Religiosity and National Identity in Europe

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Religiosity and National Identity in Europe.

Free University Berlin, Master Programme Sociology – European Societies

Seminar: Religiosity, Churches and Sects in Europe

Course leader: Prof. Dr. Dieter Ohr

Author: Plamen Akaliyski, Student ID: 4584918,


Data of submission: 11.09.2012


Topic of this seminar paper is identifying and examining relevant factors which are able to explain differences in levels of religiousness among the European Union countries. Secularisation theories factors such as economic development, modernization, education and urbanisation have been discussed and a number of problems of their application were identified. An alternative factor which was proposed to be more relevant was the importance of the religion as an element of the national identity. Regression analyses implemented in the paper proves that secularisation theories factors have minor importance in answering the question why some nations are more religious than others, while the importance of Christianity for national identity was proved to explain the greatest part of this variance. This analyses offer a model where no exceptions exist any longer apart from Orthodox countries which also fit but at a slightly lower parallel level. The insight gained from this analysis could be employed in the debate of secularisation and supply side theories over the importance of religion in modern societies and for predicting future developments.

Table of content

  1. Table of content…………………………….…..….2

  2. Introduction………………………………….….…3

  3. Theory and Discussion…………………………….4

  4. Hypothesis…………………………..……………..5

  5. Methods, Data and Measurements…..…………….6

  6. Findings……………………………..……………..6

  7. Conclusions………………………………………..9

  8. Appendix……………………………………...….10

  9. References………………………………………..11

Even though religion seems to be losing some of its importance in contemporary life, it remains one of the most significant issues in modern sociology. It is often generalized that Europe has become more secular with its modernization and the development of science and technology, while US’ society deviates from the pattern by remaining comparatively religious despite that it is modern and very affluent. This statement would be true if we look at Europe as a whole and compare it to USA and the rest of the world. Europe, however, comprises of a number of countries which are highly heterogeneous with regard to levels of religiosity. A study from Eurobarometer shows that the percentage of the population who believe that there is a God varies from 95% in Malta to only 16% in Estonia (see table 1). Such considerable differences suggest that drawing a general conclusion that Europe is secularised is inappropriate. Secularisation theory explains the decrease of religiousness with modernisation, economic prosperity and protestant religion. What is disturbing here is that there are a number of examples of countries with very similar level of economic development, modernisation and level of education but nevertheless they differ significantly on levels of religiosity. Therefore, in this seminar paper it is questioned to which extent the secularisation theory could be applied in explaining those differences. Aiming to identify the most relevant factors determining levels of religiosity, an alternative explanation is offered. It is proposed that the importance of Christianity for national identity building is the main element which makes religion stronger in certain countries and it is much more important than all other factors suggested by secularisation theory.

Regression analysis is used to identify which of a number of factors is of the highest importance. Christianity implied in the national identity is compared to secularisation theory variables such as economic development, modernization and education. The scope of analyses is limited only to Europe but the findings could be possibly applied to other regions of the world.

Table 1 Believe in a God by country.

Source: Special Eurobarobeteri

Theory and Discussion
As stated by Bruceii modernization in its many facets is the cause of the decline in religion according to the secularisation theories. He develops a number of complex causal mechanisms starting from monotheism and Protestantism leading to protestant ethics, rationalisation and individualism, which on their hand open the route to industrialisation, economic growth, development of science and technologies and, trough a number of other developments in the chain, all of them lead to secularisation. This simplification of secularisation theories gives us the opportunity to select the most appropriate explanatory factors. According to Bruce, Inglehart iii and many other scholars religion loses its importance in economically prosperous countries. Stark and Finkeiv elucidate that, among all, science is what causes most problems for religion. Another aspect of modernisation is also urbanisation of the population; therefore this is going to be used in the analyses as well.

