Religion and Secularism in the European Union

State of Affairs and Current Debates

by Jan Nelis (Volume editor) Caroline Sägesser (Volume editor) Jean-Philippe Schreiber (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 220 Pages


The present volume monitors new developments concerning religious issues, faith-based organizations, State-Church relations and secularism in the EU, which especially during the past two decades have undergone profound changes, changes which continuously and increasingly alter mentalities and habits, whether belief-related or not. In this collective work, authors develop the major themes that are relevant to their country of expertise, while a final chapter is devoted to the role of the European Courts (ECHR and EU). The different chapters show that in recent years, religion, once thought to be of minor importance in a highly secular society, has made quite a vigorous political comeback. Thus Europe seems to have reached a crucial point in its history, a moment in which future tendencies in the field of religion and secularism are being defined, and negotiated. There is little doubt that the outcome of this process will influence the continent’s future outlook, as well as its role and relevance in an increasingly globalized world.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Foreword (Jan Nelis)
  • Austria. The Pluri-Religious Challenge of a Secular State Ready to Integrate Religion into the Public Space (Richard Potz)
  • Belgium. The Challenge of a Highly Secularized Yet Multiconfessional Society (Caroline Sägesser)
  • Bulgaria. Encounters between Religion and Secularism in a Post-Atheist Society (Daniela Kalkandjieva)
  • Croatia. The Role of Religion in a Predominantly Catholic Country (Siniša Zrinščak)
  • Cyprus. A Deeply Religious Society (Victor Roudometof)
  • The Czech Republic. New Challenges for Churches in a Highly Secularized Society (Roman Vido)
  • Denmark. The Still Prominent Role of the National Church and Religious Traditions (Henrik Reintoft Christensen)
  • Estonia. The Debate on the Role of Religion in a Deeply Secular State (Ringo Ringvee)
  • Finland. A Christian, Secular and Increasingly Religiously Diverse Country (Teemu Taira)
  • France. The Struggle for Laïcité (Anne-Laure Zwilling)
  • Germany. The Challenge of Religious Pluralism and Secularization (Sylvie Toscer-Angot)
  • Greece. The Politics of Secularization and the Financial Crisis (Konstantinos Papastathis)
  • Hungary. Declining Church Religiosity and Increasing Religious Individualization in a Post-Communist Country (Gergely Rosta)
  • Ireland. The Erosion of the Catholic Church’s Authority and Power (Brian Conway)
  • Italy. Secularization, Abstract Model vs. Reality (Giuseppe Casuscelli)
  • Latvia. An Example of Christian Diversity (Anita Stasulane)
  • Lithuania. Catholic Church and Public Debates (Milda Ališauskienë)
  • Luxembourg. New Legal Dispositions in a Changing Religious Landscape (Antoinette Reuter)
  • Malta. A Society with Values in Turmoil (Mario Vassallo)
  • The Netherlands. The Impact of Secularization on a Pillar-Based Society (Agnieszka Szumigalska)
  • Poland. The Catholic Church’s Influence on Social, Political and Private Life (Michał Czelny, Marta Ordon and Michał Zawiślak)
  • Portugal. A Lingering Catholicism (Henrique Machado-Jorge)
  • Romania. Exploring the Bond between Church, State, and Nation (Olivier Gillet)
  • Slovakia. Secularization of Public Life and Desecularization of the State (Miroslav Tížik)
  • Slovenia. The Catholic Church between Historical Heritage and Current Financial Problems (Egon Pelikan)
  • Spain. Important Changes in Religious Landscape and Public Policy (Julia Martínez-Ariño)
  • Sweden. Blurring Boundaries: Patterns of Contemporary Religiosity (Ann af Burén)
  • The United Kingdom. The Prevalence of Secularism (Anthony Bradney)
  • Religion as Seen by the European Authorities. Liberty, Equality and Non-Discrimination within the Council of Europe and the European Union (Gabrielle Caceres)
  • Religion in the European Union. A Conclusion (Jean-Philippe Schreiber)
  • Series Index

← 10 | 11 →



Université libre de Bruxelles, Université de Toulouse-Jean Jaurès

The present volume results from the activities of the Observatory of Religions and Secularism (Observatoire des religions et de la laïcité – ORELA). ORELA, a project launched in 2012 by the Centre interdisciplinaire d’étude des religions et de la laïcité, aims to monitor new developments concerning religious issues, faith-based organizations, State and Church relations and secularism, in Belgium, in the EU and throughout the world. It offers relevant analysis and a daily press review, whereas it also publishes, on an annual basis, a comprehensive report on the state of religions and secularism in Belgium. The latest report (2016) and the previous ones are freely available on the website (http://www.o-re-la.org/).

