Europeans today are the idlers of the world. On average, they work less than Americans and a lot less than Asians. Thanks to protracted education and early retirement, a smaller share of Europeans are actually available for work. For example, 54 per cent of Belgians and Greeks aged over fifteen participate in the labour force, compared with 65 per cent of Americans and 74 per cent of Chinese.20 Of that labour force, a larger proportion was unemployed in Europe than elsewhere in the developed world on average in the years 1980 to 2010. Europeans are also more likely to go on strike.*Above all, thanks to shorter workdays and longer holidays, Europeans work shorter hours.21 Between 2000 and 2009 the average American in employment worked just under 1,711 hours a year (a figure pushed down by the impact of the financial crisis, which put many workers on short time). The average German worked just 1,437 hours – fully 16 per cent less. This is the result of a prolonged period of divergence. In 1979 the differentials between European and American working hours were minor; indeed, in those days the average Spanish worker put in more hours per year than the average American. But, from then on, European working hours declined by as much as a fifth. Asian working hours also declined, but the average Japanese worker still works as many hours a year as the average American, while the average South Korean works 39 per cent more. People in Hong Kong and Singapore also work roughly a third more hours a year than Americans.22
Work Ethics: Hours Worked per Year in the West and the East, 1950–2009
The striking thing is that the transatlantic divergence in working patterns has coincided almost exactly with a comparable divergence in religiosity. Europeans not only work less; they also pray less – and believe less. There was a time when Europe could justly refer to itself as ‘Christendom’. Europeans built the continent’s loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarrelled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith. Now it is Europeans who are the heathens. According to the most recent (2005–8) World Values Survey, 4 per cent of Norwegians and Swedes and 8 per cent of French and Germans attend a church service at least once a week, compared with 36 per cent of Americans, 44 per cent of Indians, 48 per cent of Brazilians and 78 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans. The figures are significantly higher for a number of predominantly Catholic countries like Italy (32 per cent) and Spain (16 per cent). The only countries where religious observance is lower than in Protestant Europe are Russia and Japan. God is ‘very important’ for just one in ten German and Dutch people; the French proportion is only slightly higher. By comparison, 58 per cent of Americans say He is very important in their lives. The importance of God is higher still in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and highest of all in the Muslim countries of the Middle East. Only in China is God important to fewer people (less than 5 per cent) than in Europe. Just under a third of Americans regard politicians who do not believe in God as unfit for public office, compared with 4 per cent of Norwegians and Swedes, 9 per cent of Finns, 11 per cent of Germans and Spaniards and 12 per cent of Italians. Only half of Indians and Brazilians would tolerate an atheist politician.23 Only in Japan does religious faith matter less in politics than in Western Europe.
Religious Belief and Observance, Early 1980s and Mid-2000s
The case of Britain is especially interesting in view of the determination with which Britons sought to spread their own religious faith in the nineteenth century. Today, according to the World Values Survey, 17 per cent of Britons claim they attend a religious service at least once a week – higher than in continental Europe, but still less than half the American figure. Fewer than a quarter of Britons say God is very important in their lives, again less than half the American figure. True, the UK figures are up slightly since 1981 (when only 14 per cent said they attended church once a week, and under a fifth said God was important to them). But the surveys do not distinguish between religions, so they almost certainly understate the decline of British Christianity. A 2004 study suggested that, in an average week, more Muslims attend a mosque than Anglicans go to church. And nearly all of the recent increase in church attendance is explained by the growth of non-white congregations, especially in Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. When Christian Research conducted a census of 18,720 churches on Sunday 8 May 2005, the real rate of attendance was just 6.3 per cent of the population, down 15 per cent since 1998. On closer inspection, Britain seems to exemplify the collapse both of observance and of faith in Western Europe.
