Religious America, Secular Europe? by Peter Berger, Grace Davie and Effie Fokas. Ashgate, 2008, 168 pages
- Category: Book Reviews
- Published: 03 July 2015
- Written by Charles Berger
José Casanova was in the habit of saying that in Europe, 'religion is part of the problem whereas in the United States, it is part of the solution'. In highlighting this quotation, Peter Berger (Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs in Boston) is in fact raising the following question, which might well summarise his book: Can America be said to be religious, while Europe is secular? Religious America, Secular Europe, by Grace Davie (professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom) and Effie Fokas (member of the European Institute of the London School of Economics) was published in 2008.
The book consists of seven chapters. The first is a large introduction. The second is a presentation of the theme and a comparison between the two continents. The four arguments mobilized by Peter Berger in Chapter 2 are then developed through four variations: Contrasting Histories, Different Intellectual Traditions, Institutional Carriers, Religion and Social Difference.
The authors start by discarding the secularisation theory. Europe is secular because “it is European” and not because it is modern (p. 6): secularisation is extrinsic to the modernisation process.
One of the main differences between Europe and America is the pattern of religious markets. In addition to Weber’s distinction between the church (into which one is born) and the sect (which one joins voluntarily), Berger quotes Richard Niebuhr who suggested that America had invented a third type of religious institution – the Denomination. Evangelical Protestantism epitomises this third form of religious institution and Europe hardly knows its presence. Hence secularisation in the Old Continent has entailed a loss of influence in the very institutionalised State-Churches. The persecutions in Europe led people to cross the ocean and Americans made of the “freedom to believe” (rather than, as sometimes in Europe, the “freedom not to believe”) the crucial basis of their society.
The second variation focuses on the elites and their different understandings of the Enlightenment. It appears that “freedom from religion” became a motto for the revolutionaries. The analysis emphasises the way intellectuals advocated for a freedom from State-Churches, but does not adequately underline the fact that they were also at war against other religions. That being said, the authors recognise the crucial role European intellectuals conceded to religion – the vicarious roles of religion (the phrase was coined by Davie).
The third variation deals with the links between religion, on the one hand, and educational and welfare systems, on the other. It is highlighted that European parliaments are used to legislating about religion and its restriction within the public sphere; in the United States, the judiciary system is more likely to determine the place of religion in the public sphere.
The fourth variation retraces the history of immigration in Europe and in the United States. Using many examples and quotations, Effie Fokas shows how individuals redefine their views on religion as they climb the social ladder. People reassemble their faith according to their social positioning. Sociologists call this “tinkering”.
Chapter 7 focuses on the analysis of the different political outcomes of the American and European situations. History, economy and politics have spawned particular policies, in the United States, and within the countries forming Europe.
The book is very clear. The chapters are well articulated and echo each other despite their being written by three different authors. The main advantage of the book is its appreciation of the European situation: the authors summon all the great authors of the Enlightenment and French sociology. Hence it clearly presents French laïcité as an exception within Europe. A longer analysis might have given the opportunity to take into account more current issues, more particularly linked to NRMs (New Religious Movements) and Islam. A "must" read for students of comparative religious sociology.