General Question

Charles's avatar

Why is Atheism and Agnosticism so much more prevalent in Europe than in the Americas?

Asked by Charles (4815points) April 13th, 2012

Why does Christianity have so much more influence in the former European colonies (USA, South America, etc.) than in Europe itself? Compare for example the UK, where 35% of the population do not believe in God to the US, where only 6% of the population do not believe in God or a higher power. Similarly, 18% of the people in Spain are atheist compared to less than 2% in countries like Paraguay, Colombia and Peru. The European countries with the least amount of theists are the Scandinavian countries, the Baltic States, the NL, Czech Rep., France, Slovenia and the UK. In all of these countries, less than 40% claim to believe in God.

Why do you think Europe developed in such a different way than North & South America? It seems that in the Americas, Christianity has only become more evangelical and fundamentalist in the last decades whereas in Europe, the influence of religion on society has greatly declined.


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38 Answers

tom_g's avatar

I don’t know. Some people have theorized that because the U.S. is explicitly secular, it encouraged the flourishing of religion.

ro_in_motion's avatar

I have the following observations (I live in the UK):

1. More critical thinking is taught in schools here.
2. There seems to be mandatory World Religion classes. Stephen Roberts famously said: “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”
3. The Church of England is the official religion here. Based on Catholicism (but with divorce thrown in ;) ), it’s not much of a compelling presence anymore.
4. Evangelicals have an almost invisible presence here. They are scorned.

To give you an idea of the difference, politicians are openly atheistic and no one raises an eyebrow.

syz's avatar

^ I’m envious.

ro_in_motion's avatar

Not only that, we have universal free healthcare.

thorninmud's avatar

Maybe that’s it… in Europe, you don’t have to pray for a cure

FutureMemory's avatar

@ro_in_motion Don’t suppose you’re looking to adopt an adult American anytime soon?

Aethelflaed's avatar

I think?? that there have been periods of Great Awakenings in America, that have not really transfered over to Britain, and especially to the rest of Europe, especially the more recent Awakenings.

syz's avatar

@Aethelflaed What a misnomer!

Thammuz's avatar

Some personal hypothesis based on some data and some experience:

1) The colonies were the designated “nutter dumps” of the UK. The Mayflower people were not the only group of nutters that was kindly suggested to GTFO over the years.

2) Continental Europe has already went through the kind of religious fanatism that the US is experiencing, only much worse.

3) With the fact that many countries in Europe are mostly catholic or have state sponsored churches of some other denomination, ministers don’t need to convert people to put food on their tables.

4) Europeans see religion as largely meaningless because it has become a habit, due to the relative lack of interest after the end of the cold war.

While the US was very muich against communist ideals and took every occasion to distance itself from them, thus becoming hyperreligious to counter the atheism that soviet russia enforced, Europe was very much struggling between the two positions, even getting so far as dividing families over the issue.

I’m going to give you some examples from my native Italy: During the cold war, we had a communist party AND a christian party AND a right-wing party AND a socialist party. And these were only the major ones.

Large cities had huge problems with groups of, perhaps too idealistic, youths beating eachother up very badly, even murdering eachother and, while some fringes disagreed, most people thought that had to stop, regardless of the ideology they adhered to.

Eventually, even during the cold war, the whole religion/atheism debate calmed down. Some people were atheists, the church disapproved, and they didn’t care, and that was about it.

They did not dare say more than that they disapproved because the communists would have been all over that, immediately lumping the church in with the fascists and giving cause for huge problems. Like the kidnapping of Aldo Moro.

Then the cold war died off and without the ideologies to motivate either position people were basically clinging to one position or the other because of habit.

I, for instance, have my mother, who teaches in catechism and used to be a member of “Comunione e liberazione” (christian party), and then left when they started to lean more to the right, my father who went to a gesuit school and is a very peculiar and unique to him brand of christian (I call it the “i’m right, STFU” brand), my grandma whose ideas on scriptural interpretation would have gotten her burned to the stake not half a century ago.

And then there’s me, atheist to the bone and currently in a relationship with another atheist born of a fundamentalist catholic family’s black sheep branch.

I guess it’s mostly that people here have more sense than to disown people for differences of opinion because those who did in the last 50 years don’t have a legacy anymore.

