Column: What of the Christians?

Pagan Perspectives

One of my most vivid school memories comes from a history lesson I had when I was about seven or eight. From very early on, history had been my favorite subject. The books were always filled to the brim with colorful pictures, and the fact that the topic encompasses just about everything that ever took place regarding mankind drew my attention. That day at school, we were supposed to learn about the Renaissance and the 16th century. As I opened my book, my eyes met with a picture of a crowd laying waste to a church, breaking windows and tearing down statues. The picture was an illustration of a band of Protestants erasing figures of saints in a captured church, but my young mind was oblivious to that event. Instead, I translated the picture in a somewhat different fashion:

“Wow! These guys are like, destroying the church? I had no idea one could do that. That’s awesome! Go, guys! I am 100% with you on that one! Slay! Destroy the whole damned church!”

Yep — I was quite the radical anti-Christian in my younger years. I cannot recall why these still-vivid thoughts popped up in my mind at that moment, but I remember the following logic: Christians persecuted and burned heretics, witches, and everyone who opposed them, so they kind of had it coming.

Despite these rather violent thoughts, I was not raised and schooled in a dystopian dictatorship that banned religion and criminalized faith. I was born and raised in France, a country that once was nicknamed “the Church’s elder daughter” and has been a Christian-majority country for over fifteen centuries.

The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566 by Frans Hogenberg, 1588 [public domain.]

Despite this ancient link between the French nation and Catholic Christianity, my younger self had no issues developing a strong and very public distaste for what had been for the longest time the faith — and the law — of the land. Until a few years ago, I simply understood the situation as the victory of Republican ideology (something I touched on in a previous column) replacing the now-outdated cult of the Nazarene. This, of course, was more of a (literally) childish oversimplification than a fair assessment.

Not that I would blame a younger me, or anyone for that matter, who came to similar conclusions. Religion was, at large, absent from the public sphere when I grew up. I was raised in the traditionalist deep south of France, within a roughly agnostic household — my mother would occasionally call upon a couple saints, but that was all. I had the privilege of simply not thinking much about religion and Christianity. Most people would not bring up religion in public either. The only individuals I suspected were church-goers were fairly elderly, and even they almost never brought up their religion unless asked.

Sure, we had a bit of biblical history at school, but it was never looked at from a religious perspective. The few traces of Christianity I encountered — someone singing in the church choir, a few fridge magnets with biblical quotes at a friend’s place, the crucifixes at the local church’s thrift store — always felt like they belonged to some peripheral universe. This freedom from religion, in a manner of speaking, I experienced during my formative years surely helped me dig deeper into more subterranean faiths and worldviews, which led me to where I am today.

This is how I remember my childhood, anyway. This subjective retelling is not the whole story, far from it. While I grew up in a relatively Christianity-free environment, my experiences do not necessarily fully mirror that of my fellow Frenchmen and Europeans. As I grew up, left my country of birth, and started to think about and study religion in a more serious fashion, I began to see things a bit differently from when I was a wee lad. While Christianity might not have been all that obvious for me as a child, the influence of the religion remains strong in the old world. But in what ways?

The interior of the Lofoten Cathedral in Kabelvål, North-Norway [Courtesy L. Perabo.]

A few days ago, I happened to stumble upon a study produced by the renowned Pew research center entitled Being Christian in Western Europe. This document helped me reconsider not only my own preconceptions about the place of Christianity in contemporary Europe, but also gave some clues as to what the future might hold for us witches and heretics.

The study, undertaken in 2017, focuses on fifteen western European countries. Some 24,000 individuals were asked a wide range of questions about religion, ethics, and politics in order to detail the state of Christianity in contemporary Western Europe. The main methodological framework upon which this research is based is the division between so-called “church-attending Christians,” “non-practicing Christians,” the “religiously unaffiliated,” and others, mostly “questioning” or members of other faiths. While this framework is arbitrary to a degree, I feel that it does a decent job at revealing the fault lines of faith that exist in 21st century Europe.