The truthfulness of secularisation theories will not be questioned in this analyses, however it should be discussed to what extend these theories are applicable and if there is something missed. According to it the more modern, affluent, urbanised and educated certain nation is the less religious it should be. However, this is not always the case. Ireland is the most frequently mentioned by scientists case which is an exception from the pattern because it scores significantly above the average in the EU as GDP per capita but is still one of the most religious – 73% of the population believe there is a God (table 1). The discrepancy becomes more obvious when we compare countries with similar level of modernisation but yet significant differences in religiousness. Probably the best example would be between Czech Republic and Slovakia. The two Central European countries share a lot of common historical heritage as they are not only neighbours but in the last century they existed as a united country (Czechoslovakia) for a period of 74 years (from 1918 to 1992), therefore we can deduce that the educational system had been synchronised to a large extend for a long period of time. Also the two countries differ only very slightly as a level of economic development (GDP per capita is $19 000 in Czech Republic and $16 000 in Slovakiav). And despite that the predominant religion in both countries is Roman Catholicism we observe a striking difference in level of religiosity – Czech Republic is the second least religious country in the EU with only 19% believers, while in Slovakia 61% report that they believe that a God exists. Similarly Bulgaria and Romania, neighbouring countries, with identical economic development, a communist heritage and the same religious denomination (Orthodoxy) but, nevertheless, differ largely in level of religiousness. The list could be complemented with other neighbouring countries such as Poland and Lithuania, Denmark and Sweden, West Germany and France, and probably the most prominent example - Great Britain and Ireland. The pattern is more or less similar in whole of Europe – a more religious nation neighbours less religious nation(s) which in a way forms an imprecise chess board (black fields neighbouring white ones and white fields neighbours black ones).

Therefore we can conclude that for some nations religion has higher importance than others, regardless of its modernisation and economic development. Such a chess board formation suggests that certain nations implicate religion in order to define their national identity in distinction to its more atheist neighbours. Contrary, the more secular nations differ from their religious neighbour(s) by being atheists or by forming their national identity on different grounds.
Brucevi expounds that in some cases religion could be utilised in the group identity (ethnical or national) and strengthened if external threat is present. A number of scholars (Voicuvii, Smithviii, Merdjonovaix, Krunovichx, Kurthxi) indicate that religion strengthens national identity. Voicu stresses on the cases when a conflict exists, for instance in former Yugoslavia between Croatian Catholics, Serbian Orthodoxies and Bosnian Muslims. In this example the conflict reinforced religion which is part of the national identity. This case is especially interesting because the three nations speak (arguably) the same language (different dialects) but large part of their national identity is built on the religion the majority of the population belong to. Poland and Ireland are the most prominent examples where external conflicts and danger of assimilation enforce religiousness. On a number of cases Poland was invaded and its territory divided between its more powerful neighbours – German (Prussian) Protestants from the West and Russian Orthodoxies from the East. As a way to oppose the invaders of a foreign faith the Polish reinforced their religiousness as a defence mechanism. The same holds true for Irish people for whom Catholicism is a powerful weapon to resist the far mightier Protestant neighbour from the adjacent island.

However this religious defence mechanism develops only under certain historical conditions. Not every European nation’s identity has been threatened in the recent history and therefore for these nations religion will not have the same functional importance. Also, as Voicu (2012) proofs empirically, “the inseparable fusion of religion and nationalism tends to occur in a territory that has a homogenous religious population”. This is in contradiction to the supply – side theory.

A few words about the causal relationship need to be mentioned. As both variables are interrelated the question is what comes first in time and causes the other one. We could assume that if someone ascribes high importance of religion to national identity then he or she is most likely to be religious. On the other hand, only a small percentage of the religious individuals report that Christianity is important for their national identity. As the data shows, these cases are between 1.9 and 37.8% (12% is the mean) which is significantly lower than the total percentage of religious people in the European nations. Therefore the proposition is that the larger this little percentage of people is in a country, the more socially desirable for the rest of the population will be, if belonging to the dominant nationality, to be at the same time religious.

