Univ. of Manchester
One common objection to the secularization paradigm is that European countries display no common pattern of religious change. Some show high levels of affiliation, other have high levels of participation, yet others may be low in both but have not abandoned religion. Because there is no clear or common pattern or trend, the argument goes, the standard story of secularization must be wrong. Perhaps no single explanation of the religious situation is adequate, such is the diversity one finds across the continent.
Based on an analysis of retrospective questions from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), Iannaccone (2003) suggests that the variety of religious trends he finds implies that secularization theory applies to few countries. Another prominent exponent of what one might call the ‘ragbag thesis’ is Andrew Greeley, whose avowed aim in a book entitled Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium is to dispute the ‘dogma’ of religious decline. He writes:
In fact, if one looks at Europe with a relatively open mind, prepared to be surprised by its complexity, one discovers a wide variety of religious phenomena. In some countries, religion has increased (most notably the former communist countries and especially Russia), in others it has declined (most notably Britain, the Netherlands, and France), and in still other countries it is relatively unchanged (the traditional Catholic countries), and in yet other countries (some of the social democratic countries) it has both declined and increased. A single, one-directional model does not begin to cope with the variety of religious phenomena in Europe. ... ‘secularization’ ... is patently a useless theory because it says too much and hence fails to subsume a wide variety of interesting data (Greeley, 2003, p. xi).
Note that this approach does concede an important point: Europe is not a single entity but rather a collection of two dozen or more separate societies. If it is impossible to generalize about religious change in Europe, then the secularization thesis is indeed useless. If one can find a common account that works for these disparate countries, however, then the theory is potentially useful, especially if it may also apply elsewhere (e.g. in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, or even in Japan). While the sheer variety of history and culture across Europe makes unitary explanation a challenge, any hypothesis that survives testing in this arena has a considerable advantage.
There is a tension between the search for common patterns and describing the complexity of a situation. Despite the undoubted diversity that exists in Europe it is possible to identify common themes, with the rise and fall of fuzzy fidelity being one of the most important. The starting points are different across the continent, but the forces at work may be much the same. The consequences include the spread of indifference, which is ultimately as damaging for religion as scepticism.