The de-Christianization of Britain is a relatively recent phenomenon. In his Short History of England (1917), G. K. Chesterton took it as almost self-evident that Christianity was synonymous with civilization:
If anyone wishes to know what we mean when we say that Christendom was and is one culture, or one civilization, there is a rough but plain way of putting it. It is by asking what is the most common … of all the uses of the word ‘Christian’ … It has long had one meaning in casual speech among common people, and it means a culture or a civilization. Ben Gunn on Treasure Island did not actually say to Jim Hawkins, ‘I feel myself out of touch with a certain type of civilization’; but he did say, ‘I haven’t tasted Christian food.’24
British Protestants were in truth never especially observant (compared, for example, with Irish Catholics) but until the late 1950s Church membership, if not attendance, was relatively high and steady. Even in 1960 just under a fifth of the population of the United Kingdom were Church members. But by 2000 the fraction was down to a tenth.25 Prior to 1960, most marriages in England and Wales were solemnized in a church; then the slide began, down to around 40 per cent in the late 1990s. For most of the first half of the twentieth century, Anglican Easter Day communicants accounted for around 5 or 6 per cent of the population of England; it was only after 1960 that the proportion slumped to 2 per cent. Figures for the Church of Scotland show a similar trend: steady until 1960, then falling by roughly half. Especially striking is the decline in confirmations. There were 227,135 confirmations in England in 1910; in 2007 there were just 27,900 – and that was 16 per cent fewer than just five years previously. Between 1960 and 1979 the confirmation rate among twelve- to twenty-year-olds fell by more than half, and it continued to plummet thereafter. Fewer than a fifth of those baptized are now confirmed.26 For the Church of Scotland the decline has been even more precipitous.27 No one in London or Edinburgh today would use the word ‘Christian’ in Ben Gunn’s sense.
These trends seem certain to continue. Practising Christians are ageing: 38 per cent of Methodists and members of the United Reformed Church were sixty-five or over in 1999, for example, compared with 16 per cent of the population as a whole.28 Younger Britons are markedly less likely to believe in God or heaven.29 By some measures, Britain is already one of the most godless societies in the world, with 56 per cent of people never attending church at all – the highest rate in Western Europe.30 The 2000 ‘Soul of Britain’ survey conducted for Michael Buerk’s television series revealed an astounding degree of religious atrophy. Only 9 per cent of those surveyed thought the Christian faith was the best path to God; 32 per cent considered all religions equally valid. Although only 8 per cent identified themselves as atheists, 12 per cent confessed they did not know what to believe. More than two-thirds of respondents said they recognized no clearly defined moral guidelines, and fully 85 per cent of those aged under twenty-four. (Bizarrely, 45 per cent of those surveyed said that this decline in religion had made the country a worse place.)
Some of the finest British writers of the twentieth century anticipated Britain’s crisis of faith. The Oxford don C. S. Lewis (best known today for his allegorical children’s stories) wrote The Screwtape Letters (1942) in the hope that mocking the Devil might keep him at bay. Evelyn Waugh knew, as he wrote his wartime Sword of Honour trilogy (1952–61), that he was writing the epitaph of an ancient form of English Roman Catholicism. Both sensed that the Second World War posed a grave threat to Christian faith. Yet it was not until the 1960s that their premonitions of secularization came true. Why, then, did the British lose their historic faith? Like so many difficult questions, this seems at first sight to have an easy answer. But before we can simply blame it, as the poet Philip Larkin did, on ‘The Sixties’ – the Beatles, the contraceptive pill and the mini-skirt – we need to remind ourselves that the United States enjoyed all these earthly delights too, without ceasing to be a Christian country. Ask many Europeans today, and they will say that religious faith is just an anachronism, a vestige of medieval superstition. They will roll their eyes at the religious zeal of the American Bible Belt – not realizing that it is their own lack of faith that is the real anomaly.
Who killed Christianity in Europe, if not John Lennon?31 Was it, as Weber himself predicted, that the spirit of capitalism was bound to destroy its Protestant ethic parent, as materialism corrupted the original asceticism of the godly (the ‘secularization hypothesis’)?32 This was quite close to the view of the novelist and (in old age) holy man Leo Tolstoy, who saw a fundamental contradiction between Christ’s teachings and ‘those habitual conditions of life which we call civilization, culture, art, and science’.33 If so, what part of economic development was specifically hostile to religious belief? Was it the changing role of women and the decline of the nuclear family – which also seems to explain the collapse in family size and the demographic decline of the West? Was it scientific knowledge – what Weber called ‘the demystification of the world’, in particular Darwin’s theory of evolution, which overthrew the biblical story of divine creation? Was it improving life expectancy, which made the hereafter a much less alarmingly proximate destination? Was it the welfare state, a secular shepherd keeping watch over us from the cradle to the grave? Or could it be that European Christianity was killed by the chronic self-obsession of modern culture? Was the murderer of Europe’s Protestant work ethic none other than Sigmund Freud?