Nullo's avatar

My guess? Catholicism. People finally got fed up with it, but had little else to turn to other than the various secular religions. As others have pointed out, a lack of a state religion, combined with a weakened Catholicism, led to a flourishing diversity of Protestantism.

@ro_in_motion I’ve not ever been to school in Britain, but I do seem to recall taking scads of English classes in high school where we’d be analyzing the text, and there were plenty of science classes. Dunno if your “moar critical thinking” argument works. Could you elaborate?

laureth's avatar

A few hundred years ago, Europe sent its religious zealots to North America. We are descended from zealots, and Europeans are descended from a population that sent its zealots away. This doesn’t cover 100% of the situation, but it goes a long way in explaining it.

FutureMemory's avatar

@laureth Does that mean white Australians are prone to crime, seeing as they’re descended from convicts?

ro_in_motion's avatar

@Nullo I’ve taught in America and seen several students’ papers and exams. The students here – to my eyes at least – are learning more and have a more sophisticated understanding.

@FutureMemory Not yet … but I expect I will have to adopt scores should Rmoney (spelled on purpose) win.

JLeslie's avatar

Maybe because in history the church had so much control over the people in Europe, they eventually completely rejected it. The United States separated church and state, and individuals could decide for themselves their religious beliefs without interference from the state. You mention South America, even very religious South America is not so fanatic as the US. Chile elected an agnostic female President not too long ago, I believe Mexico passes Gay marriage back in 2010 and gay adoption before that.

I do think the US having such a strong Protestant percentage is part of the reason. The Catholic countries seem to be more reasonable. I hear the Pope, especially Pope John Paul II speaking about peacem everyone getting along, people coexisting even though we are many religions. Many Protestant leaders don’t preach that. One guess I have is the small Baptist church is not connected to the world. Not like the Catholic church which is in every country, Priests move around, they are part of a community of Priests who communicate with each other around the world. Catholics also encourage education, science, and if you look at Americas most conservative states it is not the Catholic ones, it is the Evangelical Protestant ones.

dabbler's avatar

Perhaps God has forsaken them more ‘over there’.
Pray, practice, worship, still the wars and famines and oppressions.
What up, Your Almightiness?

We’re relatively unexposed to those blights ‘over here’.

jerv's avatar

Because Europe is mature while America is still a young nation, and right now is still going through those rebellious teenage years.

AngryWhiteMale's avatar

I agree with some of @Thammuz ‘s points. I’m not as versed in European/World History as I am in U.S. History, but I’ll take a stab at this.

I think part of the answer is the history of conflict and intellectualism in Europe, starting with the religious wars in the wake of the Reformation. As you know, the Reformation started in large part because of widespread abuses within the mother Church, and the result was a previously unknown intellectual freedom (of sorts!), at least where religion was concerned; now you had new sects, splinter groups, and all sorts of new branches of religion developing, some of which were relatively progressive (think the Society of Friends) to groups that reaffirmed conservative interpretations of original objections to Catholicism.

Because there was now this relative freedom to consider the relationship of, to, and between humanity and God, it became one factor (among many) in the growth and flowering of intellectualism during the Age of Reason, which coincided with the gradual loosening of political structures as European nations moved away from feudalism.

However, at the same time, the Americas were colonized largely as a mercantilist enterprise benefiting private corporations, the State, or both. In order to regiment existing populations, religion was used as a means of control (in the case of Catholicism, an absolute; in the northern American colonies, within the paradox of “religious freedom”). Roger Williams notwithstanding, early Protestant colonies such as the Puritans and Pilgrims were part of the conservative strain of Reformation spirituality, a tradition steeped in the marriage of church and state. Unfortunately, this tradition took root firmly here in the States, and aided and abetted by several Great Awakenings, has yet to be uprooted or even weakened.

Additionally, back in Europe, ongoing wars from revolutions (France, the multiple revolutions of 1848, Napoleonic Wars, the World Wars, etc) led to intellectuals questioning and examining the nature of humanity and religion in ways that we weren’t doing here in the U.S., so our intellectual religious development in the U.S., while rooted in European traditions, hasn’t questioned religion and religious traditions enough yet.

