The crisis of religion in Europe is becoming glaringly obvious despite aggressive proselytizing by Protestant churches in neighborhoods. Belief surveys show a consistent long-term trend that even this year’ s pandemic and precarization angst seems unlikely to change. However, the atomization and loneliness on which these religions have always thrived keeps on rising more than ever, so it is time to ask ourselves whether we are really facing a crisis of religion or just a crisis of its most atavistic forms, replaced by something perhaps even worse.
In this article
- The crisis of religion proceeds from Germany to Spain
- And yet the atomization, poverty, and anguish on which the churches feed are growing
- What if the crisis of religion is not a crisis of religion as such?
- The petty bourgeoisie’s crisis of religion
- A class alternative here and now to the crisis of religion
The crisis of religion proceeds from Germany to Spain
In Southern Europe the media often point to the crisis of Catholicism as a result of its sexual politics and the pedophilia and abuse scandals, opposing against it the alternative of the supposedly more advanced churches of Europe’s Protestant countries. But in reality, the trend is not only general but the Vatican’s followers seem to show a greater capacity for resistance. The data seem to speak more of a crisis of religion in general than of the crisis of a particular church or worship.
Germany is a good example. In 1980 the majority religion was Lutheranism. Some 85.7% of West Germans belonged to a Christian church. It was not merely declarative: in Germany and Austria the state collects a percentage of income tax for religions based on individual income. Declaring membership of a religion to the state means sacrificing one’ s income.
In 1991, after reunification, the percentage had fallen to 71%. And in 2019, immediately before the pandemic, the number of registered Christians had already dropped to 52%. In other words, there were fewer than 46 million Christians left in Germany. And already Catholics were in the majority: 22.6 million compared with 20.7 million Protestants and just over 2 million Orthodox.
In Spain the crisis of religion is a well-documented fact. In the latest macro survey of the Sociological Research Center, the famous barometer, the percentage of atheists (14.1%) was closer than ever to that of active Catholics (18.4%). And the group of unbelievers (atheists, agnostics, indifferent) was further one year closer to that of believers, active or not, in some form of divinity.
And in France the crisis of religion is expressed by figures that are not very different either: the belief in the existence of gods has been decreasing for 30 years, pushed, above all, by young people.
And yet the atomization, poverty, and anguish on which the churches feed are growing
The cause of religious belief is not ignorance, as the crudest and most limited atheism claims. The reasons for belief in supernatural beings and adherence to worship structures are social. It is the essential emptiness, the alienation produced by a broken society, which encourages people to seek meaning outside their own lives, outside truly existing (social) life, and to take refuge in superstitious stories and ceremonies.
Churches sell degraded alternatives to what the system denies and destroys: a sense of community and work, hope, a sense of purpose and being useful… and above all, a future. Of course, the future they sell is an illusory future… but they would not have survived capitalism if they did not organize in the present time forms of mutual support, belonging and socialization conveying hope and a sense of contribution. Indeed, if Protestant and evangelical churches have grown in the neighborhoods, it is because they are replacing with degraded forms and illusory hopes what independent working-class organization articulated in the past.
Since we are not seeing a reappearance, which would be historic, of workers’ organizational expressions in the neighborhoods, the obvious question to account for the crisis of religion is whether other social determinants have changed. But the figures of poverty and atomization, as expected, are evolving for the worse.
In fact, precariousness, poverty and atomization feed each other in a spiral that does not seem to be ending any time soon. In supposedly prosperous pre-pandemic Germany, 15.9% of the population was poor, but if we were to focus on people living alone the percentage rose to 26.7%. The highest figures since 1991.
In 2019, seven million people were living alone in France, isolated from their social environment, three million more than in 2010. In other words, extreme atomization had gone from affecting 9% of residents to describing the lives of 14% of the population in just nine years. Many of them were elderly people who would shortly thereafter suffer ignominious slaughter by the Covid. But many others were the same precarious young workers and student workers whom we now see standing in lines at food banks and soup kitchens.
There is no expectation for the system to lead to anything better. In Spain official figures expect 28.9% of people to be living alone, most of them socially isolated, by 2035. The only regions in which the number of households is not expected to grow is not because they give better figures but because in them the effect of depopulation outweighs that of atomization.
What if the crisis of religion is not a crisis of religion as such?
The definition of religion in common use today is a product of the ideology of the bourgeoisie during the final two centuries of its rise to power. The idea of religion is separated from the idea of worldview it had had until then. The political utility for the bourgeoisie was obvious: the feudal apparatuses of power opposed to the bourgeoisie were religion, that thing of the past. The latter’s ideology was confronted by science, by knowledge. To the arbitrary revealed sacred truths, the new bourgeois scientific truths were opposed. The ideology and religion of the bourgeoisie thus became invisible.
