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Spiritual Waves in Europe?

Peter Ford of The Christian Science Monitor has done a decent job with a series of articles about religion in Europe. In the first part, he calls on sociologists of religion (but not Steve Bruce, alas) for explanations of European secularism and gets sound bites from various political figures, ranging from new darling of the US right Rocco Buttiglione (“The new soft totalitarianism that is advancing on the left wants to have a state religion…It is an atheist, nihilistic religion – but it is a religion that is obligatory for all”) through to Nicolas Sartorius, a Spanish leftist who suffered under Franco’s “Catholic nationalism”.

Part two is rather more arguable, as Ford seeks to find “waves of spirituality” in Europe. There’s a meeting with some French Charismatic Catholics (although no mention of the popular and official distain that Charismatic Protestants receive in France) and some observations about the British book industry:

In Britain, the country’s largest bookseller has noticed that preoccupation, and moved to meet it. Expanding the shelf space it devotes to religious and spiritual books, “we have increased our range over the last few years,” says Lucy Avery, a spokeswoman for the Waterstone’s chain.

Sales of such books rose by nearly 4 percent last year, she adds, and titles such as the Dalai Lama’s “The Art of Happiness” and a modern-language “Street Bible” have become bestsellers.

OK, but what does that really signify about the nature of religion in the UK? People are not becoming Buddhists in any number, but the Dalai Lama can get some decent sales when he presents his ideas in the popular “self-help” genre. That suggests to me further evidence of secularisation, not evidence against. Other data is problematic:

“I’ve noticed a steady increase in interest,” says Suvannavira, a Russian-born, British-educated monk who runs the Western Buddhist Order’s Paris outpost in a cramped storefront meditation center. “Our order has doubled in size since 1990.”

According to data found at Adherents.com, that amounts to an underwhelming 800 or so individuals. The increase in numbers is interesting, but it is hardly a religious revival. Also:

…youth workers in Britain are finding “consistent evidence…that a secular generation is being replaced by a generation much more interested in spiritual issues,” says Stuart Murray-Williams, a theologian at Oxford University who recently published a book entitled “After Christendom.”

But that’s hardly unexpected. It’s called “youthful idealism”. Murray-Williams sensibly cautions:

“There is a kind of inchoate spirituality that could be significant, or it could be a passing trend,” he says. “It will be a while before we know whether or not it is strong enough to challenge the culture of secularism.”

Ford also covers the intellectual side of things:

“God is back among intellectuals,” says Aleksander Smolar, a leading European thinker who heads the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw and teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris. “You can feel there is a problem of soul in Europe; people are con- scious of a void and there is a certain crisis of secularism.”

…A preoccupation with spirituality is much more present now at a religious and philosophical level” than it was a few years ago, says Dominique Moisi, a French political analyst.

…In France, leading philosopher Régis Debray, once a comrade in arms of Che Guevara in the Bolivian mountains, has devoted two of his most recent books to explorations of God and religion.

This is an interesting subject, but it’s not something that has just happened: religion has been of particular interest to postmodern philosophers for some time (although Buttiglione’s simplistic world-view, which I blogged here, sees the late Jacques Derrida as some sort of evil nihilistic mastermind behind European secularism). And Debray appears to be anti-religious and pro-secularist.

But for all that, and a note on how aggrieved Muslims and Sikhs in Europe have been supported by Christian leaders, Ford ends his piece in a low-key way:

…the rise in spirituality has not translated into growing support for organized churches, mosques or temples. Indeed, says Murray-Williams, the violence that has accompanied the eruption of religion into European public life “may exacerbate the difference between religion and spirituality.

“Many people see spirituality as something positive, while religion is seen as a system that can be divisive,” he says.

But the signs are there, says Mr. [Jacques] Delors, to suggest that religious sentiment may yet take firmer hold in European life. “I don’t expect a wholesale social mutation,” he says. “But I can see little white stones marking out a path.”

Part Three is a solid but conventional look at Muslims in Europe; supporting pieces by other writers cover Mormon missionaries in France and the question of why Americans work more than Europeans.

CS Monitor links from Christianity Today)

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