Additionally, as others point out, the monolithic Catholic Church continued to commit abuses and act in hypocritical ways, and worked hand-in-hand with the state to repress and control entire populations. Revolt against and rejection of Church control, especially in largely one-religion nations has probably contributed in part to growth in atheism and agnosticism.

This is all quite oversimplified and off-the-cuff. Someone else probably has a better take on this than I do. Thanks for putting up with the pedantry. ;-)

Aethelflaed's avatar

Everyone should go read @Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard‘s link, which is basically real historians answering this exact question. If, this question replaced “Europe” with “just the Scandinavian states”. But really, it’s high-quality stuff.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@AngryWhiteMale I would add to that anti-intellectualism in America pays a great role as well. It’s a time-honoured tradition in America to be proud of your lack of ‘high falutting’ education. The Republican party in America has made an artform out of acting stupid.

laureth's avatar

@FutureMemory – Do Australians teach their kids how to live a life of crime?

AngryWhiteMale's avatar

@ro_in_motion, I agree to an large extent, but anti-intellectualism isn’t unknown in Europe either; look at the Soviet era, and any of the fascist governments. Anti-intellectualism seems to be tied either to a rudimentary form of populism, or to authoritarianism (or tendencies to either thereof).

I think here in America, anti-intellectualism is largely linked to a suspicion of the upper classes (who perpetrated many of the abuses that our immigrant ancestors fled from), and the climate that ensued from that provided fertile grounds for organized religion to remain rooted.

Again, someone with a stronger grasp of European history would probably have a better answer, but this has gotten me thinking, so that’s good in itself. ;-)

ro_in_motion's avatar

@AngryWhiteMale Yes. I think it’s tough for people to remain rational when facing extreme poverty: the inflation in pre-war Germany and the famines in Russia for example. There comes a point where chaos theory takes over and the people will settle for anything that isn’t the current system.

To me, economics is more and more becoming a con game: if people simply believe a system will work will provide, short term at least, a better economy. republicans are masters at this. They convince people that the Democrats are the ‘tax and spend’ party while, by any objective measure, it’s the modus operandi of the Republicans.

To bring this back to the topic at hand, the same can be said about religion. It offers a sad collection of comforts: ‘Suffer now and get eternal Disneyland when you die’; ‘Accept your lot in life’; ‘Do not question’ and the like.

In America, life can be very hard. Go to San Francisco and see the myriad homeless living on the street. Go to any urban city and see the ravages of drugs. Go to anyone and you have a ⅓ chance that they do not have adequate or any healthcare. Compare the educational standards at the average school and compare it to other ‘First World’ countries. Go to factories and check the pollution they spill. Go to Washington and see all the money being poured into defence (actually, offence) needlessly.

In the UK, on the other hand, it really takes skill to be homeless. Healthcare is free. The educational system looks hard at the data. Drug programs (in- and out-patient) are ubiqitous. It stills spends too much money on the military but I have the feeling that will change over the next decade. (Certainly the people are fed up supporting military actions that provide no rationale at all.)

Once you provide a certain level of security, people have the time to look at life with new eyes. By keeping them poor and destitute while making them look weak or evil, you encourage the sort of shortcomings that are all too common in the US. There’s a palpable ‘us vs. them’ ideology.

America needs to grow up.

GracieT's avatar

@ro_in_motion, I am a US citizen and I agree with most of your answer. Life in the US can be hard, (well, usually is) unless you have money. But I am a Christian. I wasn’t suckered into belief- I actually have a brain which I’m rather fond of using. Unfortunately many of the Christians buy into the survival of the fittest idea, although I don’t understand why. But there are also many of us that don’t, and are trying to change things. I think that things are changing, albeit slowly.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@GracieT I admire that you are working for a change. :)

GracieT's avatar

@ro_in_motion, thank you for that. Sometimes it seems like most of my Christian friends are working hard to keep things the way they are, so I appreciate your admiration. It seems like the deck is stacked against us at times.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@GracieT I feel for all the good people like you. Working from within is so very important. From my perspective, it’s time to split Christianity in two: Those that accept science and those that don’t. I say this as it’s my belief that it would serve both well. It puts it out in the open.

There are so very many different versions of Christianity now that providing another classification using science as a dividing line seems natural and not really that controversial.

