Religious Observance in Western Europe and the U.S.

I recently came across an interesting article which was primarily about religious observance in western Europe, but which also compared that region with the United States. Even though this research is four years old, it’s still timely and points out some significant differences between these two geographical areas.

First of all, what is meant by “religious observance?” There were four measures of this in the study in terms of comparing western Europe and the U.S. Here they are, with percentages of professing Christians in western Europe (15 countries) and the United States who:

  • Say religion is very important in their lives: Western Europe 14%, U.S. 68%
  • Attend religious services at least monthly: Western Europe 31%, U.S. 64%
  • Pray daily: Western Europe 18%, U.S. 68%
  • Believe in God with absolute certainty: Western Europe 23%, U.S. 76%

It doesn’t take any rigorous statistical analysis to see the huge differences in religious observance between western Europe and the United States! Across the board, professing American Christians are significantly more religiously observant than professing western European Christians. The second stunning thing is that these are stats for professing Christians. A significant majority of professing American Christians, for example, pray daily (68%), while only a paltry 18% of professing western European Christians do the same. A word of caution is in order here, however; are American Christians praying to the one and only true God, the God Who has revealed Himself in Scripture? My fellow blogger and sister in Christ Ann, who goes by “Seeking Divine Perspective,” is in the process of writing a good series of posts entitled “Are You Praying to the Wrong Person?” Click here for the latest in her series: https://seekingdivineperspective.com/2022/11/25/are-you-praying-to-the-wrong-person-part-iv-fallen-angels/

Regarding the last stat mentioned above: Even the percentage of professing western European Christians who believe in God with absolute certainty is a paltry 23%, while in the U.S., the percentage is 76%. I should add that I would love to see corresponding stats for this question: “Do you read the Bible regularly?”

What does all of this mean? First of all, it’s very easy to say that you’re a Christian in the Western world; it is not easy if you live in a country with severe persecution. Second, these stats bring to mind what Charles Colson wrote and spoke about more than 30 years ago: that western Europe was post-Christian, meaning that it used to be largely Christian, but was not anymore. Now we can see that stark reality on display very clearly. Western Europeans who stopped identifying with a religion mentioned four primary reasons why:

  • Gradually drifting away from religion: 68%
  • Disagreeing with their religion’s positions on social issues: 58%
  • No longer believing in their religion’s teachings: 54%
  • Being unhappy about scandals involving religious institutions and leaders: 53%

I find the #1 reason especially enlightening; in so many cases, when people stop identifying with Christianity in the U.S., it’s because they have gradually drifted away; in other words, it’s not usually something that happens suddenly. (I mentioned this in a post in May about deconversion.) Regarding the second reason, you will not be surprised to learn that two social issues frequently mentioned were abortion and same-sex marriage. There are many other illuminating findings in this research study; I have only scratched the surface. If you’re interested in more, here’s the link: https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2018/05/29/being-christian-in-western-europe/

Perhaps as American Christians, we are tempted to pat ourselves on the back in comparison to western Europe. We might even think that we are a majority-Christian nation. However, since the actual percentage of American Christians is only 7.5% (!), we have no reason to be smug, to put it mildly. You can either read John Dickerson’s The Great Evangelical Recession for the research regarding this number, or you can just read something I wrote in 2020: https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/05/07/how-many-christians-are-there-in-the-united-states/ I read a few years ago that Spain’s population was less than 1% Christian; I have also read the same about Slovenia (which is not one of the 15 nations included in the Pew Research study which is the focus of this post). It is not hard to believe that further research such as Dickerson wrote about would reveal similar, astonishingly-low, percentages of true Christians in other western European countries.

These statistics about western Europe should serve as a warning to us. Regardless of what happens, we are called to stand firm in our faith by living in obedience to God’s Word. Speaking of: If we are going to live in that kind of obedience, we need, first of all, to be in God’s Word regularly! Ideally, that would be daily, while for some of us, perhaps a few times a week. Regardless, we should certainly not rely only on our pastors’ faithfully teaching us every Sunday. Second, however, we do need to be in close fellowship with other believers, and one place that can certainly happen is at church. Third, we should be praying daily; in fact, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says, “Pray continually.” I like even better the way the King James Version puts it: “Pray without ceasing.” If we are in the Bible, in koinonia (close fellowship), and in prayer regularly, we will be much better equipped to live the kind of obedient lives that our Lord calls us to, regardless of the overall spiritual condition of our nation.

14 thoughts on “Religious Observance in Western Europe and the U.S.

