Sociologist says Islam questions privatization of religion thesis

By staff writers
February 17, 2007

The growth of Islam in Europe is challenging deeply-held notions that faith is a private matter which should be banished from public life, a prominent sociologist of religion has told a gathering of European Christian leaders - writes Stephen Brown for Ecumenical News International (ENI).

"We ignore the presence of Islam at our peril," Professor Grace Davie of the University of Exeter told leaders from Europe's main Christian traditions at a 15-18 February meeting in Wittenberg in Germany. "This is a catalyst for a much more profound change in the religious landscape of Europe."

Recent controversies such as those about the wearing of the Muslim headscarf by school students in France, or the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspapers, were cases in point, noted Davie, professor of sociology at Exeter university and director of its centre for European studies.

"The presence of Islam is a catalyst that has reopened issues that Europeans thought were closed," Davie said on 16 February. "You cannot privatise Islam. We have seen that." But she said Christian churches had a major task in helping to find ways to deal with such public expression of religion.

Davie was presenting the results of recent research* on the place of religion in Europe, in which she wrote about the controversy over the cartoons: "The lack of comprehension on both sides of this affair, together with an unwillingness to compromise, led alarmingly fast to dangerous confrontations, both in Europe and beyond."

The notion that religion should be banished from public life - and particularly from the state and from the education system - was widespread in Europe, Davie noted. But in part due to the presence of Islam, religion was increasingly likely to penetrate the public sphere in Europe, a tendency being encouraged by the ever more obvious presence of religion in the modern global order.

However, this was "probably more of a problem for the secular elite than the Christian churches", Davie suggested in her comments in Wittenberg. She said, "We need to grasp how to deal with religion in the political sphere and here Christian churches have a huge contribution to make."

The Wittenberg meeting is being organized by the Council of European (Roman Catholic) Bishops' Conferences (CCEE) and the Conference of European Churches (CEC), which groups most Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox churches in Europe.

It is one of a series of events that will culminate in September 2007 in the Romanian city of Sibiu at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly, which will gather several thousand people from Europe's main Christian traditions.

* Grace Davie, "Is Europe an Exceptional Case?", in The Hedgehog Review, Spring/Summer 2006 issue, website:

[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]

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