Transformation of religion in modern European society

Transformation of religion in modern European society

This article was written in preparation for our round table on In God we Trust. Please find the full whitepaper here.

The well-known secularisation theory has dominated the discourses about religion in Europe ever since its debut in the middle of the twentieth century. The theory is based on the decreasing influence of religious institutions in the public sphere and the introduction of a plurality of alternative religious practices. But this theory certainly fails to acknowledge the inherent heterogeneity of European religiosity; a shortcoming even the theory’s author, Peter L. Berger, recognized in the nineties.[1]

The secular and the religious: boundary redefined
According to a Eurobarometer survey in 2010, in countries like Poland, Ireland, and Italy, Catholicism is the dominant tradition, while over 85% of the population in Greece, Cyprus, and Romania belong to the Orthodox Christian Church. Conversely, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway contain a relatively high proportion of Protestants (74-80%). Furthermore, the diversity of existing state-religion arrangements across Europe needs to be taken into consideration as well: among Council of Europe member countries, current institutional frameworks regarding religions range from established or official church systems, which are still in force in some countries such as the UK, Norway, and Greece, to diverse forms of mild separation allowing collaborations between state and religious communities, for instance in Germany, Belgium, Spain, or Italy, and strict separation (or laïcité) in France and Turkey.[2]

There are also important differences between the specific beliefs and practices of individual adherents that must be considered when analysing ‘religiosity.’ For example, on the one hand, church members may believe that “there is a God” or in “some other higher power or spiritual force,” which is not always compatible with church theology. On the other hand, beliefs in and practices of the new alternative religion such as out-of-body experiences, contact with spirits, and visions are associated with spiritism, parapsychology, or magic, rather than with religion and religious experiences. [3] Moreover, declining church membership and engagement are not always indicative of secularisation and withdrawal from a religious institution does not always mean an abnegation of one’s belief.[4] What we have seen in the past decades is better described as a decline of institutional religion, combined with a heightened individualised and diversified religiosity.

Equating church membership to personal religiosity is based on a eurocentric understanding of religion that fails to consider the global religious reality we face today.[5] Inspired by encounters with the cultural and religious others, Europeans started to reflect on and to negotiate the definition of religion as a universal term.[6]  For instance, Buddhism as a non-European religion gained popularity in the West in the 19th century after European colonial powers invaded Buddhist cultural areas. It is represented in central, western, and, to a lesser extent, Southern Europe in all major cities and still on the rise today.[7] And individuals who claim multiple religious identities become the common reality in our multicultural and multireligious world, which adds further complexity. Moreover, the plurality of new religious forms such as yoga and meditation brings out new aspects into potential religious developments in Europe. It parallels the rise of religion in large parts of the developing world. For example, more than 60% of Europeans report having had exceptional paranormal experiences and encounters with spirits. And this number has been steadily increasing from 20% in 1970.[8]

The redefinition of religion was also prompted by religious institutions’ decreasing interpretational sovereignty over “what is religion.” Equipped with social and political discursive power, religious institutions in Europe were previously able to exclude a range of phenomena that may be regarded as religious in other societies. However, this influence has since declined.[9] Along with this, the recent re-conceptualisation of religion brought about new opportunities for a more modern understanding of human religiosity.[10]

The individual and the institutional: a shift in the social form of religion
The diversified religious practices, as well as personalised and individualised understandings of religion, reflect a fundamental shift in European society. No longer dictated by religious authority, the essence of religious life now allows for unprecedented personal input. [11]

