Compelling Data about Religious Affiliation & Practice among Young Europeans

newly released report on data from the 2014-2016 European Social Survey provides much to ponder not only in the run-up to the 2018 Synod of Bishops concerning young Catholics but also with regard to regular participation in worship or other prayer practices by those claiming religious affiliation.

Among the 22 countries surveyed the highest proportion of young adults with no religious affiliation is in the Czech Republic at a whopping 91%, which is not surprising given the legacy of the exceptionally brutal, systematic repression of the church in the former Czechoslovakia. At the other end of the spectrum are the 83% of Polish young people claiming religious identity.

The report, jointly issued in English and French by St. Mary’s University London and the Instiut Catholique de Paris, notes the rates of 16-to-29-year-olds religiously unaffiliated in their respective countries to be at 70% and 64%. But even for the small percentages of young people identifying as Catholic, weekly Mass attendance among them is at just 17% in the UK and 7% in France.

While in his Introduction the report’s author, Stephen Bullivant, emphasizes the decision to keep commentary to a minimum so as to let the data “speak for themselves,” he does draw attention to the disparity between culturally driven religious identity versus actual belief and practice. For example, in such countries as Austria and Slovenia, both in the top-five for rates of religious affiliation (63 % and 62%, respectively), only 4% and 7% (respectively) say they attend religious services weekly.

Across the report’s three chapters is quite a wealth of data that I, for one, find helpful to counter what too often is only anecdotal observations or biased (however well intended) characterizations of the state of Christian identification and practice, including worship, as our twenty-first century evolves. Perhaps ironically, recourse to data itself, as one example of narrowly identifying truth with scientific evidence, is proving to be a key reason young Americans, for example, are stepping away from religious affiliation.

Just yesterday evening during a dinner for post-doctoral science and engineering students to which I was invited, an African-American pharmacologist asked me why membership in the Black Church was in significant decline. I replied that the phenomenon was not unique to the Black Church but rather spans American Christianity, with multiple studies finding one of the main reasons given by young religiously unaffiliated people being a perceived disparity between data-driven scientific knowledge and the content of biblical and credal Christianity. The young woman nodded in ready agreement. Further factors we discussed included patriarchal domination of some churches and denominations and, from her own ethnic location, rejection of Christianity as a tool in the colonial subjugation and enslavement of African peoples.

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