Being Christian in Western Europe: A new Pew Research Center survey

Article contributed by Neha Sahgal and Kelsey Jo (Pew Research Center)

On May 29, 2018, Pew Research Center released the results of a 15-country survey exploring religious identity and its relationship to attitudes toward nationalism, multiculturalism and immigration in Western Europe. The study shows that most Christians in Western Europe today are non-practicing, but Christian identity remains a meaningful religious, social and cultural marker. Here are some key findings:

  1. Secularization is widespread in Western Europe, but most people in the region still identify as Christian. Rising shares of adults in Western Europe describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated (that is, as atheist, agnostic or having no particular religion). Still, when asked, “What is your present religion, if any?” and given a list of options, most people identify as Christian, including 71% in Germany and 64% in France.
  2. Even though most people in the region identify as Christian, few regularly attend church. In every country except Italy, non-practicing Christians (that is, those who attend church no more than a few times a year) outnumber church-attending Christians (those who attend weekly or monthly). Non-practicing Christians also outnumber religiously unaffiliated adults in most countries surveyed.
  3. Christians in Western Europe, including non-practicing Christians, believe in a higher power. Although many non-practicing Christians say they do not believe in God “as described in the Bible,” they do tend to believe in some other higher power or spiritual force in the universe. By contrast, most church-attending Christians say they believe in God as depicted in the Bible. And religiously unaffiliated adults generally say they do not believe in God or any higher power or spiritual force. 
  4. Majorities in most countries across the region say they are willing to accept Muslims in their families and in their neighborhoods. Still, people hold mixed views on whether Islam is compatible with their national values and culture, and most favor at least some restrictions on religious clothing worn by Muslim women.
  5. Christian identity in Western Europe is associated with higher levels of nationalism and negative sentiment toward immigrants and religious minorities. Across the region, Christians – church-attending or not – are more likely than religiously unaffiliated adults to say “Islam is fundamentally incompatible with our country’s values and culture.” Similarly, both practicing and non-practicing Christians are more likely than religiously unaffiliated adults to say their culture is superior to others, and to favor reducing immigration from its current levels.
  6. Aside from religious identity, other factors – such as education, political ideology and personal familiarity with Muslims – are associated with levels of nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-religious minority sentiment. Western Europeans who have a college education are less likely than others to say they would not accept Jews or Muslims in their family, or to say their culture is superior to others. And people who say they personally know someone who is Muslim also are less likely to express these kinds of sentiments. Conversely, Western Europeans who lean right on the ideological spectrum are more likely than those on the left to say they would be unwilling to accept Jews or Muslims in their family, or that it is important to have been born in their country to truly belong.
  7. In Europe today, attitudes toward Jews and attitudes toward Muslims are highly correlated with one another. People who say they would be unwilling to accept Muslims in their family are also more likely than others to say they would be unwilling to accept Jewish people in their family. And those who agree with the statement, “In their hearts, Muslims want to impose religious law on everyone else in our country,” are also more likely to agree with the statement, “Jews always pursue their own interests and not the interests of the country they live in.”
  8. Majorities across the region, including most Christians, favor legal same-sex marriage and abortion. Similar to religiously unaffiliated adults, the vast majority of non-practicing Christians say gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry, and that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
  9. The share of religiously unaffiliated adults in several Western European countries is comparable to the share of religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S., but American “nones” are more religious. About a quarter of Americans (23% as of 2014) say they are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” similar to the shares of religiously unaffiliated adults in the UK (23%) and Germany (24%). However, unaffiliated Americans are much more likely than their counterparts in Europe to pray and to believe in God. In fact, by some of these standard measures of religious commitment, American “nones” are as religious as – or even more religious than – Christians in several European countries, while U.S. Christians are far more religious.