In The Future of an Illusion (1928) Sigmund Freud, the Moravian-born founding father of psychoanalysis, set out to refute Weber. For Freud, a lapsed Jew, religion could not be the driving force behind the achievements of Western civilization because it was essentially an ‘illusion’, a ‘universal neurosis’ devised to prevent people from giving way to their basic instincts – in particular, their sexual desires and violent, destructive impulses. Without religion, there would be mayhem:
If one imagined its prohibitions removed, then one could choose any woman who took one’s fancy as one’s sexual object, one could kill without hesitation one’s rival or whoever interfered with one in any other way, and one could seize what one wanted of another man’s goods without asking his leave.34
Religion not only prohibited rampant sexual promiscuity and violence. It also reconciled men to ‘the cruelty of fate, particularly as shown in death’ and the ‘sufferings and privations’ of daily life.35 When the monotheistic religions fused the gods into a single person, ‘man’s relations to him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child’s relation to the father. If one had done so much for the father, then surely one would be rewarded – at least the only beloved child, the chosen people, would be.’36
Freud had little hope that mankind could wholly emancipate itself from religion, least of all in Europe. As he put it:
If you want to expel religion from our European civilization, you can only do it by means of another system of doctrines; and such a system would from the outset take over all the psychological characteristics of religion – the same sanctity, rigidity and intolerance, the same prohibition of thought – for its own defence.37
That certainly seemed plausible in the 1930s, when both Stalin and Hitler propagated their own monstrous cults. Yet in both cases the totalitarian political religions failed to rein in the primal instincts described in Freud’s theory of religion. By 1945 Europe lay exhausted from an orgy of violence – including shocking sexual violence in the form of mass rape – unlike anything seen since the time of Timur. The initial response in many countries, particularly those (like the Soviet Union) most traumatized by mass murder, was to revert to real religion, and to use its time-honoured comforts to mourn the dead.
By the 1960s, however, a generation too young to remember the years of total war and genocide sought a new post-Christian outlet for their repressed desires. Freud’s own theories, with their negative view of repression and their explicit sympathy with the erotic impulse, surely played a part in tempting Europeans to exit the churches and enter the sex shops. In Civilization and its Discontents (1929–30, but first published in the United States only in 1961), Freud had argued that there was a fundamental ‘antithesis’ between civilization as it then existed and man’s most primal urges:
The existence of this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbour and which forces civilization into such a high expenditure [of energy]. In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilized society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. The interest of work in common would not hold it together; instinctual passions are stronger than reasonable interests. Civilization has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man’s aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of them in check by psychical reaction-formations. Hence … the restriction upon sexual life, and hence too the … commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself – a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man … Civilization is a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals, and after that families, then races, peoples and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind. Why this has to happen, we do not know; the work of Eros is precisely this … Men are to be libidinally bound to one another … But man’s natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and of all against each, opposes this programme of civilization. This aggressive instinct is the derivative and the main representative of the death instinct which we have found alongside of Eros and which shares world-dominion with it. And now, I think, the meaning of the evolution of civilization is no longer obscure to us. It must present the struggle between Eros and Death, between the instinct of life and the instinct of destruction, as it works itself out in the human species. This struggle is what all life essentially consists of.38
Reading this, one sees what the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus meant when he said that psychoanalysis was ‘the disease of which it pretends to be the cure’.39 But this was the message interpreted by the hippies as a new commandment: let it all hang out. And so they did. The Hombres’ ‘Let It All Hang Out’ (1967) was one of the lesser anthems of the 1960s, but its opening lines – ‘A preachment, dear friends, you are about to receive / On John Barleycorn, nicotine, and the temptations of Eve’ – summed up nicely what was now on offer.* For the West’s most compelling critics today (not least radical Islamists), the Sixties opened the door to a post-Freudian anti-civilization, characterized by a hedonistic celebration of the pleasures of the self, a rejection of theology in favour of pornography and a renunciation of the Prince of Peace for grotesquely violent films and video games that are best characterized as ‘warnography’.
