Secular Europe?

So, if you read any sites by pretty much any of the “New/Gnu Atheists”, you’ll constantly come across the argument that many countries in Europe are secular — mostly based on statistics that poll asking people if they believe in God — and they’re doing fine. And it works okay for arguments that not believing in God will not ruin a society, but the argument is getting stretched further and further, to the point where it’s starting to become a little incredible, which then gets you to ask if those countries are really as “secular” as they make it sound … or if they are secular in the sense that those atheists want their country to be.

The first hole in this comes up with the demand for sharp separation of Church and State, and when you look at the countries you’ll discover — embarassingly for their argument — that Sweden still has a state religion. So much for separation of Church and State in these secular hotbeds.

But the arguments are still progressing, and Jerry Coyne has used it against Alain de Botton’s atheist temple idea, arguing:

Yes, it is a glorious flop in the making, and many, many people, most eloquently the atheist Philip Kitcher, have pointed out the social advantages of religion. And the “creative conversation” has already taken place. Some people claim that atheists must adopt some formalities of religion (Botton suggests things like temples and sermons), while others—many on this site—don’t feel they need them. It’s clear that we are social beings, and do need to interact with our fellow humans and to feel supported by them. But, as the example of secular Europe shows, that can be done successfully without borrowing any of the rituals of faith. There’s nothing more to be said. Putting away temples and sermons, even when we are atheists, represents the last act in discarding our childish things.

Initially, I was taken aback by this. Surely there are still national monuments and holidays in secular Europe. So it would seem that those sorts of things would at least still be present, and not done away with completely, and would do the same job as de Botton wants done. Then, in looking at it later, I realized that I thought he had talked about holidays and he hadn’t. So then holidays and monuments aren’t as good arguments against this. But I did look up what the holidays in Sweden are:

January 1 New Years Day
January 6 Epiphany 13th Day of Christmas
April 6 Good Friday Friday before Easter Sunday
April 9 Easter Monday
May 1 Labour Day
May 17 Ascension Day
May 27 Mothers Day Last Sunday in May. Not a public holiday.
June 6 National Day
June 23 Midsummer Day Midsommardagen
November 1 All Saints Day
November 11 Fathers Day 2nd Sunday in November. Not a public holiday.
December 25 Christmas Day
December 26 Second Day of Christmas

Now, let’s take a look at those holidays. And these are official, public holidays, remember. What’s Epiphany? “Epiphany is one of three major Christian celebrations along with Christmas and Easter. It is celebrated on January 6th and commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus to the Magi, or three wise men.” It’s a purely religious holiday, and is also celebrated by these European countries: Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany(Regional), Greece, Italy, Slovakia, Spain, and Switzerland(Regional). Seems to me that a couple of those secular European countries are on that list. And note that it isn’t a public holiday in Canada at all, and I don’t think it’s one in the United States as well.

What’s Ascension Day? “Ascension day commemorates the ascension of Jesus into heaven forty days after resurrection on Easter Sunday.” Another purely religious holiday, and it’s also celebrated by Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Indonesia, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland. Again, I don’t think there are too many countries that are in the “secular Europe” category that aren’t here. And again it isn’t celebrated in Canada or the U.S.

And All-Saint’s Day needs no quote to show that it’s a purely religious holiday. And the same list of countries celebrate it, with a few more added on. And again Canada and the U.S. don’t.

So, if we take secular to mean “Get religion out of the public sphere”, by these measures Canada and the United States are more secular than Sweden is. It has an official state religion; Canada and the U.S. don’t. It celebrates more purely religious holidays than Canada and the U.S. do. The only one that’s purely religious — I don’t count Christmas because it has a lot of non-religious aspects to it as well — is Good Friday … and that’s a holiday in Sweden, too.

What this means is that that model of secular is not, in fact, the model that’s used in secular Europe. So the model proposed by people like Jerry Coyne, Russell Blackford, P.Z. Myers, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others is not, in fact, the model that’s working and bettering people’s lives in secular Europe. By Sweden’s example, the approach there is far more of an accommodationist and tolerant one than is being proposed. How, then, does secular Europe’s success justify that sort of secular approach? It doesn’t. And don’t let them tell you otherwise.

So the next time someone says “It’s works for secular Europe”, ask specifically how secular Europe did it. I’d wager most of them won’t know, and that if they do know it’ll turn out that it didn’t do it the way they want to do it.


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