Note: Material from the same conversation, with specific reference to the situation in Italy, will later appear in Italian
MI: Against the classic secularization theory, you have argued that there is no real decline of religion in Europe, including in Italy. In short, what motivates this conclusion? And if it is so, why don’t we hear more about it in the media and the academia, where many insist on secularization?
RS: I am not alone in rejecting the secularization thesis, which is the claim that modernity and religion are incompatible and therefore that religion must soon died out. By now most American sociologists of religion have discarded this notion which was rooted in the anti-religiousness of 18th and 19th century intellectuals. We have discarded it for several reasons, but primarily because it has failed to happen. Aside from Europe, in most of the world religion has gained strength as modernization has occurred. In addition, it turns out that Europe is not nearly so irreligious as it is made out to be and there are many signs that a substantial religious revival has begun. The claim that Europe is irreligious is based on low levels of church attendance. But, as I have long argued, lack of attendance reflects ineffective churches rather than lack of faith, since religious belief remains high all across the continent. It is nonsense to call people secularized who agree “I am a religious person,” as most Europeans do, and when self-professed atheists are scarce. Consider that after more than 70 years of intense atheist indoctrination in the Soviet Union (combined with discrimination against religious people), only 4 percent of Russians today say they are atheists (compared with 3 percent of Italians and 4 percent of Americans). In addition, some European scholars have begun to note various signs of religious renewal in Europe (both belief and mass attendance have been rising in Italy during the past 20 years, especially among younger people) and a conference on that subject is being organized for 2009.
MI: You have discussed in several works a certain anti-Catholic bias in the academia. What are its main reasons?
RS: For several centuries, the main basis for anti-Catholicism in academia was Protestant antagonism and bias. More recently, Protestant biases have mainly subsided, to be fully replaced by the intense vilification of the church by Catholics (not all of them lapsed), who demand that the Church adopt their liberal views.
MI: What is your assessment of present-day Catholicism under Benedict XVI?
RS: Had it not been for the enormous damage done by the sexual molestation scandals (so much for experiments in adopting liberal views of sexuality), the Church would be in excellent condition. Even despite these scandals, things seem very much on the rise: mass attendance is up, some of the orders are successfully recruiting, and Catholic participation in intellectual life and culture is thriving − especially in the United States, which is something new.
MI: In Italy we are fortunate to have finally a translation of your “The Rise of Christianity”. I realize it’s a question with many facets, but can we try to compare the first Christian centuries (when Christianity was not yet a State religion) and present-day Christianity in Europe (when Christianity, by and at large – but not without exceptions – is no longer a State religion)?
RS: In the earliest centuries, Christians had to compete against an immense array of pagan faiths as well as Judaism, and these challenges required them to be energetic and effective. Then came Constantine, whose conversion also had some catastrophic results. It would have been fine had Constantine merely given Christianity the legal right to exist without persecution. But when he made Christianity the most favored religion and showered it with wealth and status, he undercut the commitment of the clergy. Suddenly, a faith that had been meeting in homes and humble structures was housed in magnificent public buildings. A clergy recruited from the people and modestly sustained by member contributions suddenly gained immense power, status, and wealth as part of the imperial civil service. Consequently, in the words of Richard Fletcher, the “privileges and exemptions granted the Christian clergy precipitated a stampede into the priesthood” and Christian offices soon were filled by the sons of the aristocracy, whether or not they were men of faith. Soon the Church was effectively a monopoly ‘firm’ served by lazy officials having no need so exert themselves to gain or retain members. It didn’t matter much if people came to church since the tithes were assured and there was nowhere else for people to go. The Church was saved from eventual collapse only by the continuing vigor and faithfulness of the religious orders, who did continue to minister to the people and to force periodic reforms. Unfortunately, when the Protestants appeared they quickly repeated Constantine’s errors and, lacking orders, they rapidly became state-supported, lazy monopolies, unwilling to energetically pursue public commitment. Hence, Europe’s “empty churches”. In contrast, in the United States, where scores of independent churches are entirely dependent on voluntary support, the lazy churches simply go out of business, their membership attracted away by energetic bodies − which is why American Catholicism has always been so energetic − and the overall result is a high level of religious participation.
MI: If the importance of religion in U.S. politics is not grossly exaggerated, why is the religious identity of a presidential candidate regarded as more important in the U.S. than in Europe?
RS: I suspect that religion seems less important in European politics because in most countries a candidate’s religious identity can be assumed, since “everyone” is in some sense a Lutheran or a Catholic, or Dutch Reformed, and so on. That, and the lack of overt religious competition. make religion of less interest. In the USA, on the other hand, a person’s religion cannot be assumed and therefore becomes a matter of interest, especially so since competition among faiths generates considerable religious controversy.
MI: Is it conceivable that a new generation of European politicians may emerge, capable of attuning themselves to the current growing interest in religion?
RS: If, as I believe, there is a religious renewal beginning in Europe, I would expect religion to become important in politics once again. In fact, we have never had any significant religious parties in the United States, although such parties used to dominate European politics.
MI: Finally, a personal question. After reading your last book, Discovering God, many readers probably ask themselves where does exactly Rodney Stark stands with respect to faith, Christianity, belief… Does something like “unchurched believer” or “independent Christian” correctly describe your position?
RS: I have always been a “cultural” Christian in that I have always been strongly committed to Western Civilization. Through most of my career, however, including when I wrote The Rise of Christianity, I was an admirer, but not a believer. I was never an atheist, but I probably could have been best described as an agnostic. As I continued to write about religion and continued to devote more attention Christian history, I found one day several years ago that I was a Christian. Consequently, I was willing to accept an appointment at Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist university. They do not require faculty member to be Baptists (many are Catholic) and I am not one. I suppose “independent Christian” is the best description of my current position.