Pew Research Center survey reveals insights into relationship between Christian identity and views regarding Muslims

A survey from the Pew Research Center has found that non-practicing Christians (those who identify as Christians, but attend church services no more than a few times a year) make up the biggest share of the European population. They are more numerous than church-attending Christians (those who go to religious services at least once a month) in every European country, with the exception of Italy, and additionally outnumber those who are religiously unaffiliated (people who identify as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”) and people of all other religions combined, even after a recent surge in immigration from the Middle East and North Africa.

The study, which involved more than 24,000 telephone interviews with randomly selected adults, including nearly 12,000 non-practicing Christians, found that “Christian identity remains a meaningful marker in Western Europe, even among those who seldom go to church”. The views of non-practicing Christians was also found to differ religiously, politically, and culturally from those of church-attending Christians, additionally demonstrating that the Christian identity has practical significance.

The study also included interviews with people of other (non-Christian) religions and those who decline to answer questions about their religious identity, although the report notes that, in most countries, the survey’s sample sizes do not allow for a detailed analysis of people in this group. The Pew Center notes of this group, “Furthermore, this category is composed of largely Muslim respondents, and general population surveys may underrepresent Muslims and other small religious groups in Europe because these minority populations often are distributed differently throughout the country than in the general population; additionally some members of these groups (especially recent immigrants) do not speak the national language well enough to participate in a survey”.

The findings also reveal insights into the relationship between Christian identity and views regarding religious minorities and immigrants. While most Western Europeans say they are willing to accept Muslims and Jews in their families and neighbourhoods and reject negative statements about these groups, Christian identity in Europe “is associated with higher levels of negative sentiment towards immigrants and religious minorities” as “self-identified Christians – whether they attend church or not – are more likely than religiously unaffiliated people to express negative views of immigrants, as well as of Muslims and Jews”. While non-practicing Christians are more likely than church-attending Christians to express nationalist views, they are still more likely than those who are religiously-unaffiliated “to say that their culture is superior to others and that it is necessary to have the country’s ancestry to share the national identity”.

For example, in the UK, 45% of churchgoing Christians say Islam is fundamentally incompatible with British values and culture, which is similar to the 47% of non-practicing Christians who agree with this. But among religiously unaffiliated respondents, only 30% say Islam is fundamentally incompatible with their country’s values. This pattern is similar to that displayed when respondents were asked whether there should be restrictions on Muslim women’s dress, with Christians more likely than the religiously unaffiliated to say Muslim women should not be allowed to wear any religious clothing.

In France, 35% of church-attending Christians and 36% of non-practicing Christians in France say immigration to their country should be reduced, compared with 21% of religiously unaffiliated people who take this position.

There are exceptions to this general pattern. In Finland, for example, 19% of churchgoing Christians favour reducing immigration compared with 33% of religiously unaffiliated adults and 37% of non-practicing Christians. However, “overall, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish opinions are more common among Christians, at all levels of practice, than they are among Western Europeans with no religious affiliation. This is not to say that most Christians hold these views: On the contrary, by most measures and in most countries surveyed, only minorities of Christians voice negative opinions about immigrants and religious minorities”.

Generally, Catholics are more likely than Protestants in the region to hold negative views of Muslims, including that they would not be willing to accept Muslims as family members and that Muslim women in the country should not be allowed to wear any religious clothing. They are also more likely to agree with the statement, “Due to the number of Muslims here, I feel like a stranger in my own country”.

While education levels also have a bearing on the relationship between Christian identity and views regarding religious minorities and immigrants, as more “highly educated Europeans are generally more accepting of immigrants and religious minorities”, as well as other factors beyond religious identity such as knowing someone who is Muslim or identifying with the political right, statistical techniques which account for differences in education, age, gender, and political ideology still reveal that churchgoing Christians, non-practicing Christians and unaffiliated Europeans express different religious, cultural, and social attitudes.

Altogether, the survey asked more than twenty questions about possible elements of nationalism, feelings of cultural superiority, attitudes towards Jews and Muslims, views on immigrants from various regions of the world, and overall levels of immigration. “Many of these views are highly correlated with each other … For example, people who express negative attitudes towards Muslims and Jews are also more likely to express negative attitudes toward immigrants, and vice versa”. Researchers were therefore able to combine the individual questions into a scale which measures “the prevalence of nationalist, anti-immigrant and anti-minority sentiments in each country” and conducting additional statistical analysis of the factors associated with these sentiments in contemporary Western Europe.

The survey, which was conducted in the spring and summer of 2017, followed the two highest years of asylum applications on record in Western Europe. It has been asserted that the influx of refugees, many of whom are from Muslim-majority countries, has spurred a revival of Christian identity. Rogers Brubaker, professor of sociology at UCLA, terms this a ‘reactive Christianity’ in which highly secular Europeans are looking at new immigrants and effectually saying, “If ‘they’ are Muslim, then in some sense ‘we’ must be Christian”. The survey can neither prove or disprove this, nor determine whether Christian identity is growing in Western Europe after a period of secularization.

However, it can help determine the nature of Christian identity in contemporary Western Europe in which a significant number identify as Christian but do not regularly go to church. The results of the survey suggest that Christian identity “is partly a matter of religious beliefs, partly a matter of attitudes toward the role of religion in society, and partly a matter of views on national identity, immigrants and religious minorities”. Agreement with these findings vary throughout the academic community; some observe the promotion of a “cultural” Christian identity among Europeans while others express misgivings about it, and some see its potential revival as a necessary response to extremism. Still others think that Muslim migration is causing Europe to become more secular.

More specifically, the results of Pew’s survey demonstrate “a strong association between Christian identity and nationalist attitudes, as well as views of religious minorities and immigration, and a weaker association between religious commitment and views”. “This finding holds regardless of whether religious commitment among Christians is measured through church attendance alone, or using a scale that combine attendance with three other measures: belief in God, frequency of prayer and importance of religion in a person’s life”.

Among the religiously unaffiliated, attitudes towards Muslims depend on how they were raised. “[T]hose who were raised Christian and are now religiously unaffiliated are less likely than those who were always unaffiliated to say Islam is fundamentally incompatible with their national culture and values, or to take the position that Muslim women in their country should not be allowed to wear religious clothing … They are also more likely to express acceptance of Muslims”. While the data in this study cannot explain these trends definitively, the Pew Center notes that “it is possible that some Western Europeans may have given up their religious identity, at least in part, because it was associated with more conservative views on a variety of issues, such as multiculturalism, sexual norms and gender roles. It also maybe that their attitudes towards immigrants shifted along with the change in their religious identity. Or, it could be that some other, unknown factor (political, economic, demographic, etc.) underlies both their switching from Christian to unaffiliated and their views of immigrants and religious minorities”.

The complete report on the findings can be found here.

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Pew Research Center. (2018) ‘Being Christian in Western Europe’. [online] 29 May. [Accessed 5 June 2018].