March 23, 2018
Religion and Its Publics Co-Director Paul Dafydd Jones writes in response to Peter Ormerod’s recent article for The Guardian, “So Christianity is no longer the norm? Going underground will do it good.”
‘It’s quite a statement. “Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good,” said Prof Stephen Bullivant this week, in response to figures showing widespread rejection of Christianity among Europe’s young people. He adds a slender caveat: “Or at least for the next 100 years.”’
So begins a short article in The Guardian by Peter Ormerod, which notes recent research on the disavowal of religious identification among sixteen to twenty-nine year olds across Europe, particularly in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. (Although (i) it’s possible to critique the methodology and construction of sociological studies of contemporary religion; and (ii) Omerod’s own piece doesn’t reckon with the fact that things look very different in some European countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, and Poland.) The article’s positive claim is even more interesting, at least for those fascinated with the prospects for religion in a late modern age: Christianity should embrace its “weirdness,” its oblique and often complicated relationship with established conventions and norms, for in so doing it stands some chance of recovering a distinctive identity.
Now it should be said that Ormerod’s position isn’t original. A commendation of a Christianity that “goes underground” bears some resemblance to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s interest in “religionless Christianity,” and Ormerod’s positive reading of the (apparent) demise of “Christendom” is anticipated – and, in fact, lauded – in the work of Karl Barth. The question of how studies about European religious life relates to religious life in the Americas, and to religion in the “global South,” must also be raised; it’s important that one doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that Europe leads the way, and the rest of the world is playing catch-up. But unoriginality and parochialism do not negate the significance or Ormerod’s claims. If Christianity in particular, and “organized” religion in general, no longer commands the field in Europe – if the era of Christian hegemony is really nearing an end – what comes next?
Paul Dafydd Jones is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and Co-Director of The Project on Religion and Its Publics.