The truth is that things did not go as smoothly for the then revolutionary class as they anticipated. Soon, faced with the need to govern societies still in transition to capitalism, the bourgeoisie discovered that it was more interesting to bourgeoisify the old feudal belief apparatuses than to destroy them. The result has been that religion in capitalism has been in truth a system with the superimposition of at least three layers: the belief systems inherited from the past with their old priestly bureaucracies, the nationalist civic religio and the religion of the commodity.
It is from this broader point of view of what religion is and means today that we can understand how a crisis of religion can even occur without the system facing, for the time being, a revolutionary crisis.
The petty bourgeoisie’s crisis of religion
The current health, economic and social crisis is part of the most serious economic crisis of capitalism so far. The disaster we have been witnessing for a year now is actually a re-aggravation of the 2009 crisis and is part of the crisis of capitalist civilization we have been suffering for a century now.
But, as yet, it is not a revolutionary crisis. The only class that could pose a historical alternative has only bared its teeth seriously, but sporadically so far. In 2018 and 2019 we have even seen mass strikes and in 2020 a worldwide development of struggles and militancy and even mobilizations that have punctually stopped the tendency towards war. But we are still far from the affirmation of the workers and their historical project. There is much work to be done.
It is in this context that the alleged crisis of religion today must be placed.
But when we do so what we discover is that fatigue and weariness in the face of a system turned into a massive grinder of lives not only manifests itself with piles of corpses, but with the growing demand for a new morality that anticipates an alternative.
But the historical alternative is not being immediately and evidently posed by massive struggles, it is the class and even Humanity are invisibilized as never before, the petty bourgeoisie has been free to sell all kinds of salvation-related delusions: from veganism to conspiracy theories via the science of well-being.
And what about the crisis of religion? We can paraphrase G.K. Chesterton without fear: when the petty bourgeoisie ceases to believe in god it quickly moves on to believe in literally anything. But that does not make that anything, any less religion than that of the pontiffs, the imams and the preachers.
For instance, denialism already produces even martyrs and murderers in the same logic as jihadism, its predecessor in a particular segment of the petty bourgeoisie. In fact, rather than a crisis of religion we seem to be living through a revival of the old petty-bourgeois millenarian religiosity.
And in fact, in the Madrid denialist demonstrations there is a certain form of devotion and a sense of having discovered truths hidden from the majority typical of a mystical awakening. And if we go to Germany, where the Querdenken movement mobilizes together antivaccinationists, deep environmentalists, anarchists and neo-Nazis we will find much of that parrhesia, of that truth-speaking with which the most ecstatic Christianity has always boasted of its ability to bring opposites together into a new truth.
Let no one be surprised if we see the political expressions of the petty bourgeoisie lurching between the praising of religious confraternities and parades, conspiracy-mongering, apocalyptic cults, food penitences, the animal rights movement, anti-scientific discourse or the attempts to dress up bourgeois morality as social science. They are not lacking in imagination. But as in any process of religious invention, they can only arrive at an anti-human morality, the one that feeds the system on which they depend and that defines them as a class.
A class alternative here and now to the crisis of religion
From a class point of view, the sectarian colonization of neighborhoods, the spread of anti-scientific conspiracy talk and the acceptance of convenient environmental millenarianism are not part of this alleged crisis of religion, but expressions of the para-religious delirium of the petty bourgeoisie.
We have no alternative but our own struggle, the only one able to put the world back on its feet and reunite a society split and exhausted by an increasingly dangerous and destructive system. But that is not only a perspective. It is a horizon that also acts in the present when it is fought for. An alternative here and now to the crisis of religion? Communist morality.
And as the class struggle springs up and asserts itself, for the individual there is only one way to be human, to bind himself to the struggle…. from the future. Even against all evidence and common sense. What other evidence can there be today than that of the system itself pretending eternity and blaming us for its disasters? What other sense can be common than the sense of the sanctity of property, the inevitability of misery and the necessity of accumulation? What a discovery!
[according to this “common sense”]All other possibilities aside, the existing system is the only one possible. Any human need that counters it sidelined, the accumulation of capital and profit are the measures of progress. After capitalism rejected humanity and denied its needs, communism appears as irrational. All this only means that capitalism only makes sense, can only be justified, when it reduces itself to the absurdity of being the end of history by denying the very existence of any future other than a prolonged present or an apocalypse.
The loudness with which capitalist ideology hammers its message in a thousand ways and forms is necessarily proportional to the absurdity, its anti-historical aspect, and the anti-humanity of its meaning. The noise, the strength of the tide that the power concentrated in the state of the bourgeoisie and its tools of creating opinion can create, is overwhelming.
And yet, it is not communists, but capitalism which goes against the current of historical necessity. The future, the only one really possible and the only one worthy of that name is incompatible with capitalism. That is why affirming the perspective of communism, the material possibility and necessity of abundance in the present, provides us with a resilience that no religion can grant and will keep us in the only perspective from which it is possible to generate meaning to the life of the species and of individuals, embracing the only truly human way of living.What is communist morality?