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Study: Christianity in Western Europe is as much about identity as belief

A Pew poll suggests European Christians are less sure about God than American “nones.”

Travel Destination: Berchtesgaden Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A recent Pew poll suggests that in both the United States and Western Europe, religious identity and religious belief aren’t the same at all.

In a telephone survey of more than 24,000 people in Western Europe, Pew discovered that, particularly when it came to Christianity, beliefs about God and identification as a Christian didn’t always overlap. In Western Europe in particular, the poll suggested, Christianity serves as a kind of cultural and nationalist identity marker as much as, if not more than, it does a religious faith.

Non-practicing Christians were the largest single bloc interviewed in all but three of the 15 countries considered by the study. (In Norway and Netherlands, there were more “unaffiliated” respondents; in Italy, there were equal numbers of non-practicing and practicing Christians.) Throughout the study, non-practicing Christians tended to diverge from their church-attending counterparts significantly on political and ideological questions.

Just 64 percent of church-attending identified Christians believe in God as described in the Bible, while a mere 24 percent of non-practicing Christians do. (By contrast, 80 percent of American Christians say they believe in the biblical God.)

Among church-attending European Christians, high percentages express views that suggest a degree of nationalism: 72 percent say that it is important to be ethnically linked to a given country in order to be considered “fully” a member of that country (thus, for example, Germans “should” have German ancestry), and 49 percent believe that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with their culture. These numbers drop among non-practicing Christians — just 52 percent say someone’s full membership in a country should be predicated on their ethnicity, and 45 percent say Islam is incompatible with their culture.

The answers to those two questions drop even further among the religiously unaffiliated — down to 42 and 32 percent, respectively. More broadly, churchgoing Christians in Europe tended to have more negative views about Muslims, Jews, and immigrants than their non-churchgoing Christian counterparts, who in turn had more negative views than the religiously unaffiliated.

Another striking finding of the survey was that non-practicing Christians nevertheless by and large tend to be theistic. While just 24 percent believe in the biblical God, 51 percent believe in another higher power, compared to the religiously affiliated, in which just 28 percent believe in a higher power.

The Pew study comes on the heels of an April Pew study about belief in God in America, and the differences are instructive. Just 23 percent of European Christians believe with absolute certainty that there is a God, whereas 27 percent of American “nones” — the religiously unaffiliated, which includes atheists and agnostics but also the “spiritual but not religious” — do.

But we should not conclude from this, as the Atlantic does, that “Atheists Are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians.” Rather, the difference speaks to the degree to which Christian identity is increasingly a national and ethnic identity marker in Europe, as well as the degree to which the category of “religiously unaffiliated” is becoming a more and more important space in the religious landscape. The category of the “none” includes atheists, to be sure, but also the “spiritual but not religious,” and a number of people who may feel alienated from the culture or politics of their birth religion but still retain its spiritual practices.

Overall, the study suggests that the way we talk about “religion” is overly reductive and simplistic. We have little language to distinguish between what we might call “cultural” Christianity — with nationalist elements — and spiritual or theological beliefs. A “none” may believe in God (and, indeed, like 17 percent of American “nones,” the God of the Bible), whereas a churchgoing Christian might not.

The Pew study highlights just how complex, and difficult, categorizing faith and identity really is.

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