Others, looking at the same pattern of secularization, point to the impact of theological liberalism, the rise of a technological society, and the cultural shift towards autonomous individualism as the main factors behind Christianity's decline.

The Numbers Don't Mesh

At the dawn of the 20th century, the vast majority of European citizens identified themselves as Christians. Even now, 75 percent of Europeans identify themselves as Christians. What is going on here? If three out of four Europeans claim to be Christians, how can Europe have become so pervasively secularized?

For some years, sociologists and observers of church life have suggested that younger persons are developing a pattern identified as "believing without belonging." In other words, these researchers have suggested that low levels of church attendance may be offset by the fact that individuals still hold residual Christian beliefs. The more recent shape of secularized Europe indicates that the opposite must be true--that millions of Europeans must be "belonging without believing." In other words, these persons identify themselves as Christians simply as a matter of family heritage or superficial identity. Evidently, their Christian identity is not based in deep levels of Christian belief, high levels of church participation, or traditional markers of Christian discipleship. In Sweden, the government reports that 85 percent of Swedes are church members, yet only eleven percent of women and seven percent of men attend church services.

'Morality'

The most documented evidence of Europe's secularization comes in moral terms. As USA Today reports, the number of marriages is dropping throughout much of Europe. "There is virtually no social stigma for unmarried parents," the paper explains. "More than half of the children in Sweden and Norway are born to unmarried mothers, according to the European Union." In other nations, the statistics are similar.

Interestingly, the paper reports that one of the "most striking consequences" of Christianity's decline in Europe has been fewer children. As Knox explains, "The birth rate throughout much of Western Europe has fallen so drastically that the population in many countries is shrinking . . . ." As Ronald Inglehart argues, "The biggest single consequence of the declining role of the church is the huge decline in fertility rates."

The pattern doesn't stop there, of course. USA Today also acknowledges that the decline of Christian belief in Europe "also has brought a change in attitudes and laws on issues such as divorce, abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research."

Without doubt, the decline in Christian belief and the massive transformation of European lifestyles and moral expectations go hand in hand. As a matter of fact, it may be impossible to determine just how these trends work together within the process of secularization. As Christian conviction declines, Christian morality gives way to the ethos of moral individualism, sexual libertinism, and eroding commitment to marriage, children, and family.

USA Today's cover story on the decline of Christianity in Western Europe raises the question of America's future. In many ways, America seems to be following the European example, though several years behind. Yet the pace of moral transformation in the United States may indicate that America is fast catching up with the European model of secularization.

All this should remind seriously-minded Christians to analyze survey data with caution. Even as the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christians, the indicators of social morality and commitment to marriage and children indicate that America may be moving closer to the European precedent.

The evidence is mounting, and the current shape of secular Europe should serve as a powerful warning. Without a robust commitment to Christian truth, Christian morality simply fades away.

 

Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world. He is a theologian and ordained minister, as well as an author, speaker and host of his own radio program The Albert Mohler Program. Visit www.albertmohler.com/ or www.crosswalk.com/news/weblogs/mohler/