One of the earliest proposals for a ‘united Europe’ dates back to the 15th Century. The Bohemian King George of Poděbrady proposed a treaty between all Christian nations – with its members pledging to settle disputes between themselves peacefully and concentrate military efforts against the Ottoman Empire. There were to be supranational institutions common to all Christian countries, with a common Christian parliament.
“Europe” was not mentioned once. This was to be a Christian entity – and it was envisioned as a union standing in opposition to the encroachment of “non-Christian” forces upon Christendom. At the time, people rarely used the Latin word ‘Europa’ (Europe) to discuss the geographical or cultural entity we now call Europe. Much more common, at least from the eleventh century onwards, was ‘Christianitas’ (Christendom).
At some point, Europe was defined (insofar as it was defined at all) as a Christian continent. But is this still the case today? According to a 2012 Eurobarometer survey, 72% of people living in the EU define themselves as Christian, whereas only 23% think of themselves as atheist or agnostic (and 2% define themselves as Muslim, whilst less than 1% call themselves Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, or Jewish).
Nevertheless, it’s certainly arguable that there has been a trend for decades (if not centuries) towards a ‘less religious’ Europe. Having said that, we had a comment sent in from Todor arguing that: “Europe is a Christian continent [because] European countries are Christian…”
To get a reaction, we spoke to Ben Ryan, a researcher for Theos, a Christian think tank working in the area of religion, politics and society. Is Europe a Christian continent? What did he think?
Yes, Europe is a Christian continent. But it’s not only a Christian continent, and that’s important to note. It’s a Christian continent, but it is also a ‘Greek’ continent, it is also a democratic continent; which is to say that the space that we call ‘Europe’ is not really a geographical thing. There is no border of Europe, geographically speaking. There are islands off the coast, there is no clear Eastern border.
Instead, what defines the border of the space that we call Europe is a cultural and intellectual thing. It is a space which is defined by what has come before; it is defined by Christianity, and by Greek philosophy, and by a number of other cultural and intellectual movements. So, it’s a mistake to think we are actually a real continent. There is no such thing as a ‘geographical Europe’, it can only really be seen as an intellectual space.
To get another reaction, we also spoke to Peter Margry, Professor of European Ethnology at the University of Amsterdam. He argued that, historically, Europe could be defined as a Christian continent, but this label was not necessarily accurate today:
What did Ben Ryan make of this argument? We had a comment from Bastian that would seem to agree with Professor Margry’s position, arguing that Europe is increasingly a secular continent, home to a growing number of atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc. How would Ben Ryan respond?
I think that it’s a mistake to think that because Europe is becoming more secular it is also becoming ‘less Christian’. The academic Emmanuel Levinas used to say that ‘Europe is the Bible and the Greeks’. In other words, what defines the European intellectual space is its history, which is tied into Greek philosophy, the Roman empire, and of course Christianity, which has had an enormous effect on defining the culture, the politics, everything really that we see in what we would now call Europe.
So, Christianity is always going to be there. It’s embedded. Even the type of secularism we have in Europe today is very much a Christian secularism, and that’s not going to go away. So, [Europe] is not going to become a non-Christian space just because people themselves are no longer Christian. It’s embedded in what it is to be Europe.
Is Europe a Christian continent? Or is it increasingly a secular continent, home not only to atheists but also a plethora of other religious beliefs? Is Christian identity ’embedded’ in what it means to be European? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the from below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!