European religious life has changed considerably over the past two or three decades. The postwar assumptions of continuous secularization and the declining significance of religion have been proven to be exaggerated. True, traditional churches do have less followers and their societal importance has declined, as the classical secularization theories have proposed, but beside that new forms of religious activity have emerged.
The main changes can summarized as follows. Historical churches have lost their foothold in many areas, but they are also constantly trying to create new modes of work, and thereby have widened the scope of their historical activities. New religious groups and movements of many different traditions have spread all over the continent. These have been initiated by both natives and immigrants. Numerous religious mappings around Europe (and elsewhere) have shown a grassroots religious pluralization that further undermines and relativizes the cultural hegemony of historical churches.
The European states have been both slow and reactive in their appreciation of this new, diversified religious reality. Many of the new religions do not necessarily follow historical models of organization and representation, but rather work with modalities that interwine religion with civil society, health and well-being, market and business and the new media. They may be associated with loose networks, changing beliefs, small group activities and one-off events, rather than by hierarchically-led steady activities with voluminous theological declarations.
The states have been stuck to the historical state–church relations as those by which to deal with religious questions. This has become evident when religion has become a problem, as most notably, but not solely, has been visible in association with the “Muslim question”. In the aftermath of 9/11 (New York and Washington) and 7/7 (London) European states gained an urgency to deal with Islam and Muslims in Europe. The effort was to create and manage Muslim representational in order to solve societal issues as well as to (secretly) police these mainly recent Muslim communities with immigrant-origin.
The problem has been that Islam, like many other religions today, does not neatly fall into the category of “religion” that has been reserved for religious activities in present-day European societies. As a result various intermediary mechanisms of control have been initiated. States have supported the founding of representative councils and committees, interfaith and intercultural associations and networks, as well other kinds of activities.
This has two basic implications: First, by lack of knowledge and acknowledgement of the fundamental features of religious activity and behavior in today’s societies, outdated models of religious control are still implemented. Second, much of the de facto monitoring of suspect (and other) religious behavior is done via intermediary mechanisms that lack centralized control and are easily ineffective, biased and partial. Thereby many states’ current inability to deal with religions and religious questions can be hardly a great surprise.