I’ve a friend who’s a bedrock fundamentalist. In the last 7+ years we’ve talked about everything, frankly but always friendly. She knows my beliefs well and I hers. Despite that we are thick as thieves. :)

Sadly, the majority of bedrock Christians don’t seem to appreciate discussion. Leep up the good work! :)

linguaphile's avatar

@AngryWhiteMale You are an excellent addition to Fluther. Welcome!

AngryWhiteMale's avatar

@linguaphile, aw, thanks. blush

@ro_in_motion, interesting response. You’re keeping me on my toes here. ;-) I think there are some for whom being rational is challenging, period, regardless of external factors. But yes, I would say it’s easier to rattle people and lead them astray when there is disorder, whether geopolitical, economic, or social. On the other hand, some very rational actions have occurred in the face of extreme poverty: the French Revolution is an excellent example.

I think economics have always been a “con game,” as you put it. There has always been a struggle between the haves and have-nots; it’s just played out in different forms and permutations over the centuries, so that it’s not always immediately obvious there is a struggle going on. Right now, though, I think the shell game is an open secret, just that people feel they can’t do anything about it, so they’ve numbed themselves to the current economic realities. However, the rumblings from last year’s OWS protests could be a precursor to more… we’ll see.

As you said, back to the original topic. I think you hit on it with your comment about “a certain level of security.” I think for people in this country (and globally in general), religion provides security. People are afraid of the unknown, and what they fear, they run from. They run towards anything that provides security, and organized religion has had centuries to get really good at providing a sense of security, regardless of how solid or hollow it really is. This is where anti-intellectualism comes in; the more intellectually curious you are, the more able you are to examine and take apart religious constructs, whether you end up reaffirming or changing your beliefs that you started with. The less intellectually curious you are, the more you accept the status quo, and organized religion is one of the biggest status quos that exist.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@AngryWhiteMale Great answer and thanks for the compliment!

One part of critical thinking is figuring out if your security is meaningful or not. The sad thing is we don’t teach people critical thinking and we all tend to take security on things that really don’t make us secure. More importantly, we are even more horrid at getting people to enjoy being outside their comfort zones. We can only test ourselves when we are outside our comfort zones. It’s only when we are challenged that we can determine the reality of our security.

linguaphile's avatar

@ro_in_motion I completely agree regarding critical thinking. Along that line, I’m a teacher, but… our current education system does not allow for “outside of comfort zones” thinking. It’s all “fill in the corresponding oval.”

Oversized classrooms only allows teachers time to evaluate the most basic thinking skill: recognition and sometimes recall; rarely do they evaluate application and almost never evaluate analysis— because analysis isn’t easily put into A, B, C and D answers.

Sad, and more so, extremely scary.

ro_in_motion's avatar

If I were dictator for a day, I’d kill all teachers that ‘teach to the test’ and kill the test as well.

I taught briefly in my checkered career and just didn’t worry about the tests. We just explored wherever the class on that day wanted to go. I have heard since that my students learned stuff in the 4th grade they didn’t see again until high school.

AngryWhiteMale's avatar

Critical thinking (or the lack thereof) makes quite a difference in many areas of life, not just religion, so I agree with you, @ro_in_motion and @linguaphile.

Still waiting for a Europeanist to provide a better answer to the original question than my hodgepodge of thoughts…

whitenoise's avatar

After the second world war, European governments decided that they would reduce the income/wealth division that had lead to great poverty, which was perceived as a major cause for the wars we had had. Also the Europen governments started economical cooperation.

I feel that this is the major explanation. In Europe it was no longer the churches that looked after the poor and ‘social fairness’, it was the governments. Humanism had a chance to proof it offered an alternative route to offering a moral society.

Free education, sponsored housing, welfare and accesible health care were rolled out. This further reduced a lot of the uncertainty in people’s lives and created hope for the future for even the poorest.

The existential uncertainty was reduced and the need to feel there is hope for the future was filled with options in this earthly life, reducing the need to wait for the afterlife.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@whitenoise There was a story on BBC’s website today about the NHS putting up the money to put to pay for pastors to visit patients and the debate to end that. Likewise, there was an article about the local government giving a large sum to an evangelical group wanting to renovate a building into a combination church and bowling alley. Talk about holy rollers! I am providing a link to prove I didn’t make that last item up! ;)

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