In the past three years, ORELA has established an international network of scholars who regularly publish short analyses dedicated to events and debates which involve religion and/or secularism, and which have significant relevance to society. The stated intention is to offer a kaleidoscopic and global view of religion- and secularism-related issues, and of their particular impact, mainly in the European Union. Whereas ORELA correspondents make their expertise available through the open access website, ORELA also intends to produce comprehensive studies in which the most relevant findings and analyses are further explored.

The book presented here is the first such initiative sponsored by the Observatory. Apart from the final chapter and the conclusion, it consists of a series of articles which cover the entire European Union, i.e., the 28 member States, which are treated in alphabetical order. As the EU is all but a homogeneous entity at the level of religions, and as neither the European Parliament nor the European Commission intervene directly in religion-related matters, the editors have indeed opted for a national rather than a thematic approach. ← 11 | 12 →

Yet, in the light of their impact on EU member States, a final chapter which discusses the role of the European authorities (European Union, Council of Europe) in religious matters has been included (focus on liberty, equality and non-discrimination). While a number of articles also cross national borders, a further supranational theme is the often decisive role of the European Court of Human Rights in matters of religion and secularism.

Overall, many themes and tendencies can be simultaneously observed in different EU countries, resulting in the image of the EU as a patchwork of cultures and traditions that are defined by historical, linguistic, and religious elements. All this makes for a religiously highly diverse continent, which especially during the past two decades has undergone profound changes. These continuously and increasingly alter mentalities and habits, whether belief-related or not.

All contributors dedicate considerable attention to current debates and recent events. Many of them also point to the existence of a relatively unstable balance between religion and secularism, even in countries such as France, often considered as the Heimat of laicity. Apart from the necessary historical background, authors treat the major themes that are relevant to their specific geographical area, whereby the most recurrent topics are Church-State relations, the role of religion in the educational system, the “comeback” of religion in the media, the growing attention paid to Islam, the relative absence of European policies in religious matters, religion and security issues, the increase of hostile feelings towards Muslims, the surge of anti-Semitism, religion and the service ethic, religion and migration, and the increasing presence of evangelical Churches.

Generally speaking, three major themes have shaped the European confessional landscape over the past few years. A first and general observation is that religion has clearly maintained, if not amplified, its interest in “ethical” issues such as abortion, euthanasia and gay rights. Here the issue of secularism seems of particular relevance, ranging from the effects of French laïcité to the more pragmatic UK attitude, from Nordic (at least seemingly) “soft” Churches to the all-powerful Greek Orthodox Church. There also seems to exist a certain, even if relative, divide between Eastern and Western European countries, mainly a consequence of the legacy of communism and of the particularities of Orthodoxy. The third highly recurrent issue is the backlash of global crisis, and more specifically its possible consequences and potential for ← 12 | 13 → religions, as most significantly exemplified by Church-State politics in Greece and Cyprus.

At this point it should be added that ORELA, backed by its steadily expanding network, intends to publish subsequent edited volumes. These will refine and develop, in a transversal manner, the major and most relevant themes identified in the current publication, with a close eye on current events in the field of religion and secularism.

Finally, and in light of the above observations, we can conclude by observing that the papers gathered in the present volume show that in recent years, religion, once thought to be of minor importance in a highly secular society, has made quite a vigorous political comeback. It has done so not only in terms of media attention, but also, and one might say above all, as a surrogate for secular humanist values that have increasingly inspired European thought since the Enlightenment. Furthermore, as Europe is relatively close to conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, and as it has become the preferred destination of mainly Muslim migrants, religious diversity will no doubt further increase. Thus Europe has arrived at a crucial point in its history, a moment in which future tendencies in the field of religion and secularism are being defined, and negotiated. Arguably the outcome of this process will determine the continent’s future outlook, as well as its role and relevance in an increasingly globalized world. ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →


The Pluri-Religious Challenge of a Secular State Ready to Integrate Religion into the Public Space

Richard POTZ

Vienna University

Austria has, on the one hand, a strong Catholic tradition and on the other hand, has had long experience in coping legally with religious pluralism, due to its geopolitical position in the center of Europe, which created a multi-confessional society in earlier times. Over the last decades this system has expanded, but has also been subject to multiple challenges from developments which are partly converging and partly conflicting: an on-going secularization, a steady increase in religious pluralisation mainly ensuing from a growing number of Muslim and Orthodox immigrants – as well as Catholics with a foreign cultural background –, new forms of spirituality and a growing public interest in religion.