The trouble with all the theories about the death of Protestantism in Europe is that, whatever they may explain about Europe’s de-Christianization, they explain nothing whatsoever about America’s continued Christian faith. Americans have experienced more or less the same social and cultural changes as Europeans. They have become richer. Their knowledge of science has increased. And they are even more exposed to psychoanalysis and pornography than Europeans. But Protestantism in America has suffered nothing like the decline it has experienced in Europe. On the contrary, God is in some ways as big in America today as He was forty years ago.40 The best evidence is provided by the tens of millions of worshippers who flock to American churches every Sunday.
Paradoxically, the advent of the new 1960s trinity of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll coincided, in the United States, with a boom in Evangelical Protestantism. The Reverend Billy Graham vied with the Beatles to see who could pack more young people into a stadium. This was not so much a reaction, more a kind of imitation. Speaking at the Miami Rock Festival in 1969, Graham urged the audience to ‘tune into God … Turn on to His power.’41 In 1972 the college Christian group Campus Crusade organized an Evangelical conference in Dallas called Explo ’72 that ended with a concert intended to be the Christian Woodstock (the 1969 rock festival that came to encapsulate the hippy counter-culture).* When Cynthia ‘Plaster Caster’, a Catholic teenager from Chicago, made plaster casts of the erect penises of Jimi Hendrix, Robert Plant and Keith Richards (though most definitely not of Cliff Richard’s), she was merely fulfilling Freud’s vision of the triumph of Eros over Thanatos. God was love, as the bumper stickers said, after all. At one and the same time, America was both born again and porn again.
How can we explain the fact that Western civilization seems to have divided in two: to the east a godless Europe, to the west a God-fearing America? How do we explain the persistence of Christianity in America at a time of its steep decline in Europe? The best answer can be found in Springfield, Missouri, the town they call the ‘Queen of the Ozarks’ and the birthplace of the inter-war highway between Chicago and California, immortalized in Bobby Troup’s 1946 song, ‘(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66’. If Max Weber was impressed by the diversity of Protestant sects when he passed through here a century ago, he would be astonished today. Springfield has roughly one church for every thousand citizens. There are 122 Baptist churches, thirty-six Methodist chapels, twenty-five Churches of Christ and fifteen Churches of God – in all, some 400 Christian places of worship. Now it’s not your kicks you get on Route 66; it’s your crucifix.
The significant thing is that all these churches are involved in a fierce competition for souls. As Weber saw it, individual American Baptists, Methodists and others competed within their local religious communities to show one another who among them was truly godly. But in Springfield today the competition is between churches, and it is just as fierce as the competition between car-dealerships or fast-food joints. Churches here have to be commercially minded in order to attract and retain worshippers and, on that basis, the clear winner is the James River Assembly. To European eyes, it may look more look like a shopping mall or business park, but it is in fact the biggest church in Springfield – indeed, one of the biggest in the entire United States. Its pastor, John Lindell, is a gifted and charismatic preacher who combines old-time scriptural teaching with the kind of stagecraft more often associated with rock ’n’ roll. Indeed, at times he seems like the natural heir of the Jesus Revolution identified by Time magazine in 1971, a rock-inspired Christian youth movement in the spirit of the British rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (1970). Yet there is also a lean and hungry quality to Lindell; as he makes his pitch for God (‘God, You are so awesome’) he seems less like Ian Gillan (the shaggy Deep Purple singer who sang the part of Jesus on the original Superstar album) and more like Steve Jobs, unveiling the latest handheld device from Apple: iGod, maybe. For Lindell, the Protestant ethic is alive and well and living in Springfield. He has no doubt that their faith makes the members of his congregation harder working than they would otherwise be. He himself is quite a worker: three hyperkinetic services in one Sunday is no light preaching load. And the Holy Ghost seems to fuse with the spirit of capitalism as the collection buckets go around – though thankfully not in the brazen manner favoured by Mac Hammond of the Living Word Christian Centre in Minneapolis, who promises ‘Bible principles that will enhance your spiritual growth and help you to win at work, win in relationships, and win in the financial arena’.42
