AMONG conservative Americans, a school of conventional wisdom holds that Christianity in Europe is rapidly heading for extinction, as the historic faith is supplanted by secularism, Islam or just a lazy-minded lack of concern for all things metaphysical. Yet a new survey by Pew Research, a polling organisation based in Washington, DC, suggests that Christianity still matters to a plurality of west Europeans, as a marker of identity and a shaper of attitudes, even if active churchgoers and committed believers are a small minority.

After an investigation including 24,000 telephone interviews in a total of 15 countries, Pew concluded that:

Western Europe, where Protestant Christianity originated and Catholicism has been based for most of its history, has become one of the world's most secular regions...Yet most adults surveyed still do consider themselves Christians, even if they seldom go to church. Indeed the survey shows that non-practising Christians (defined...as people who identify as Christians but attend church services no more than a few times a year) make up the biggest share of the population across the region. 

The study found that devout Christians were more likely than non-practising ones to express culturally nationalist views, or opinions that were sceptical of other religions such as Islam. But of the groups studied, people of no religious affiliation were the most tolerant of other beliefs and cultures. Taking the median percentages across the 15 countries, Pew reported that 49% of churchgoers considered the Muslim faith to be incompatible with their “national culture and values” compared with 45% of non-practising Christians and 32% of the unattached. The idea that being “truly” a member of the nation depended at least partly on family background found favour among 72% of Christian worshippers, 52% of non-practising Christians and just 42% of those with no affiliation. But this was not a universal pattern. In Finland, for example, the small minority of practising Christians were more migrant-friendly than their fellow citizens. 

On touchstone ethical issues the practising Christians were, as you would expect, distinctly conservative, while non-practising ones were little different from their secularist compatriots. A median of 52% of regular worshippers were prepared to accept legal abortion in at least some cases, compared with 85% for the non-practising Christians and 87% for those of no faith. Legalising same-sex marriage was approved by only 58% of churchgoers, compared with 80% of non-practising Christians and 87% of the spiritually unattached.

The survey results seem to overstate the level of Christian practice in Europe, and for some reason respondents may have exaggerated their own piety. The finding that 18% of Britons and 40% of Italians are regular churchgoers looks much too high. But the general patterns it discerns are plausible and of interest. There are stilll millions of Europeans for whom Christianity is an important cultural marker, and who are open to political messages with a Christian-nativist tinge. That does not imply that they hold Christian views on moral or philosophical questions.

The nativist views held by the Christian or loosely Christian flock are at odds with their own religious leaders, many of whom stress the duty to be generous to newcomers and outsiders. And at the level of everyday political bargaining, there are many issues where Christians, Muslims and other people of faith come down on one side, and secularists on the other. These issues can include the regulation of gambling, the entitlement to religious accommodation at work and the general principle of religiously inspired schools. But for some of the ordinary folk who take part in opinion surveys, describing oneself as Christian seems to be a way of saying, “I identify with Europe’s historic culture rather than any of the ones who have flourished in our countries more  recently...” That is not necessarily a religious position at all.