Is God Dead? In Western Europe, It Sure Can Look That Way. That's the headline of the provocative cover story in Newsweek's July 12 international edition.
The article presents data on one of the major stories of the twentieth century: the collapse of Christian practice in Western Europe. With the exception of Italy (29.4%) and Ireland (63.2%), it is difficult to find a country where more than a fifth of the population claims to go to church “regularly.” In Paris, the figure is less than 5% — and other cities in Europe are not much better. Indeed, Newsweek correctly judges Western Europe to be “a post-Christian continent.”
The article focuses on the consequences for the churches of the “death of God.” It quotes Anglican primate Dr. George Carey of Canterbury saying that the Church of England was “one generation away from extinction.”
Other sources offer the tired blather that people are still seeking the same spiritual dimension but in different places, as if the God of the First Commandment could be adequately replaced by reading Chicken Soup for the Soul or indulging in a little ersatz Buddhism.
Newsweek may exaggerate the point by claiming that “Christianity has become an alternative lifestyle — as wacky as atheism once seemed,” but there is no point opposing the evidence that Western Europe has been unfaithful to its baptismal promises. In fact, Pope John Paul II suggested as much in France nearly 20 years ago.
The operative question is: What are the consequences for society of the “death of God?” One might pose Newsweek's question a little differently: Is Western Europe Dead?
Western Europe is dying — of old age. Falling birthrates have meant that the old nations of Europe are getting older. The nations that once conquered the farthest corners of the globe are witnessing the demographic conquest of their capitals by their former colonial subjects, with the social and racial tensions to match. Birth rates tend to plunge during times of great stress or when the future is bleak — times of war or famine, for example. Thus the dearth of children is a stark confession of a lack of hope in the future.
The fearfulness of Western Europe might be a reaction to the bloody toll wrought by the grand schemes and false utopias of the past two hundred years. In 1789 the blood started flowing in earnest, and Europe has been wracked ever since by revolutions and wars — save for the “peace” of the Cold War, achieved by Western Europe (and America) consigning Eastern Europe to the Soviet empire. The collapse of communism held out the great prospect of true peace. At least, until the massacres resumed in the Balkans.
Perhaps Western Europe, the land of explorers and missionaries, has simply tired of the great adventures of the spirit and has become willing to settle for a future concerned with more mundane matters. The European Union has been Western Europe's overarching post-war project. But matters of organization — common currencies and joint regulation of food safety standards and the like — will not be a sufficient foundation for a common project worthy of the European heritage. The building of a superstate (and even that project is not universally supported) cannot be an end in itself. Can it be that the same peoples who built the cathedrals and castles of the past now want a monster bureaucracy in Brussels as their enduring monument?
“It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God,” wrote Henri de Lubac in The Drama of Atheistic Humanism, trying to understand Europe's failed experiments in totalitarianism. “What is true is that, without God, he can ultimately organize it only against man.”
Western Europe is busy organizing its world again, 10 years after the Berlin Wall fell, and 10 weeks after the most recent European war finished. The task of re-organization now involves the newly freed “other half” of Europe, from the Baltics to the Balkans.
It seems unlikely that this new Europe will organize itself in an old-style totalitarian fashion again, but absent any transcendent horizon, what kind of Europe will emerge? If Europe abandons its Christian identity — which is what united Europe in the first instance — will a common agricultural policy provide a sufficient substitute?
The story of the European turmoil of the past 200 years can be read as the consequence of revolutions that sought to organize Europe according to, as George Weigel puts it, “ultra-mundane theories of redemption.” If the Europe of the 21st century attempts the same thing, merely substituting the shiny baubles of consumer culture for the ideologies of race and class, are there any grounds for confidence that the results won't be the same?
The specter of amoral medicine run amok is already haunting Europe. Will those who killed God have any reason not to kill the weak, the aged, the disabled and the genetically “inferior” in their midst?
Frank Sheed, the great Catholic apologist, wrote that the most important war of his time — and he lived through both world wars — was a battle over whether God was dead or alive. “On one side were those who hold that all the world's problems must be solved within the boundaries of the world. On the other are those who hold that without God and his Christ and the spiritual soul and the world to come, no problems can be solved.”
Is God dead in Western Europe? If he is, can Western Europe long survive?
Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.