Therefore the first hypothesis in this seminar paper is that the more important the predominant religion for the national identity of a nation is, the more religious this nation will be. Only in the cases when religion is not built in the national identity we can expect that secularisation theories will be applicable. Here we arrive at the second hypothesis which states that the secularisation theories factors such as modernisation, wealth, urbanisation and education have much lower importance for explaining differences in level of religiousness.

Methods, Data and Measurement
In order to test the hypotheses a regression analyses was employed. It was desirable that the analysis includes as many Christian European countries as possible. While different measures of religiousness were collected in a number of surveys, the question for importance of religion for national identity was asked only in a few. A data set from Eurobarometer 2009xii was chosen as it includes 29 countries members of the European Union1.

The dependent variable which was used to capture the concept of level of religiousness most accurately is church attendance (details for all variables – see Appendix). Other possible measures of religiosity would be subjective description as religious person or believe that there is a God. Preliminary tests demonstrated that all of them are highly interrelated and the results of the regression analysis differed only very slightly. Data for this variable was taken from European Value Survey 2008xiii except for the data for East and West Germany which were examines as a united country in the survey. For the former FRG and GDR data was extracted from ISSP 2003xiv.

The key explanatory variable “importance of religion for national identity” was taken from Eurobarometer 2009. Secularisation theories’ variables used in the analysis are HDIxv, GDP per capitaxvi and urbanisationxvii. Education variable is not used on its own because it is one of the 3 components of the HDI. As secularisation theory suggests that Protestantism is one of the roots to secularisation a variable Protestantism is also included. As in the case of the dependent variable the data was collected from European Value Survey 2008 and ISSP 2003 for East and West Germany.
Table 2. OLS Regression analysis. Dependent variable: church attendance.

Model 1

Model 2

Model 3

National ID: Be Christian



Secularisation Theory variables:


- 0.226

- 0.056

GDP per capita

- 0.028



- 0.076

- 0.028


- 0.374*

- 0.217





Adjusted R-squared




*P≤0.10, **P≤0.05, P≤0.01

Standardised coefficients are presented. Number of observations is 29.
Model 1 tests the first hypothesis using only the variable for importance of Christianity for national identity. The standardised coefficient is very high, the significance test proves it valid at the highest probability and the R2 demonstrates that it explains 61.5% of the variations of the dependent variable. That gives a very strong support of the hypothesis and proves that the importance of the dominant religion for the national identity building is undoubtedly the most significant factor explaining levels of religiousness.

Graph 1 demonstrates how well the cases fit into the model. Important information which we can draw from there is that the 4 Orthodox countries (Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Romania) seem to fit into the model but at lower level than the rest. In other words, these nations ascribe much higher importance of Christianity for national identity than most other European countries. Even though the church attendance in these countries is also higher than the average for the rest of the continent, the effect of this factor is lower than in the Catholic and Protestant countries. In Graph two these 4 cases were excluded and the new graph produces even better fit of the model with all countries lying on ore very close to the regression line.

Graph 1 Scatter plot: ‘National ID: be Christian’ and ‘Church attendance’

Graph 2 Scatter plot: ‘National ID: be Christian’ and ‘Church attendance’ (excluding Orthodox countries)

Model 2 demonstrates how powerful the secularisation theories variables are. All of them have the suggested direction, which means that high levels of modernisation and affluence in a nation have a negative effect on frequency of church attendance. HDI and Protestantism, having the highest coefficient, seem to be the most relevant factors, while the coefficients of GDP per capita and Urbanisation are rather low. Despite of having the right sign and some of them having a significant strength, it is important to note that only Protestantism has an acceptable level of significance. Therefore we cannot reject the null hypothesis, meaning that it is impossible to prove it statistically that the implied relationship exists. However, it is not unusual in cross-national analyses that the coefficients lack significance due to the low number of cases (29 in this analysis). It would be fair to conclude that the variables are very likely to have the proposed relationships even though we cannot prove it statistically except from Protestantism. The goodness of fit (R2) is also rather high however it is only half of the one in the first model.