The data on church-attending Christians represents, I believe, some of the most interesting findings of the study. A mere 18% of Frenchmen attend a Christian service once a month or more, while more than double this number (46%) consider themselves “believers” but do not attend services regularly. Interestingly, these numbers are identical with the European median, and while there are regional variations, these are more often than not the exception rather than the norm. For example, only three countries (Ireland, Italy and Portugal) count more than a third of their populations as “church-attending Christians.” In almost all the countries surveyed, the largest demographic group is made up of “non-practicing Christians.” The only exceptions are Norway and the Netherlands, where the largest demographic group (respectively, no less than 43% and 48%) is made of “nones.”

These statistics make a lot of sense to me. Having lived in Norway for more than seven years, I must say that the Church does not hold much influence nowadays. Over the years, I have only met at the very most a dozen people whom I knew were, or openly presented themselves as, Christians. In comparison, the number of Norwegians I have met who have expressed nothing but distrust or disapproval of Christianity (or religion in general) must be around the same. While the majority (93%) of people still get baptized, and 79% continue to be raised in the faith, only about half consider themselves Christian when reaching adulthood.

In practice, while most Norwegians belong to the Church, they seem to have little to no religious commitment towards the god of the Bible and only remain for the sake of practicality and tradition. Despite the lack of religiosity in Norwegians, most people still get married in the church, buried in a Christian cemetery, and the like. Protestant confirmation is especially important for the youth, who, in exchange for posing as well-behaved Christians for an afternoon, tend to receive a substantial monetary gift from their relatives — probably from great aunt Ingegerd, the only member of the family who still goes to church every Sunday.

Another rather telling point discussed in this study is the rise of a “Christian identity” that does not necessarily correlate with strict religious affirmation: according to the study, “Christian identity – irrespective of the level of religious observance – is associated with higher levels of nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-religious minority sentiment.” While the study cautiously states that while there indeed is a statistical correlation between Christian identity and right-wing sentiment, there is no proven causality between the two, this singular sort of intersectionality is something I have observed in the past myself.

As I stated earlier, back in my younger French days, public displays of faith were rare and considered somewhat gauche by many. This changed around 2013 when then-President Francois Hollande legalized same-sex marriage. The initiative, despite being backed by a majority of Frenchmen, proved quite divisive in the public sphere, and ultimately led to the establishment of La Manif pour Tous (“the Protest for Everyone”), a Tea Party-like movement that organized a series of massive public protests against the new law. In France, a country in which one can easily wait 15 or 20 years between two significant right-wing demonstrations, La Manif pour Tous represented something new. For the first time in a very long time, the religious right came out of the woodwork, physically occupying the once-neutral public space.

In the years that followed, more and more far-right organizations and personalities started to advocate for a renewed public commitment toward the Christian faith, and even more so, a Christian identity. This development did not take place in a vacuum. Besides being opposed to more liberal social values regarding reproductive rights, sexual freedom, and so on, this “Christian identity” movement is often principally understood in the context of the growth and increasing visibility of Islam in Europe. While reliable numbers are obviously hard to come by, it is generally accepted that the share of Muslims in Western Europe has risen significantly in the past couple of years. Together with this demographic growth, Islam and Islamic organizations have been taking on a more significant place in the public discourse of numerous Western European nations.

French protestors from La Manif pour Tous, March 2013 [, used under Creative Commons License Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0].

According to some European researchers, it is in part because of this growing cultural presence of Islam that a politicized strain of Christian identity has emerged. The Pew study cites French social-scientist Olivier Roy, who says, “If the Christian identity of Europe has become an issue, it is precisely because Christianity as faith and practices faded away in favor of a cultural marker which is more and more turning into a neo-ethnic marker (‘true’ Europeans versus ‘migrants’).” This is another process I have witnessed, particularly online. French supporters of such a “Christian identity” routinely talk about returning France to its “Christian roots,” all the while cursing the Pope for his avowed pro-migrant stance. Similarly, the Norwegian outlet — think of a Scandinavian mixture of Fox News and Breitbart, but more boring and much tamer — often publishes articles where the Church of Norway is condemned for its tolerant ecumenism and betrayal of “traditional” Norwegian Christian values.

Regardless of the angle from which one approaches the issue, it is hard to see Christianity in Western Europe as anything but an increasingly embattled player trying to hold its own in a ring that is only gotten more crowded. One could certainly ask about other religions as well, including Paganism. What could Paganism’s place be in this context?

