In a secular ocean, waves of spirituality
Religion has barged its way noisily and violently onto the European political stage in recent months.Skip to next paragraph
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Islamic radicals set bombs on commuter trains in Madrid that killed 191 people last March. Another extremist Muslim in Amsterdam is charged with brutally killing Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November. An angry mob of British Sikhs, throwing bricks and wrestling with police, stormed a theater in Birmingham last December, forcing the closure of a play they found offensive.
But in the shadow of such shocking events are signs of a quieter and less divisive return of religion and spirituality to European lives. "God is back among intellectuals," says Aleksander Smolar, a leading European thinker who heads the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw and teaches at the Sorbonne in Paris. "You can feel there is a problem of soul in Europe; people are con- scious of a void and there is a certain crisis of secularism."
Seeking to fill that void, several dozen faithful Catholics gathered one recent Tuesday evening, as they do each week, to pray in the freshly painted basement of the St. Denys church in northern Paris.
One after another, standing in a circle, they gave thanks aloud to God: one woman was grateful that an argument with her son had not gotten out of hand; another prayed for continued strength to keep looking for a job; a third, in tears, thanked the Lord "for helping me put up with all the humiliation I suffer."
And then they all sang a simple hymn. Some swayed; some held their palms outstretched; others closed their eyes.
For the past nine years, the parish of St. Denys has been run by a priest from the "New Path Community," a charismatic Catholic movement that has borrowed much from the American Pentecostal tradition.
While the pews in traditional Catholic churches have emptied, the New Path and similar communities have blossomed, attracting thousands of believers to prayer groups and Sunday masses across Europe.
They are drawn, says parish priest Louis-Marc Thomy, "by the charisma of a community life. They say they feel unity and peace with us. And they find joy in rediscovering faith in a joyous manner."
On the face of it, religion has continued to suffer setbacks in Europe recently. Just last year, the French government reinforced its secular approach by banning Muslim head scarves and other religious symbols from schools.
Catholic teaching on such questions as abortion, contraception, divorce, and homosexuality, meanwhile, is honored more in the breach than in the observance.
That would seem to continue a secularist trend visible in Europe for several decades. That trend is offset, however, by a growing awareness that European secularism is an aberration in a world where religion is largely on the rise.
The prominent role that religion continues to play in American public life, meanwhile, has undermined the widespread European view that modern societies inevitably grow more secular, and that religion is an attribute of underdevelopment.
"A preoccupation with spirituality is much more present now at a religious and philosophical level" than it was a few years ago, says Dominique Moisi, a French political analyst.
In Britain, the country's largest bookseller has noticed that preoccupation, and moved to meet it. Expanding the shelf space it devotes to religious and spiritual books, "we have increased our range over the last few years," says Lucy Avery, a spokeswoman for the Waterstone's chain.
Sales of such books rose by nearly 4 percent last year, she adds, and titles such as the Dalai Lama's "The Art of Happiness" and a modern-language "Street Bible" have become bestsellers.
"I have noticed that a lot of general-interest publishers are turning to religious books now for commercial reasons, because that is what the public wants," says Laurence Vandamme, a spokeswoman for Cerf, the largest French religious publisher.