There is historical evidence that European Christianity has suffered serious decline. The decline has been more pronounced from the late 17th century to present. Western Europe was the home of many missionaries who went to evangelize to continental Africa, Asia and the America’s. Europe is the home of many great preachers and evangelist in history: Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, and Barth amongst other great spiritual leaders in history. However, history story has changed and Europe itself now needs serious evangelism. Europe has experienced a steady decline in Christian beliefs and practices. There are many reasons for the decline of Christianity in Europe.
One of the major causes of decline in Christianity in continental Europe is the Reformation. Reformation coupled by wars of religion caused a serious blow to Christianity in Europe. During the reformation human reason was elevated beyond what religion termed as divine revelation. Religious beliefs and doctrines were questioned and challenged. Various sects of Christianity were formed which arose from varied interpretation of the bible. This led to the disregard of religious authorities such as papacy. Leaders in Europe were therefore forced to accept diversity of Christianity rather than impose a single orthodoxy. This formed the beginning of the era of religious tolerance.
The basis of decline in Christianity in Europe can also be traced in the thirty years war (1618-1648) in Europe and its consequences. Though the reasons for the war changed but the cause of the war was religious differences. The war started because of religious conflicts between the Protestants and the Catholics in the large Roman Empire. The war deepened the hostility between the Catholics and the Protestant groups.
Religious toleration became the order of the day after the reformation and wars of religion. Initially, it had been agreed upon that the people of a certain nation would follow the religion of their king. Nevertheless this was not the case during the end of the 16th century. More and more sects or religious were allowed and their rights acknowledged by governments. During this period for example partial toleration of Protestants existed in Nantes France. Germany on the other hands gave equal rights to both Lutherans and Catholics. The later years of eighteenth and nineteenth saw advancement of religious toleration in other European countries such as Austria, Britain, Sweden, Ireland, Spain and Denmark. The eighteenth and nineteenth century were not only characterized by religious but also non religious toleration which had adverse effects on Christianity in Europe.
A good example is the advent of Deism. Deism was a religious group that was common especially with the intellectual group which emphasized on more on observation and reason on natural world. This religious group became so common especially in Germany France and Britain. Deists believe that despite god creating us, he left us to have control over the earth. They believe that since our creation God is never concerned about what we do. This religious group became very popular especially during the 17th and 18th century. Deism caused stiff competition to Christianity especially because its proponents were great intellectuals. The proponents of deism despised the Christian values and acted on their own will. In the second half of the mid 18th century rationalism was deep rooted among the intellectuals. During this period observance of Christian practices declined steadily. This was because of the shift from love of Christianity to rationalism. France and Germany recorded the greatest level of this shift.
The mid 19th century was characterized by increase in popularity of the natural sciences as a basis for truth. Christian traditions and norms were increasingly being ignored as foundation of truth. Many people despised Christianity and its principles terming them as archaic. Intellectuals argued that Christianity was not scientific. Christianity was seen as lacking empirical evidence to what it claimed and therefore was not authentic. The people valued much what could be measured and proved. Toleration and naturalism gave birth to secular humanism in the 20th century.
Secular humanism had adverse effects on Christianity. This is because it removed god out of the whole picture. The secular humanists believe that God does not exist. They therefore disregarded the Christian morals and argue that there is no common ground of agreement between what is moral or immoral, sacred and is not sacred. The radical socialists formed part of the bigger secular humanist group. These socialists had a negative attitude towards Christianity and they influenced many people. Radical socialists argued that the main agenda of Christianity was maintaining the status quo of different social classes. As a matter of fact they believed that Christianity was a strategy of the affluent in the society to control the underprivileged. The radical socialists were anti Christian.
After the first and second world wars secular humanistic values have reached their peak. Secular governments from the mid 19th century onwards have legislated policies which are totally against Christian values. The erosion of Christian values and principles has been seen continual liberalization areas that are controversial to Christian norms. Surprisingly the liberalization has been supported by even members of the churches in Europe. Britain offers a good example where such liberalization has taken place. In 1969 obscenity laws were liberalized in Britain. This was followed by a series of liberalizations such as abortion, homosexuality and provision of contraceptives for unmarried in 1967. Censorship on theatre was abolished in 1968. Similarly divorce was allowed in 1969. It is important to note that all these legislations go against Christian values. This shows how much Christianity has been disregarded in Britain in particular and continental Europe in general.
Decline in Christianity in some of the nations in some of the nations in continental Europe had specific causes. France is a good illustration of such happenings. Christianity in France suffered a lot under certain leadership which made it to crumble. The decline of Christianity in France has its origin in the French revolution in 1789. During the 18th century, 95% of the population in France was Catholics. A good portion of the remainder was Protestants with shades of Muslim and Jews. The Christians occupied high status in French. As a matter of fact they were in the First estate. They catholic church particularly owned a lot of wealth in France. The Catholic Church in particular owned large tracks and obtained revenue through collection of tithes. In addition the church provided education and health services to the largest population of the French society. Christianity was part and parcel of life to the French citizens.
However, the privileges of the Catholic Church and Christians in general were radically changed from the onset of the French revolution. Beginning from 1789 the taxing power of the state was cancelled by the French government. Land owned by the Catholic Church was confiscated and the rest of its property auctioned. The year 1790 saw the French national assembly enacted a law stripping off clerics of their special rights. The clergy were made government employees and they had to make an oath of fidelity. Contrary to principles and norms of Catholic Church the French government legalized divorce. In the same year angry mobs massacred more than 200 priests and 3 bishops. More priests were imprisoned and suffered harsh conditions. Religious holidays were banned. As if that was not enough, antichristian cults were formed in place of Christian regions. These cults include Cult of the Supreme Being and atheistic Cult of Reason.
It is important to note that the effects of the French revolution had long term effects on the Christianity in France. About 20,000 constitutional priests left their jobs. As a result churches were left empty and the people lacked spiritual nourishment. The occult practices introduced by the French revolution of 1789 and preceding governments persisted even to the current generation. Most of the people joined the occults never came back to Christianity. These occult practices are totally against Christian practices. The occults have also spread throughout Europe giving opposing Christian principles and practices.
In the nineteenth century, almost every person in Europe was Christian. The figure has been reducing over the years. The center for Study of Global Christianity reports that 3 out of 4 people believe in Christianity. At the same time, the proportion of Europeans who confess that they are non-religious by 2005 was fifteen percent from one percent of the population in the 1900. Three percent of the European population doesn’t believe in God according to the studies. According to the World values Survey in the year 2000; in twelve major European countries, thirty eight percent of people never attend church. France is the leading in non church attendance by sixty percent.
Statistics also reveal that in Germany, sixty percent of the citizens believed the bible as the word of god in 1967. In 1992 only fifty percent of the same people believed the bible as the word of God. Furthermore, a quarter of the German population attended church every Sunday in 1967. The number dropped to ten percent by 1992. This statistics indicate that there is a steady decline in Christianity in continental Europe. Christianity as a religion has lost its popularity in Europe.
This can also mean that most people have defected to other religion as Christianity losses its popularity. It can also mean that most of the people in Europe do not believe or associate with any religion.