"I don't go to church, and I don't know one person who does." That statement, taken from Brian Kenny, a 39-year-old graduate student in Dublin, Ireland, launches readers of  USA Today into a consideration of Christianity's receding influence in Europe.

In  "Religion Takes a Back Seat in Western Europe," USA Today considers the rapid pace of secularization in Western Europe, and the social, moral, and political impact that has resulted from Europe's loss of faith.

The newspaper obviously believes that something important is at stake in this analysis, for this article by Noelle Knox appeared on the front page of the August 11, 2005 edition of the paper. As it stands, the article offers considerable information and insight. Something remarkable and newsworthy has taken place in Western Europe over the last two decades. Once the very cradle of Christian civilization, Europe has embraced a secular future, and the residual memory of the Christian tradition is fading fast.

For at least half a century, researchers have been observing massive shifts in Western cultures. The increasingly secular shape of European civilization has been evident for some time, though a realization of this can sometimes come as an explosive insight. When Brian Kenny reported, "I don't go to church, and I don't know one person who does," he understood that something had changed. "Fifteen years ago, I didn't know one person who didn't," he reflected.


Can't Ignore Stats

The statistics documenting European secularization are now impossible to ignore. Ireland, still one of the least secular nations in Western Europe, has seen church attendance fall by at least 25 percent over the last three decades. Ireland is predominantly Roman Catholic, of course, but the paper reports, "Not one priest will be ordained this year in Dublin."

On the Protestant side, the picture is not much better. Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, once the cradles of the Reformation, are now prime examples of Europe's secular shape.

Throughout the European continent, Islam is the only religion growing in the number of adherents. According to the Center for the Study on Global Christianity, at the  Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in suburban Boston, the decline in Christian influence "is most evident in France, Sweden and the Netherlands, where church attendance is less than ten percent in some areas."

Why has this happened? Ronald Inglehart, Director of the World Values Survey in Sweden, suggests that Christianity has been a comfort to people in times of crisis. "For most of history, people have been on the borderline of survival," he explains. "That's changed dramatically. Survival is certain for almost everyone (in the West). So one of the reasons people are drawn to religion has eroded."

In other words, Mr. Inglehart believes that religion fulfills a social function. Once that function is no longer needed, the entire structure of Christian belief becomes unnecessary.

This kind of reductionism is now common in the social sciences, where religious faith is seen in functional terms rather than in theological categories.