularisation of Europe” as implied by increasing numbers of the irreligious in the region has hinted that more and more people are coming to believe that a secular (i.e. irreligious; impartial to one or selected religions) society is the preferred way to proceed.

Knut Harald Nylænde is an Oslo-based investor and business man. He is the founder and CEO of Moxie AS, an investments firm. Outside the professional sphere, Knut has a wide variety of interests, including sports, language, and culture.