This is the continent where some leading thinkers are talking about a "post-Christian Europe." And this is the country of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who infamously quipped, "God is dead."
So some may be surprised at the receptivity in Germany this week to visiting Pope Benedict XVI's message: Europe needs to rethink the thesis that secularism and economic progress go hand in hand. Coincidentally, some of Europe's stalwart secularists are challenging the idea that religious reasoning inevitably retreats from the public sphere as countries modernize.
Germans themselves are modeling a growing acceptance of religion's role in shaping society:
•Head of state Angela Merkel – the daughter of a Protestant minister – this month renewed calls to include a specific reference in the EU constitution to Europe's Christian heritage.
•There are more theologians in the German parliament than in any other Western parliament, including the US Congress. And when the last government cabinet was sworn in, nearly every member – instead of the usual 50 percent – opted for the religious version of the inaugural oath, according to Karsten Voigt, coordinator of German-American relations at the foreign ministry.
•In a recent survey gauging the perceived credibility of different professions, pastors were ranked in the Top 5.
•German students must take either ethics or religion classes, though Berlin recently made ethics compulsory, and religion optional. Mr. Voigt reports that "more and more" high schoolers in the state of Brandenburg are opting for religion too.
•Church attendance is no longer declining, and in one state the number of young churchgoers is going up, says Voigt.
Approximately two thirds of the 82 million citizens are church members. About 26 million are Roman Catholics, and a similar number are Protestants.
"Germany is a place where one can imagine a rethinking of this stultifying secularism and the moral relativism" prevalent in much of northern and western Europe today, says George Weigel, an American biographer of Pope John Paul II, and the author of "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God."
"German public life has a kind of intuitive sense in the wake of WWII that you can't have a world without moral reference points, or you get you-know-what," Mr. Weigel explains.
He points to the recent shift of Jürgen Habermas, one of Germany's foremost philosophers, as evidence of the potential for a rethinking of the public role of religion. A professed secularist who has spent nearly half a century arguing against religiously informed moral argument, he made some arresting statements in his 2004 essay, "A Time of Transition."
"Christianity, and nothing else," he wrote, "is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilization. To this day, we have no other options [to Christianity]. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is postmodern chatter."
Mr. Habermas is not alone. The spread of democratization worldwide has resulted in religious groups taking much more active roles in shaping their societies.
"Although there is a process [in Europe] of individualization of religion, there is no process of privatization: On the contrary, religion goes public," says Rolf Schieder, a theology professor at Humboldt University in Berlin. While this resurgence has surprised many European secularists, he acknowledges, there's been a "crucial shift" among sociologists of religion who now see religion as a modernizing factor – both throughout history and today.
During his trip to Germany this week, Pope Benedict seemed to encourage such a shift among secularists. "This is a dangerous state of affairs for humanity, as we see ... when reason is so reduced that questions of religion and ethics no longer concern it. Attempts to construct an ethic from the rules of evolution or from psychology and sociology, end up being simply inadequate," he said in a speech at the University of Regensburg.
Still, citing personal religious convictions as a basis for one's political position remains anathema for German politicians, in part because of Kaiser Wilhelm's "Gott mit uns" (God is with us) statements during World War I.
But politicians seeking input from religious figures on ethical questions is not only accepted but sought out, says Voigt. "While religion has long enjoyed a more public role in Germany than in a country like France, whose laïcité tradition strictly confines religion to private life, only more recently has religion become more accepted in [German] public discourse," says Professor Schieder.
He recalls a little girl from East Germany who was asked when the Berlin Wall came down if she believed in religion.
"Oh no," she replied. "I'm normal."
In the last 15 years, however, that notion that being normal and being religious are two different things has been changing, says Schieder. One factor driving that change may be the renewed interest over the last two decades in German political economist Max Weber, who linked Calvinism to the rise of capitalism in his seminal work, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism."
But another key factor, Schieder and other experts agree, is the presence of 2.6 million Muslims in Germany today.
"Some people have claimed that the presence of Muslims in these societies, and the possibility of Turkey coming into the European Union, might actually reinforce in the long run the Christian identity of Europe because it will remind Europeans of what they've been and make them want to recover that," says Timothy Shah at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington.