The Human Truth Foundation

Religion in Europe

By Vexen Crabtree 2015


#christianity #estonia #europe #france #islam #judaism #malta #religion

Over the last 60 years, religion in Europe has seen a strong decline. On average throughout the 27 EU countries, only half of its people believe in God1 and 25.4% directly say that they have no religion2. There is much variation from country to country. Only 16% of the populace of Estonia believe in God and the Scandinavian countries are highly atheist. But 95% believe in Malta. Two main social groups are particularly prone to belief in God; those over 55 years old and those whose education did not proceed beyond the 15-year-old stage.1. For a discussion on secularisation in general, see: "Secularisation Theory: Will Modern Society Reject Religion? What is Secularism?" by Vexen Crabtree

Despite the low rate of belief in God, many Europeans still claim to belong to theistic religions. 49.5% of the population of Europe say they are Catholic Christian, 15.7% say they're Muslim, 12.7% say they're Protestant Christian, 8.6% say they're Orthodox Christian and 0.4% say they are Jewish2. These numbers mean that at least 30% of Europeans are putting down a religion despite not believing in the very basic first principal of the religion they put down. In some places, this percent is higher. In France only 52% of Catholic believe in God and "only 18 percent define God according to the teachings of the Catholic Church"3. This is all because most people in Europe confuse religion and cultural heritage, and for many the actual beliefs of a religion don't really matter. For a discussion of this, see: "Institutionalized Religions Have Their Numbers Inflated by National Polls" by Vexen Crabtree.

1. Country by Country Comparison

Pos.Religiosity (2009)
Lower is better
Disbelief In God (2007)
Higher is better5
Jews (2010)
Christians (2010)
Muslims (2010)
Hindus (2010)
Buddhists (2010)
Folk Religion (2010)
Unaffiliated (2010)
8Bosnia & Herzegovina770.152.345.
12Czech Rep.610.
38San Marino0.391.
48Vatican City0.
50Isle of Man0.
53Faroe Islands0.
54Aland Islands
57Channel Islands0.
Europe Avg55.
World Avg75.19.90.560.622.


2. Religion and Belief in God in Europe as a Whole

#atheism #estonia #islam #judaism #malta

Belief in God52 1
Catholic Christians49.5 2
Non-Religious25.4 2
Muslim15.7 2
Protestant Christians12.7 2
Orthodox Christians8.6 2
Judaism0.4 2

46% of European people attach no important to religion, according to a survey of 30,000 people in 27 EU member countries.

Eurostat (2007)2

Over the last 60 years, religion in Europe has seen a strong decline. That which remains is preferred to be kept indoors and private7. In Europe, the bigger the religious institution, the quicker it is likely to be shrinking. On average throughout the 27 EU countries, only half of its people believe in God1. There is much variation from country to country. Only 16% of the populace of Estonia believe in God and the Scandinavian countries are highly atheist. One sociologist calls Berlin 'the world capital of atheism'8. But 95% believe in Malta. Two main social groups are particularly prone to belief in God; those over 55 years old and those whose education did not proceed beyond the 15-year-old stage. Finally, females are more likely to believe in God than males.1

When asked what values they "cherish above all", respondents overwhelmingly chose "peace" (52%), "respect for human life" came second (43%). Democracy got 24%. Way down at the bottom - 11th out of 11 - was "religion" with a meagre 7%.

National Secular Society (2007)2

3. European Law and Values on Religion

#cyprus #denmark #greece #malta #UK

Of the Union's 27 states, according to Wikipedia, only five have an official state religion. Cyprus (Cypriot Orthodox Church), Denmark (Danish National Church), Greece (Church of Greece), Malta (Roman Catholic Church) and England (Church of England)9. Some states have close relationships with various religious bodies that are not enshrined in law.

European Law institutionalizes equality of religion, gender and sexuality (TEU Articles 6, 49), and Europe's democracies enshrine many other individual human rights, which for the most part are given priority over religious authority in order to stem human rights abuses. Rights include freedom of religion and freedom from religion (UK: Equality Act, 2006, section 44, Europe: EC, 2006, p3010). This means people have the right to whatever beliefs they want, and to call themselves whatever religion they want whereas historically apostasy and heresy have been punishable crimes. Thus, human rights in Europe has limited traditional religion. Religions in Europe are not free to discriminate against each other; anti-discrimination laws mean that employers cannot enforce any particular workplace religion11 and are sometimes forced to accommodate a persons' religious beliefs as long as it is practical to do so (this is especially the case in some countries such as the UK), and in others many private and local agreements allow some religious people special privileges at work. But the overall attitude is that, due to the multiple religions that make up the European Union, Law cannot impose religious rules. The ethos that brings most tolerance and equality, therefore, is strict secularism. This goes to its extreme in countries like France, where, according to the EU Monitoring Center, "religion is very rarely taken into consideration within companies' diversity initiatives and the majority of the population would seem to adhere to the idea that religion belongs to the private sphere of life"7.

When it comes to religion, the following values and customs are pertinent to keep in mind, in Europe:

There are secularising trends towards some of the following areas of tolerance, in a multi-faith Europe:

These values ensure that official culture does not indirectly discriminate against anyone by enforcing one brand of faith over another, and ensures people are free to pursue their own religions at will, but, not at the expense of other people's freedoms.

4. The Banning of Face Coverings such as the Niqab and Burqa in Europe13

#austria #belgium #bulgaria #democracy #france #germany #italy #netherlands #religion

France and Belgium in 2011 both moved to ban the covering of the face in public (in general)14, in both cases based on improving public safety. France also argued that full coverings made it impossible for immigrant communities to integrate into wider society. In Belgium it was argued that veiling represents the oppression of women. Bulgaria (2016) passed a similar law, in Austria at the start of 2017 is on the verge of following suit, and debates continue elsewhere in Europe such as Germany, Italy and The Netherlands.15,16,17

Critics of these limitations point out that the full-body coverings are worn by a tiny fraction of small immigrant populations which have not, so far, been the source of actual trouble, and that the laws are coming about in a "lynch mob atmosphere" rather than policy being driven by evidence-based research18. Others argue that the ban limit religious freedom, but, unfortunately, their argument is poor: laws, by their nature, tend to reduce freedom of one kind or another. The question is whether they should - the mere fact that a law is restrictive isn't an argument against it as long as the policy stands up to scrutiny. All these laws have been intently debated and are routinely appealed at national courts and the European Court of Human Rights, and most have been found to be legitimate and valid.

"The Banning of Face Coverings such as the Niqab and Burqa in Europe" by Vexen Crabtree (2017)

5. Case Studies

5.1. Religion in Scandinavia

#christianity #denmark #estonia #finland #iceland #islam #judaism #norway #polytheism #sweden

Disbelief In God (2007)5
Pos.Higher is better5
Scandinavia Avg39.3
Belief in God (2005)19
Religiosity (2009)4
Pos.Lower is better
Scandinavia Avg17.3

The tables on the right give 3 different ways of looking at a similar trend. Firstly, the "Disbelief in God" and "Belief in God" tables are opposites - you can infer that if you add up the two values, what you are left with is those who are unsure. Because the datasets are obtained via different polls, using differently worded questions, you can expect irregular results as people's responses to questions on religion depend a lot on how the question is phrased. Local terms and associations colour people's perceptions of what is being asked. Even polytheists, who believe in many gods, will say "no" if asked "Do you believe in God?" as the capital-G-God might make them think that the question is really asking "Do you believe in the Abrahamic God of Judaism, Christianity or Islam?". So, wordings are important, which means poll results can differ more than expected. Nonetheless, the results of the two belief-in-god charts are quite harmonious - the two Scandinavian countries that disbelieve in god most strongly (Sweden and Estonia) are also those who believe in God least, and these are also two of the least religious countries in the world too.

The standard nordic religious structure combines a secular (non-religious) society with an anachronistic state-backed established church, for example the Lutheran church of Finland. Most people sign up for this church in order to obtain clergy for weddings and funerals. So, although 85% of Finns sign up, it "need not imply a deep belief in the tenets of Martin Luther"20. The local sociologist Kimmo Ketola says that "Finns are neither very attached to religion, nor very opposed to it"20. This is evidenced by the explosive popularity of a website designed to make it easy to resign from the state church. Set up by The Freethinkers of Tampere in 2003, by 2007 over 60 thousand people had used the site to resign and in total the Lutheran Church lost 2.6% of its adherents from 2000-200621. Over a generation of 60 years at the current rate, the Church will lose nearly a third of its membership by 2060.

The Freethinkers of Tampere created a web site, ("eroa kirkosta" roughly translates to "resign from the church"), in 2003 to assist people to resign from the state church to further the goal of separation of state and church, and to promote a secular society. The web site became a success; in 2006 79% of all resignations went through the site. The same figure was 69% in 2005, and 39% in 2004. (2007)21

With distinct pagan roots in Nordic warrior religions Nordics were never subjugated by Christian armies and the Inquisition never gained a hold22. They are now thoroughly secular societies. The sociologist of religion, Steve Bruce, says that Scandinavia became secular largely because the established churches represented the élite, "the masses found themselves little served by a state church which drew its professionals from the upper classes and advanced the ideological perspectives of the socially dominant"23. I have chartered the massive decline in religiosity in the UK, but Norway has much lower Church attendance24.

On top of that, Scandinavia, in particular Norway, has cultivated and spawned some powerful anti-religious movements. The Black Metal movement that grew to infamy in the 1990s hit the national newspapers with almost one-hundred church burnings, and espoused a venomously anti-Christian doctrine. Its adherents worshipped Odin, the Norse gods, and Satan. They wanted not only the continued decline of Christianity, but a revival of Nordic paganism. In addition, Scandinavia has a healthy population of LaVeyan Satanists.25

In Norway a government-appointed commission in 2006 proposed that the Lutheran Church be disestablished, similar "to changes made by the neighbouring (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, in 2000", the UK's National Secular Society reported:

The Lutheran Church of Norway has voted to separate itself from the state after 500 years of establishment. Sixty-three of 85 synod delegates voted that the church should no longer be referred to in the country's constitution as a State or national church. The synod wants the church to be founded on a separate act passed by parliament. The general synod said it should itself assume all church authority now resting with the king and the government.

"The synod's decision is historic", said Jens Petter Johnsen, director of the Church of Norway national council. "What matters is the relationship between Church and people, not between Church and State. We will do our utmost to strengthen the service of the church and with our people."

[...] The changes in the State Church system will require a revision of the country's constitution and some officials see 2013 as the earliest date. The State-Church system was established in Norway in 1537, when the Danish king endorsed the Lutheran reformation.

National Secular Society newsletter (2006 Dec 01)

5.2. The United Kingdom


5.3. France


France is a prime example of the types of dynamic battles occurring between the ancient legal monoliths of religion, and a society that no longer shares its traditional values.

A poll published this week by the French newspaper Le Monde shows that the number of people describing themselves as atheists has risen to 31 per cent -- from 23 per cent in 1994. The poll also shows that only half the population of France now considers itself to be Catholic. In the early 1980s it was 80 per cent. [...] "In its institutions, but also in its mentalities, France is no longer a Catholic country," wrote Frederic Lenoir, editor in chief of Le Monde des Religions.

The poll showed that only 10 per cent go to church regularly mainly to Sunday mass or christenings. Extraordinarily, of the 51 per cent who still call themselves Catholics, only half said they believed in God. Many said they described themselves as Catholics because it was a family tradition. Le Monde des Religions cited varied reasons for the decline, including the rural exodus, changing values and the rise of individualism. [...]

Full story here:

NSS (2007)26

Of those who are still religious, the depth and specificity of their belief is unpredictable.

Donegani (2007) reports that only 51 percent of French respondents describe themselves as Catholics; but he further reports that only 52 percent of French Catholics believe in God, and only 18 percent define God according to the teachings of the Catholic Church. What does it really mean to be Catholic any more?

"Postmodernism and Religion" by Nikolai G. Wenzel (2011)3

5.4. Eastern Europe

#belgium #cyprus #czech_republic #germany #greece #malta #poland #romania

It is generally believed that Eastern Europe is more religious than Western Europe, but, the truth is more complicated.

The Eurostat survey found significant differences between individual member states. Religion is most important to the Maltese (88 percent), Poles (87 percent) as well as Cypriots, Greeks and Romanians (86 percent each). By contrast more than 70 percent of the population in Belgium and the Czech Republic regard religion as insignificant. In Germany the old East-West-divide is still reflected in religious attitudes. Whereas 53 percent of the population in the West say that religion is important, the figure is only 26 percent in the former Communist East. [...]

National Secular Society newsletter (2007)2

Religion in central and eastern Europe is waning - and plagued by scandal. [...] Secularism is shriveling some churches, especially mainstream Protestant ones. Others have retreated into steamy nationalist ghettos.

The Economist (2007)27

Current edition: 2015 Mar 24
Last Modified: 2017 Feb 24
Parent page: Human Religions

All #tags used on this page - click for more:

#atheism #austria #belgium #bulgaria #christianity #cyprus #czech_republic #democracy #denmark #estonia #europe #finland #france #germany #greece #iceland #islam #italy #judaism #malta #netherlands #norway #poland #polytheism #religion #romania #sweden #UK

Social Media

References: (What's this?)

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The Independent. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper.

The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.

BBC News. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a UK mainstream public-service mass media broadcaster, known to be reasonably accurate and responsible with its journalism.

Brems, Eva. Professor of Human Rights Law at Ghent University, Belgium.
(2014, Ed.) The Experiences of Face Veil Wearers in Europe and the Law. Published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. A hardback book.

Bruce, Steve
(1996) Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.

Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.

Crabtree, Vexen
(2013) "Legislation and Faith: Religious Rights and Religious Wrongs 6.1. European Union and UK Law on Employment Discrimination" (2013). Accessed 2018 Apr 23.

Donegani, J. M.
(2007) "L'église sera vaincue par le libéralisme". Le Monde (2007 Jan 20). Referenced in Wenzel (2011)1 p185.

EUMC. Published by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, Vienna, Austria.
(2006) Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia. A paperback book.

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(2006) Religion and Belief Discrimination in Employment - the EU law. Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Unit G.2.

Eurostat. The Statistical Office of the European Community, Luxembourg.
(2005) Eurobarometer 225: Social values, Science & Technology. Published for the European Commission. Accessed online 2008 Sep 01.

(2009) Religiosity. The survey question was "Is religion an important part of your daily life?" and results are charted for those who said "yes". 1000 adults were polled in each of 114 countries.

Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg
(2009) Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations. Richard Lynn, John Harvey and Helmuth Nyborg. Published in Intelligence (2009 Jan/Feb) vol. 37 issue 1 pages 11-15. Online at, accessed 2009 Sep 15.

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(1998) Lords of Chaos. Published by Feral House, Los Angeles, USA. A paperback book.

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(2012) The Global Religious Landscape: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World's Major Religious Groups as of 2010. Published 2012 Dec 18, accessed online 2013 May 01.

Russell, Bertrand. (1872-1970)
(1946) History of Western Philosophy. 2000 edition. Published by Routledge, London, UK. A paperback book.

Wenzel, Nikolai G.
(2011) Postmodernism and Religion. This is chapter 9 (pages p172-193) of "The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion" by Peter B. Clarke (2011)2 (pages p172-193). Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. A paperback book.

Wilson, Bryan
(1966) Religion in Secular Society. 1st edition. Published by Penguin Books. A paperback book.


  1. "Eurobarometer 225: Social values, Science & Technology". Published by Eurostat (2005) for the European Commission. Accessed 2008 Sep 01.^^^
  2. National Secular Society newsletter (2007 Mar 02), which included commentary on a Eurostat (2007) publication.^^^
  3. Wenzel (2011). P185. Added to this page on 2016 Oct 19.^^
  4. Gallup (2009) .^^
  5. Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: contemporary numbers and patterns. In M.Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In "Average intelligence predicts atheism rates across 137 nations" by Lynn et al. (2009)28.^^
  6. Pew Forum (2011) - data for 2010.29^
  7. EUMC (2006). P49.^^
  8. The Economist (2009 Mar 28). Article "Religious education in Germany: God and Berlin" p46.^
  9. "Religion in the European Union" on Wikipedia. Accessed 2008 Sep 01.^
  10. European Commission (2006) .^
  11. European Commission (2006). P4.^
  12. The forty-seven members states of the Council of Europe, resolved against the teaching of creationism, and emplored that scientific education is important and should not be mixed with religious beliefs. Skeptical Inquirer (2008 Jan/Feb Vol.32 No.1) p9 article "Council of Europe Approves Resolution against Creationism".^
  13. Added to this page on 2017 Feb 24.^
  14. Brems (2014). P6.^
  15. BBC News (2011 Jul 23). Article "Belgian ban on full veils comes into force". Date last accessed 2011 Nov 17. By BBC News.^
  16. BBC News (2017 Jan 31). Article "Austria to ban full-face veil in public places". Date last accessed 2017 Feb 24. By BBC News.^
  17. Burqa bans (2016 Dec 06). Date last accessed 2017 Feb 24. In UK newspaper The Independent.^
  18. Brems (2014). P1.^
  19. Eurostat (2005) .^
  20. The Economist (2006 May 27) p46 article "The sound of moulds breaking".^
  21. "Status of the Finnish Church in 2007" on accessed 2007 Oct 09. The first part of this report details the technicalities of the church's establishment, and the second part discusses and promotes resignation from it. Added to this page on 2007 Oct 09.^
  22. Russell (1946). P440.^
  23. Bruce (1996). P60.^
  24. Wilson (1966). P22.^
  25. Moynihan & Soderlind (1998) .^
  26. National Secular Society newsletter (2007 Jan 12).^
  27. The Economist (2007 Mar 17) "Special Report on the European Union".^
  28. Lynn, Harvey & Nyborg (2009) .^
  29. Pew (2012) .^

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