Austria is a secular State. The Austrian Federal Constitution of 1920 contains no preamble due to its underlying positivistic concept. The first Article reads: “Austria is a democratic republic. Its law emanates from the people”. This formulation not only refers to the democratic and republican principle, it is also seen as a rejection of a transcendent legitimacy. Nevertheless, the system is characterized by a principal openness to religion – which is not banned from the public space and reduced to privacy and spiritual practice. Therefore, the legal order provides for legal recognition of Churches and religious societies as incorporated bodies with public-law status.

There is no general State funding for Churches and religious communities. State payments to religious communities exist only on the basis of indemnity for financial losses caused during the Nazi occupation. This obligatory compensation concerns the nationalization of Church ← 15 | 16 → funds and the cancellation of State grants to the Catholic, Protestant and Old Catholic Churches as well as the pillage and destruction of cultural objects (synagogues, cemeteries, cultural objects, etc.) of the Israelite Religious Society. Moreover, as far as recognized Churches and religious societies are concerned, there are other forms of direct and automatic financing, like grants for social services and in the field of schooling, and indirect financing in the form of tax exemptions.

Austria has a population of 8,500,000 (2015). In 2015, 61.3% were members of the Roman Catholic Church and 3.6% of the Protestant Church, consisting of a large Lutheran majority and a Reformed minority. The number of Orthodox Christians showing the most increase in recent years due to immigration is estimated at 5%. The same is the case with the 5% Muslims – mostly Sunni – of which more than half are of Austrian nationality, and the 1% Alevites, the majority of which also have the Austrian nationality. The number of Jews is estimated at 0.15-0.2%, while the members of the legally recognized “Free Churches” number 0.3% and the number of Buddhists is roughly the same. Approximately 20% of the inhabitants of Austria profess to have no confession.

Over the last decades the religiousness of Austrian people has changed significantly. In 2008, according to their self-assessment two thirds of the population (61%) described themselves as religious; one third (30%) declared they were not “religious persons”; 4% considered themselves convinced atheists; 5% said they simply “did not know”. In 1999, 75% still regarded themselves as being “religious”, 18% as “not religious” and 2% as “atheist”. The decrease is primarily due to the erosion processes amongst younger Austrians (under 30 years), the proportion of those assessing themselves as “religious” declining from 66% in 1999 to 43% in 2008.1 On the one hand, these findings are consistent with the developments in religious practice and on the other hand, with the idea of God. Only a quarter of respondents give their consent to believing in a personal God, while about 50% affirm the existence “of a higher being or a spiritual power”. 11% decidedly exclude the existence of God or ← 16 | 17 → another spiritual power.2 Regarding religious practice, 17% participate in weekly worship and 31% never go to church.3

Like elsewhere in Europe, the mid-1960s saw a change in the attitude towards the Churches as institutions. This had different reasons: the Catholic Church was caught up in the identity crisis of all major institutions and was not able to use the Second Vatican Council in a decisive way as a chance for renewal. These developments became particularly evident in the public debate on the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
Secular State Multiconfessional Society Religious Societies Laïcité religion and politics
Bruxelles, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2017. 224 pp.

Biographical notes

Jan Nelis (Volume editor) Caroline Sägesser (Volume editor) Jean-Philippe Schreiber (Volume editor)

Jan Nelis has done research on the reception of antiquity under nazism and fascism, on the relation between catholicism and totalitarianism, and on the role of christianity in the EU. Having worked in Italy (Rome, Bologna) and Belgium (Ghent University, Université Libre de Bruxelles), he is currently affiliated with the Université de Toulouse-Jean Jaurès. Caroline Sägesser holds a PhD in History from the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She has worked extensively on the relationship between public authorities and religious groups. Since 2013 she has been monitoring current developments in religion and secularism at the Observatory of Religions and Secularism. Jean-Philippe Schreiber, historian of religions, is research director at the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research – FNRS and full professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he heads the Observatory of Religions and Secularism.


Title: Religion and Secularism in the European Union
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