Church institutions have gradually failed to meet the trust of both religious and non-religious people. After sexual abuse and financial scandals were brought to light, Christian churches addressed their necessity and willingness to reflect on its mistakes, failures, and the missing liveliness in the house of God.[12] However, it seems like not much has significantly changed over time. In addition, religious institutions have difficulties to integrate into modern European society, which results in decreasing numbers of members and a decline in personal attachment to the church. [13] Moreover, we are faced with a pluralistic culture with a wide-open religious marketplace and the challenge of inclusion of the most diverse understandings of religion without falling prey to ethnocentric prejudgements.[14] It can be observed in the construction of “patchwork religiosity”: this concept suggests that all religions contain insights about God but no religion provides a complete understanding of God. Therefore, one way to increase one’s understanding of God is by gleaning ideas from many different religious traditions.[15] In addition, multiple religious belongings for both individuals and religious communities are common as well: one may belong to the Christian faith but also find meaning in yoga or meditation inspired by Eastern traditions. For example, Christian yoga courses are now provided in church educational facilities.[16]

Religion is not limited to the church, which makes the change of the location and social form of religion possible. Firstly, the location of religion has changed from designated houses of worship to everywhere, which also allows for more forms of religious practices at home, in nature, in cinemas and museums, or even online.[17] What can also be observed in contemporary Europe is that religion has returned to the political stage. Secondly, the social form of religion has privatised and diversified since it is no longer regulated only by religious authorities. Subjective experiences and emotions of individuals are emphasised: a person can encounter God or some spiritual being by practising meditation, and a person can be religious without belonging to the church or accepting church theology. What is more, it frees religion from the institutional power of old-style religious orthodoxies but puts religion in a position where it can be abused by other social institutions as well, for instance the political system.[18]

The spiritual and the practical: the paradox of modernity
The comparison between the “human-near” religiosity in our modern society and traditional religion may appear to be liberating at first sight, since the latter holds the monopoly over the definition of religion for ages. The essential characteristic of the ‘modern’ form of religion is the demonopolisation of production and distribution of worldviews.[19] Nevertheless, whether it necessarily translates to freedom and free choices per se, still needs further deliberation.

Modern society is highly characterised by pluralisation of livelihood chances for individuals.[20] More flexibility is given to modern people. It becomes less and less self-evident to simply be born into a tradition and accept the role attributed by it.[21] However, individualism does not necessarily lead to free choices. Individuals are ‘free’ to choose, in the sense that they think they face a variety of options and can choose freely. As a matter of fact, they are forced to choose, even when they may not have a persisting trust in the existing common values and institutions. One all-embracing world view for a pluralistic society seems to be more urgently needed than ever before, but it becomes impossible. Furthermore, a variety of sources supplies the market of worldviews: while religious institutions offer a product that is clearly religious, other carriers of (political) religions that focus on race and nation, class, etc. continue to enter the highly competitive market as well.[22]  Besides that, constant consumption of the internet and mass media barely leaves modern people any room for genuine individuality and long-term accountability of collective representations: one’s trust in one’s self-regulating ability and one’s self-doubt are continuously entangled. And trust demands a certain commitment, yet this commitment is constantly challenged by the paradox of modernity: trust has not simply shifted from collectivity to individuality, but it is wiped out in a sense.  What is more, religion is uncaged from the institutional power of old-style religious orthodoxies and can act more independently than in the past,[23] at least in principle. This puts religion in a vulnerable position where it can be abused as a vehicle for new ideological positions, such as in the political scene. Despite the shift of the social form of religion, its ‘contents’ still include traditional orthodoxies of ecclesiastic and political-ideological origin. [24] As the pace of functional differentiation of political, economic, and legal functions of social life speeded up since the late Middle Ages, the process did not spare religion. Religious institutions continued to serve as the social-structural basis of morality, but they were more restricted to what was considered their ‘proper’ function by the modern state. In consequence, the socially and morally disciplining force of religious institutions began to weaken, while religion continued playing an important role in social life and the public sphere. In short, religion has not only undergone individualisation but also moved to the geopolitical stage. On the one hand, the modern person has bypassed religion as an individual conviction, socially defined subjective realities; on the other hand, religion is undercovered as a political-ideological instrument and has moved from one institution to another.

Han Chang

To all news items ->

Would you like to stay updated on the latest news on religion & society? Create an account on the EARS Dashboard and receive free weekly updates.


