A group of about 350 conventioneers consisting largely of atheists, agnostics, and non-believers met in Dublin this past weekend to discuss religion in the first World Atheist Convention. The convention comes at a time when religion is on the minds of many Europeans and the topic has re-emerged in public discourse. The convention made it apparent that while Europe is a relatively secular part of the world, many Europeans are still concerned over the role of religion in public life, especially Islam.
Those in attendance largely emphasized the influence of Islam, and of people who follow the tenets of the Muslim faith, on European culture and everyday European life. Both left-wing and right-wing politicians have expressed anxiety over the influx of Muslim immigrants, especially Turks in Germany and Indonesians in the infamously liberal Netherlands. Demonstrating the concerns of Europeans over Muslim immigrants, German banker and socialist politician Theo Sarrazin earned notoriety for the publication of his book Germany Abolishes Itself, which argues that Germany is in danger of being overwhelmed by Muslim immigrants. Issues of faith in public life—from the burqa bans of stalwartly secular France to the anti-blasphemy laws of devoutly Catholic Ireland—have been on Europeans’ minds lately, especially as regards Islamic influence, and proved popular topics at the conference.
However, the notion of separation of church and state has also been on the minds of many and was another important topic of discussion at the conference. Unlike the United States, where state religion is banned by constitutional law, many European countries have a state religion, yet, ironically, the United States is more religious than any country in Europe (perhaps with the exception of Ireland). The religiosity of America, some atheists have argued, should serve as a lesson to European states that seek to avoid regressing back into theocracy. “America is much less secular than any country in Europe”, pointed out U.S. atheist and biology PZ Myers, adding that the “one thing that can be learned from the U.S. is that you have to be watchful [for the encroachment of religion into politics].” (In the U.S., religion tends to be least important in New England and in the Pacific Northwest, and most important in the South.) In other words, warn atheists like Myers, Europeans should look at the mistakes of America, and the growing religious zeal which characterizes that nation’s politics, in order to build a more democratic and secular political structure for themselves.
Despite the fact that Europe is very secular compared to America, it is not yet overwhelmingly atheist, and it is difficult to gauge exactly where people’s beliefs lie. According to a 2005 survey conducted by the European Union’s statistical agency Eurostat, while only 38% of Britons professed a belief in God, the rest did not all identify as atheist. In fact, the highest percentage of atheists, found in France, was only 33%. This suggests that there is a large portion of the population in between that identifies neither with traditional notions of theism nor with traditional notions of atheism. For these Europeans, the concept of “God”, a higher being, or a greater consciousness is ambiguous. In fact, the survey states, Europe is showing “the development of a new kind of religion characterized by the belief that there is some sort of spirit or life force” which is more marked in certain Protestant countries, such as Sweden or Denmark, as well as in the Czech Republic and Estonia”. This new spirituality recalls the New Age and nonreligious spiritual beliefs found in urban and coastal regions of America, according to which God is viewed in neither traditionally monotheistic, nor materialist, terms. Thus, while Europeans have largely rejected the church, they have not fully embraced atheistic materialism, either.
The discussions carried out at the World Atheist Convention, and the questions they have raised, create a more complex picture of European religion and spirituality. Despite its reputation for secularism, the continent is still characterized by religious tension and conflict, and there are indications that a sizeable portion of the population has embraced a form of non-religious spiritual belief. Meanwhile, in the United States, a similar type of amorphous spirituality, centered largely in cities and centers of learning, is contrasted starkly with a right-wing, evangelical Christian fundamentalism which covers a vast swathe of the middle and south of the country, and which holds sway over the nation’s politics. Perhaps these two world regions can learn from one another: while Europe might learn from America’s mistakes in order to develop a more secular political structure, America might learn from Europe’s progress in order to achieve the same for itself, proving once and for all that it can be a modern-day, religiously neutral democracy.