ARE EUROPEANS ANTI-RELIGIOUS? Europe is a place of soaring cathedrals, churches and religious shrines, and I always cherish those moments when I have a chance to pass beneath their magnificent doors and archways and enter into the vast, calm, meditative spaces. Westminster Abbey, Sagrada Familia, the Duomo in Firenze, Notre Dame, Chartes, Cologne and Strasbourg Cathedrals, Venice’s Basilica di San Marco, the Sistine Chapel, these are just the better known of the hundreds of uplifting architectural manifestations of divine genius that anchor the European landscape. Whether you believe in the Christian religion or not, the massive spaces inside these god-like houses contain a flickering spirit expressed through stunning craftsmanship and design.
I am always struck by the sunlight filtering through the intricate stained glass, casting kaleidoscope patterns on the massive columns; and the exquisitely carved and painted ceilings, as well as the magnificent altars, statues, tapestries, friezes and murals rendered by creative geniuses like Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Gaudi, El Greco and many other painters, sculptors and architects, known and unknown. Even in smaller towns and villages, often at the center you find a church or chapel with magnificent altars carved by the likes of Riemenschneider and other sculptors. The only places in the United States I have found with comparable levels of quietude, peace and spirit are in old growth redwood forests in California, where the natural cathedral beneath the lofty redwoods’ sun-filtering canopy reminds me of these human-carved wonders.
Curiously however, despite European’s ongoing allegiance to their cathedrals and religious shrines, organized religion is barely a factor in most of their day-to-day lives. That is particularly true when compared to the United States. While six out of 10 Americans say that religion is very important to them, even in Catholic Italy and Poland only a third of the public say it is. Certainly one reason for this is the memory of the destructive role that organized religion has played in numerous past wars stretching across centuries. Religious zealots in Europe, whether the Catholic or Protestant variety, have played a role like certain fundamentalist Arab Muslims or Israelis in the Middle East today, or fundamentalist Christians in the United States. These were organized movements of intolerance and discrimination, spurred on by historical grievances and in their belief of themselves as a chosen people. Religion in Europe has been the locus of tragedy, intrigue, theft and organized thuggery, an organizational structure promoting -- in its worst excesses -- genocidal mass murder. Naturally this makes the average European very wary of religion.
But contrary to what many American journalists have written, this collective memory has led, not so much to a secularism as to a very private form of religion and spirituality. Many Europeans’ spirituality manifests in a way that is more reserved and personal, and much less a mass religion. Indeed, on the whole I have found Europeans to be quite religious. They just don't go to church very much. No, we should be glad that the Europeans largely are over their allegiances to organized religion, considering the thuggish role that religion has played, and welcome this private embrace of individual spirituality.
—Steven Hill 12:16 PM