This weekend, about 350 conventioneers descend on Dublin to discuss matters of faith and its place in public life. It's not a meeting of the Catholic Church hierarchy, but the first World Atheist Convention.
Organizers claim they aren't trying to make a statement by selecting Ireland, often seen as one of Europe's most religious nations, but the get-together of nonbelievers does come in a country where religiosity has been in steady decline.
In fact, faith seems to be on many European minds of late and questions of religion in public life have reentered political discourse here – from the French "burqa ban" to Ireland's antiblasphemy law to frequent complaints from Pope Benedict XVI about perceived moral relativism. Long considered a private matter, some say public questions of faith are even threatening Europe's traditionally secular politics.
Islam in particular has been singled out as a threat to European life – by left and right alike. Last year, German banker and socialist politician Theo Sarrazin made waves with the publication of his book, “Germany Abolishes Itself," in which he argues the immigrant Muslim population would “overwhelm” the country.
The famously liberal Netherlands has also seen the rise of anti-Muslim political sentiment with Islam perceived as a threat to the Dutch way of life. Most recently, right-wing anti-immigrant sentiment has grown at the polls in Finland and Hungary.
Mr. Hjelm, himself Finnish, sounds a cautionary note, saying growing fears of Islamic influence in Europe are overstated: “The discussion is really around issues of identity rather than what’s really going on. There is definitely a change going on with immigration and so on, but the idea of being ‘swamped’ is not accurate. Also, the attention religion gets is disproportionate.”
The atheists' agenda
It’s not just Islam that worries secularists. For the delegates at the World Atheist Conference the question of separation of church and state has taken on new urgency.
Despite the relatively small numbers, the conference includes high-profile figures such as outspoken US atheist and biology professor PZ Myers, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who has become a kind of figurehead for nonbelievers worldwide, and Iranian human rights activist Maryam Namazie, a member of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.
Mr. Myers says Europeans’ sense of their politics as wholly secular is inaccurate. “You guys aren’t secular, or at least you aren’t secular enough – there’s all kinds of tensions between religion and society.”
Myers notes that despite constitutional separation of church and state, the US remains more religious than Europe, but says this itself holds lessons for Europeans hoping to protect and expand secularism in society.
“America is much less secular than any country in Europe. The one thing that can be learned from the US is that you have to be watchful [for the encroachment of religion into politics].”
The most recent pan-European statistics reveal a secular Europe, but not quite a nonbelieving one.
Social values, Science, and Technology, a 2005 survey conducted by the European Union’s statistical agency Eurostat, found that 52 percent of Europeans were believers.
Figures vary widely from country to county – 95 percent of Maltese citizens professing a belief in God whereas 38 percent of Britons professed belief. The highest percentage of atheists was found in France at 33 percent, and the lowest number of believers in Norway, a non-EU country, at 32 percent. The survey also found a new tendency it called “the development of a new kind of religion characterized by the belief that there is some sort of spirit or life force."
The Rev. Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest and member of the liberal Association of Catholic Priests, says local and global trends have put the question of religion and secularism on the agenda across Europe.
“Pope Benedict talks a lot about secularism in Europe. He would see Christianity, and Catholicism specifically, as in conflict with it. Ireland, meanwhile, is in ferment with the Catholic Church in disarray and an enormous amount of the population looking for answers elsewhere,” he said.
Father Flannery says worries about the Pope's conservative agenda may be overstated: “I don’t think Pope Benedict is having any great influence. The Catholic church is quite weak across Europe.”
Atheist conference organizer Michael Nugent notes the irony that official church and state tie-ups in Europe have produced a decline in religious observance.
“In some countries where there is an official state religion, such as Sweden and other Scandinavian nations, it is almost as if the fact of having this state religion dissipates the need to prosthelytize.”
Mr. Hjelm of University College London says the deeper question is whether Europeans have long misunderstood the presence of faith in society. “Maybe Europe was never as secularized as we sociologists like to think,” he said.
Religion in Ireland
After reeling from the Catholic sex-abuse scandal, this is a country that has certainly seen its faith tested. Eurostat put believers at 73 percent of the population and atheists at just 4, but things are changing.
In the Irish 2006 census, 186,300 respondents from the population of 4.2 million chose to enter “No Religion”, making nonbelievers the largest group after Catholics.
“In 1960, the first time ‘No Religion’ was an option, only 1,000 people marked it,” says conference organizer Michael Nugent.
Mr. Nugent, founder of campaign group Atheist Ireland, says the goal of the event is not to bash religion but to cement political life as secular, thus making religion a private matter.
“An atheist organization is not like a religion, it’s more like a political and social advocacy group. We don’t come together because people believe silly things, we do it because religion exerts political power.
“The challenges are different on different countries," says Nugent. "The campaigns in Ireland are about getting the government and institutions to recognize changes in society."