A visit to James River makes obvious the main difference between European and American Protestantism. Whereas the Reformation was nationalized in Europe, with the creation of established Churches like the Church of England or Scotland’s Kirk, in the United States there was always a strict separation between religion and the state, allowing an open competition between multiple Protestant sects. And this may be the best explanation for the strange death of religion in Europe and its enduring vigour in the United States. In religion as in business, state monopolies are inefficient – even if in some cases the existence of a state religion increases religious participation (where there is a generous subsidy from government and minimal control of clerical appointments).43 More commonly, competition between sects in a free religious market encourages innovations designed to make the experience of worship and Church membership more fulfilling. It is this that has kept religion alive in America.44 (The insight is not entirely novel. Adam Smith made a similar argument in The Wealth of Nations, contrasting countries with established Churches with those allowing competition.)45
Yet there is something about today’s American Evangelicals that would have struck Weber, if not Smith, as suspect. For there is a sense in which many of the most successful sects today flourish precisely because they have developed a kind of consumer Christianity that verges on Wal-Mart worship.46 It is not only easy to drive to and entertaining to watch – not unlike a trip to the multiplex cinema, with soft drinks or Starbucks served on the premises. It also makes remarkably few demands on believers. On the contrary, they get to make demands on God,47 so that prayer at James River often consists of an extended series of requests for the deity to solve personal problems. God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost has been displaced by God the Analyst, the Agony Uncle and the Personal Trainer. With more than two-fifths of white Americans changing religion at some point in their lives, faith has become paradoxically fickle.48
The only problem with turning religion into just another leisure pursuit is that it means Americans have drifted a very long way from Max Weber’s version of the Protestant ethic, in which deferred gratification was the corollary of capital accumulation. In his words:
Protestant asceticism works with all its force against the uninhibited enjoyment of possessions; it discourages consumption … And if that restraint on consumption is combined with the freedom to strive for profit, the result produced will inevitably be the creation of capital through the ascetic compulsion to save.49
By contrast, we have just lived through an experiment: capitalism without saving. In the United States the household savings rate fell below zero at the height of the housing bubble, as families not only consumed their entire disposable income but also drew down the equity in their homes. The decline of thrift turned out to be a recipe for financial crisis. When house prices began to decline in 2006, a chain reaction began: those who had borrowed more than the value of their homes stopped paying their mortgage interest; those who had invested in securities backed by mortgages suffered large losses; banks that had borrowed large sums to invest in such securities suffered first illiquidity and then insolvency; to avert massive bank failures governments stepped in with bailouts; and a crisis of private debt mutated into a crisis of public debt. Today the total private and public debt burden in the United States is more than three and a half times the size of gross domestic product.50
This was not a uniquely American phenomenon. Variations on the same theme were played in other English-speaking countries: Ireland, the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, Australia and Canada – this was the fractal geometry of the age of leverage, with the same-shaped problem recurring in a wide range of sizes. There were bigger real-estate bubbles in most European countries – in the sense that house prices rose further relative to income than in the United States – and much more severe crises of public debt in Portugal, Ireland and Greece, which made the mistake of running very large deficits while in a monetary union with Germany. But the financial crisis of 2007–9, though global in its effects, was not global in its origins. It was a crisis made in the Western world as a result of over-consumption and excess financial leverage. Elsewhere – and especially in Asia – the picture was quite different.
It is generally recognized that savings rates are much higher in the East than in the West. Private debt burdens are much lower; houses are often bought outright or with relatively small mortgages. Other forms of consumer credit play a much smaller role. It is also well known, as we have seen, that Asians work many more hours per year than their Western counterparts – average annual hours worked range from 2,120 in Taiwan to 2,243 in South Korea. What is less appreciated is that the rise of thrift and industry in Asia has gone hand in hand with one of the most surprising side-effects of Westernization: the growth of Christianity, above all in China.