Model 3 combines the two previous models and produces nearly the same results. The coefficient of National ID: be Christian variable remains very high and in this model it is the only significant one. The rest of the explanatory variables attenuate and GDP per capita even changes its direction. The 4 secularisation theory variables add only less than 5% to the explanatory power of the model. All these results prove eloquently that factors of modernisation and wealth have much less significance for explaining levels of religiosity compared to the national identity factor.

In this seminar paper different determinants explaining religiosity were examined. From the secularisation theories factors were taken into consideration: modernisation, affluence, education and urbanisation. As it was discussed in the first section their application is rather limited because they are not able to explain a number of exceptions. A proposal was made that the importance of the Christian religion for the national identity will be more relevant in explaining differences with regard to levels of religiousness. The regression analysis proves that this is the case. Countries where there is higher percentage of people who ascribe importance of Christianity for national identity we find that there are higher rates of church going. Secularisation theories factors were proven to have a much lower significance in explaining this phenomenon.

The model offered in this analysis throws more light on the debate on the question why some nations are more religious than others. Secularisation and supply side theories were not able to explain “exceptions” such as Ireland, Italy and Poland which are located in “secularised” Europe but still remain significantly religious. The model offered in this analysis places those countries right on the regression line changing them into the examples proving the rule rather than outliers. The only exceptions here are the Orthodox countries which also fit into the model but in a parallel lower level. Expanding this model to the rest of the Christian (and perhaps non-Christian) world would be also possible and could be able to solve the “puzzle of American exceptionalism”.

Church attendance – original question asked: “Apart from weddings, funerals and christenings, about how often do you attend religious services these days?” Possible answers: 1 more than once a week; 2 once a week; 3 once a month; 4 only on specific holy days; 5 once a year; 6 less often;7 never, practically never. Mean values were calculated and then recoded to fit in a scale from 0 to 100 and the higher value representing more frequent church attendance.

Importance of religion for national identity – original question asked: People differ in what they think it means to be (NATIONALITY). In your view, among the following, what do you think are the most important characteristics to be (NATIONALITY)? Q.E2_1 To be a Christian”. Possible answers: 0 Not mentioned; 1 Mentioned. The value shows the percentage of the population who mentioned this answer.

HDI – Human Development Index, which measures “three basic dimensions of human development—a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living”.

GDP per capita – Gross Domestic Product per capita

Urbanisation – percentage of urban population

Protestantism – percentage of the population affiliated to the any of the Protestant denominations


1 27 official EU member states (UK is divided into Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Germany divided into East and West Germany).

i Special Eurobarometer Report: Social Values, Science and Technology (June 2005). Available from:

ii Bruce, Steve (2002). God is dead: Secularisation in the West, p2.

iii Inglehart, Ronald (1990). Culture shift in advances industrial societies and (1997), Modernization and Postmodernization

iv Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of

Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

v World Bank. Available from:

vi Bruce, Steve (2002). God is dead: Secularisation in the West, p31.

vii Voicu, Malina (2012). Effect of nationalism on religiosity in 30 European countries.

viii Smith, A. (1991) National Identity. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

ix Merdjonova, I. (2000). In search of identity: nationalism and religion in Eastern Europe. Religion, State & Society, 28, 233-262.

x Krunovich, R. (2006). An exploration of the salience of Christianity for national identity in Europe. Sociological Perspective, 49, 435-460

xi Kurth, J. (2007). “For the glory of Romanians”: Orthodoxy and nationalism in Greater Romania, 1918-1945, Nationalities Papers, 35, 717-742.

xii Eurobarometer 71.3: Globalization, Personal Values and Priorities, European Identity, Future of the European Union, Social Problems and Welfare, and European Elections, June-July 2009. Available from

xiii EVS 2008: Integrated Dataset. Available from

xiv International Social Survey Program 2003. Available from

xv Human Development Index, 2009. Available from: ttp://

xvi Gross Domestic Product per capita, 2009. Available from:

xvii Level of urbanisation, 2010. Available from:

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