Thankfully, the Pew study does include a few key findings about religions other than Christianity, especially “Eastern and New Age spiritual ideas and practices.” While more mainstream practices and beliefs such as astrology and tarot or horoscope reading are taken up — the median percentage of European practitioners being, respectively, 23% and 13% — less well-known beliefs are also surveyed. One surprising finding was that about 20% — one in five Europeans — believe in reincarnation. As for belief in the “evil eye” and other curses, 16% of respondents responded positively, with the number rising as high as a whopping 48% for Portugal and a respectable 33% for Spain. Unfortunately, the section of the study focusing on “alternative” religions is rather minuscule, taking up only five of the 168 pages of the document.

Parts of the methodology used by the researchers to separate Christians from non-Christians can also be criticized. The main problem I have with the study in this respect is the fact that, while the category of “church-attending Christians” is rather clear-cut, the much larger pool of “non-practicing Christians” is far from being as cohesive. Indeed, the study notes that “while most non-practicing Christians say they do believe in God or some other higher power, most say they do not believe in God as described in the Bible.”

The numbers related to these findings are honestly baffling. On average, only 27% of Western Europeans believe “in God as described in the Bible,” while 38% believe in some “other higher power or spiritual force.” As for “non-practicing Christians,” the share of individuals who believe in “God as described in the Bible” is even lower (24%), while the share of believers in other forces is as high as 51%. Even a significant portion (28%) of the religiously unaffiliated, and, surprisingly enough, of the church-attending Christians (32%) say they believe not in the god of the Bible, but in other powers!

After analyzing this information, one can wonder whether all the “non-practicing Christians” described in this study truly can be considered Christian. Detailed methodology for the study is not yet available, so it is unclear whether the pollsters even straightforwardly asked responders whether they considered themselves Christians at all, or whether they simply inferred that a belief in some sort of “god” coupled with some sort of association with a church meant that the respondent had to be a Christian, whether practicing or non-practicing.

Regardless of the answer, one can wonder if someone openly disbelieving in the God of the Bible, and maybe also believing in reincarnation, and maybe even practicing Yoga as a spiritual exercise (as no less than 26% of responders do), should truly be considered Christian at all. This conundrum really is about one and one thing only: the definition of “god.” More often than not, any notion of the divine in Western Europe is assumed to be that of the Abrahamic god. In France, this tendency is so overpowering that no-one ever even talks about being a “Christian,” choosing instead to refer to followers of Yahweh or Jesus as “believers” or “practitioners.”

In this respect, the Pew research center’s study is no more or less faulty than the plethora of popular articles, documentaries, and public debates that discuss the notion of the divine in contemporary Europe. However, it is worth noting that the Pew Research Center funded the present study (like the majority of its studies on religion) through money provided by the Templeton Foundation, a powerful philanthropic organization that has been linked to conservative policy-making as well as climate change-denial and Christian Evangelical groups. Considering that the Pew Research Center appears to be dependent on money coming from such an organization, would it be all that surprising that its research might end up skewed in favor of Christianity? Mayhaps.

The church of Karlsøya, Troms County, 2016 [courtesy L. Perabo].

But besides this peripheral methodological issue, the data pertaining to the existence of a great number of non-Christian believers in Western Europe could mean a lot for the future of contemporary Paganism. Today there exist a significant pool of people who believe, or want to believe, in some sort of divine, some sort of magic, but decidedly do not care much at all for the Christian god. These people might already hold certain beliefs about fate, the stars, or the soul. (As many as 74% of religiously unaffiliated believers agree with the notion of a soul distinct from the mortal body, for example.) These people, who might simply just carry on calling themselves Christians because that religion is seen as the “default religious setting” in Europe, have all it takes to develop their beliefs further, away from the Abrahamic tradition.

If Paganism, Witchcraft, Heathenry, and other polytheistic traditions are to ever gain significant foothold in Europe again, they will have to first and foremost reach out to these people. Sure, the outreach work necessary to make such traditions credible players in the eyes of the public will be significant, but, as exemplified by the Icelandic Ásatrúarfélagið, it certainly can bear fruit. Let us hope that, in the future, new seekers will find a path fit for them. Who knows? There may be thousands of curious schoolchildren who, once school starts again this fall, will discover history books filled to the brim with tales of Christian depravity and exactions, and will, just like I did, end up rooting for the witches and heretics.

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