  1. Great post, Keith. I saw a red flag the moment I read that American Christians might be patting ourselves on the back because of the statistics showing us “better” than European Christians. That attitude, I’m afraid, has kept many people from salvation. I refer to the people who think they don’t need a savior, since they’re not THAT bad – “At least I’m not as bad as THOSE guys.” The measuring rod is not other people, it’s the sinless Son of God. And compared with Him, we are ALL in desperate need of saving.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Ann. Yes, there are so many who think they’ll somehow make it to heaven (even if they’re not Christians) because they’re not as “bad” as so many other people are. They don’t understand the measuring rod, as you say.

      By the way, it sounds like you had read before about American Christians patting ourselves on the back because we’re better than those “apostate” western Europeans. Do you remember where you read that?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I don’t think I did. I was just responding to your post. I have never really thought we should congratulate ourselves, because despite having it comparatively easy here, the Church as a whole hasn’t grown as it should. In countries where there is persecution, on the other hand, there is revival – underground revival, to be sure, but revival, nonetheless. It makes me wonder how the American Church will fare once the going gets a little tougher…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Got it. And yes, the church flourishes in countries where there’s persecution. On the one hand, I don’t think the American church will do well as the going gets tougher; I think it will continue to shrink, especially as the older generations of believers go home. On the other hand, I think that the faithful remnant will be stronger than ever!

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  2. Keith, I don’t know that much about Christianity in Western Europe, but could it be because there are relatively few evangelical churches or born again Christians in Western Europe. From most reports that I’ve read in the Christian media, most people who identify as Christians in Europe are either Roman Catholics or theologically liberal Protestants. Few Christians in this country have a completely biblical worldview but at least a majority of Protestants attend evangelical churches.

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    1. Keith, I don’t know if periods when Christianity was more dominant in this nation, such as the 1950s or most of the 19th Century, if a majority of people who identified as Christians were that biblically orthodox. I read that the majority of American Christians in the mid 20th Century, when church membership was at its highest belonged to liberal mainline Protestant denominations.

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      1. Yolande and I have talked about this at length with each other as well as some other people here and there. What was very different overall in the mid-20th century (I think that’s what you mean, not the 19th century) was the overall social milieu. People had more respect for the Bible, laws, and authority. When kids got in trouble in school back then, for example, parents rarely took the side of their children, but the side of the teachers. That has now been turned on its head! Also regarding kids: we “policed” ourselves, so that when we had a dispute during a game, for example, the oldest among us was regarded as the person most likely to know the rules, and s/he settled it. Now kids so often rely on adults in disputes of various kinds. And adults so often rely on authorities, for example, when there’s a dispute with a neighbor!

        Anyway, in the 1950s and on into the ’60s, there weren’t necessarily a lot more Christians in the U.S., but the average person often had at least a rudimentary understanding of some basic Biblical truths and principles. That’s most definitely not the case anymore.

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        1. Hi Keith, I also referred to the 19th Century because I read that it was the era of the second Great Awakening and also produced evangelists such as Charles Finney and D.L. Moody. Also Charles Spurgeon in England.

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          1. The context of your sentence suggested the 20th century to me, Anthony, but I see now. Sorry about that! The 19th century included the Second Great Awakening (~1800-1835); there was also a disputed Third (~1855-1900). There are even some who think we are now (?!) experiencing a Fourth Great Awakening, but I think that is not even close to what’s happening! Some have called the Jesus Movement (late 1960s-late 1980s) a Fourth one, but I beg to differ. I think the U.S. was much more spiritually alive in the First Great Awakening (~1720-1745) and Second than any time from the 1850s-1980s, as there was widespread repentance from sin during them. Widespread repentance during the disputed Third is unclear, as there was a shift from an emphasis on repentance from personal sin to “social sin;” much the same could be said for the so-called Fourth.

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            1. Thanks for your answer Keith, I am not as familiar with church history as you are, I mainly get my information (about church history) from the net which I am not even sure is entirely accurate.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Anthony, I had previously read some about the First Great Awakening in books by Charles Colson; I had also read some about the 19th century’s Awakening(s) in a book by Nancy Pearcey called Total Truth. Like you, I also did some online digging; I compared info from at least six sites, some secular and some Christian. My skepticism about the shift from personal sin to “social sin” was my own commentary.

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    2. I think that what you said has a lot of merit, Anthony, regarding relatively few evangelical churches in western Europe. I haven’t studied it much in detail, but I noticed that Slovenia, for example, is less than 1% evangelical but majority Catholic. We have friends who are missionaries there, and it is a rather dark place spiritually. In the U.S., we are comparatively strong in terms of evangelical churches.

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