[1] Berger, P.L.(2012) Further Thoughts on Religion and Modernity, in: Society 49, P. 313-316.; Berger, P. L. (1999). The desecularization of the world. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center. P.1-18.
[2] Ringelheim, J. (2017). State Religious Neutrality as a Common European Standard? Reappraising the European Court of Human Rights Approach. Oxford Journal of Law and Religion. 6. 10.1093/ojlr/rww060. P.2.
[3] Knoblauch H. Europe and Invisible Religion. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):272-273. doi:10.1177/00377686030503001; Schieder, R., & Meyer-Magister, H. (2013). Neue Rollen der Religion in modernen Gesellschaften. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, (24), 28-34.
[4] Knoblauch H. Europe and Invisible Religion. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):270. doi:10.1177/00377686030503001
[5] Luckmann T. Transformations of Religion and Morality in Modern Europe. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):275-276. doi:10.1177/00377686030503002
[6] Knoblauch H. Europe and Invisible Religion. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):270-271. doi:10.1177/00377686030503001.; The Global Religious Landscape 
[7] According to current estimates, for example, there are 250,000 Buddhists in Germany and 60,000 in Italy. Buddhismus und Europa | bpb; Buddhism – Buddhism in the contemporary world 
[8] Knoblauch H. Europe and Invisible Religion. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):270-273. doi:10.1177/00377686030503001.; Yoga statistics; Yoga in Zahlen 
[9] Berger, P. L. (1999). The desecularization of the world. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center. P.4.; Knoblauch H. Europe and Invisible Religion. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):271. doi:10.1177/00377686030503001.
[10] Schieder, R., & Meyer-Magister, H. (2013). Neue Rollen der Religion in modernen Gesellschaften. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, (24), P.30.
[11] Schieder, R., & Meyer-Magister, H. (2013). Neue Rollen der Religion in modernen Gesellschaften. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, (24), P.28.; Berger, P. L. (1999). The desecularization of the world. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center. P.4.
[12] Schieder, R., & Meyer-Magister, H. (2013). Neue Rollen der Religion in modernen Gesellschaften. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, (24), P.29.; Kirchenaustrittszahlen in Deutschland so hoch wie nie zuvor
[13] Kirchliche Statistik 2019: Der große Schock – und keine Hoffnung mehr?
[14] Knoblauch H. Europe and Invisible Religion. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):268. doi:10.1177/00377686030503001. 
[15] Wuthnow R. America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity / Robert Wuthnow. — Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. — Р. 120.
[16] Double belonging: One person, two faiths; Zwischen Sport und Spiritualität  
[17] Berger, P. L. (1999). The desecularization of the world. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center. P.4.
[18] Schieder, R., & Meyer-Magister, H. (2013). Neue Rollen der Religion in modernen Gesellschaften. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, (24), P.29.; Statistiken und Zahlen
[19] Luckmann, T. (2003). Transformations of religion and morality in modern Europe. Social Compass, 50(3), 275-285. P.281.
[20] Schnettler B. (2019) Peter L. Berger: The Heretical Imperative. Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation [dt. Der Zwang zur Häresie. Religion in der pluralistischen Gesellschaft] (1979). In: Gärtner C., Pickel G. (eds) Schlüsselwerke der Religionssoziologie. Veröffentlichungen der Sektion Religionssoziologie der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-658-15250-5_40. P.355-356.
[21] Schieder, R., & Meyer-Magister, H. (2013). Neue Rollen der Religion in modernen Gesellschaften. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, (24), P.31.
[22] Luckmann T. Transformations of Religion and Morality in Modern Europe. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):275-276. doi:10.1177/00377686030503002. P.281.
[23] Schieder, R., & Meyer-Magister, H. (2013). Neue Rollen der Religion in modernen Gesellschaften. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, (24), P.28.
[24] Luckmann T. Transformations of Religion and Morality in Modern Europe. Social Compass. 2003;50(3):275-276. doi:10.1177/00377686030503002. P.281.