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Articles & Essays

Religion, Migration, and Change in a European City

By February 22, 2022No Comments

Roman R. Williams

Religion in Europe changed dramatically over the last century. In the early 1900s, Christianity held a monopoly in Europe and churches enjoyed high rates of religious affiliation and participation. Everyone seemed to adhere to some brand of Christianity. A hundred years later, it is in decline. By some measures it may appear that god is dead—or at least dying—in Europe.

During the 20th century sociologists expected religion to all but disappear from social life through secularization, or the gradual erosion of religion due to the secular undercurrents of modernity. Belgian sociologist of religion Karel Dobbelaere described the social climate in his country in particular as a deliberate effort to separate religious and secular social domains: religion and politics, education, and healthcare should not be intertwined. This cultural project of differentiation contributed to a 30% decline in adherence to Christianity over the 20th century. In 2010, Pew’s Global Religious Futures Project put Belgian Christians at just about 64% of the population, but newspaper articles, for example, add an important layer of detail by reporting low rates of attendance at worship services (at or below 5% by some accounts). Like many places in Europe, religion in Belgium seems a bit like a public utility: it’s there when you need it (say, for a wedding or funeral), but does not require much in terms of regular participation.

In the meantime, Islam is alive and well. Muslims migrate to Europe seeking economic opportunities and political stability, sometimes at great peril—indeed this process is a major political and social issue across Europe today. And while migrants may leave some things behind in their countries of origin, their religious commitments tend to follow or even be amplified. In Belgium, Muslims now comprise 6 to 7% of the population (Pew’s demographers expect their ranks will double by 2050), and sociologist Jan Hertogen estimates the current Muslim population of Antwerp at 19%. As I walked and biked the streets of Antwerp during my two-week visit, their presence was immediately visible in shops, restaurants, and grocery stores. Muslims’ language, clothing, and other markers of religious and ethnic identity set them apart visibly and verbally from the majority Belgian population.

Antwerp also is home to a large Jewish community, much of it Orthodox. Often associated with the diamond industry, this Jewish presence is seen in its distinct clothing, grooming practices (bearded men with sidelocks of hair), and neighborhoods that include synagogues, kosher markets and restaurants, religious bookshops, and mezuzahs, those doorway reminders of religious identity.

In Antwerp I was struck by the contrasts between the majority and minority religious and ethnic cultures. Howard Becker suggested that we could think of photographs as answers to questions, that it was the job of the visual sociologist to discern what those questions are. My photographs invite questions about the dividing lines between secular and sacred, the presence or absence of religious artifacts, and how identities are constructed and maintained, just to name a few. They make me wonder about the strategies people use to create and maintain boundaries around their communities or identities. Ultimately, these photos stimulate more questions: What does it mean to be Belgian, Moroccan, Turkish, and/or Romanian? How do people construct and communicate their identities as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and/or secular? And what will become of these identities as the future unfolds?

Churches like the Cathedral of Our Lady (center left) may be a prominent feature of cities like Antwerp, but religion no longer structures social life in the same ways it did 100 years ago. A bird’s eye view of the city from atop Antwerp’s Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) only tells part of the story.
Statues of Mary and Jesus are a distinguishing feature of Antwerp. They adorn the corners and exterior walls of over 100 nonreligious buildings (homes and businesses) throughout the city. Some locals explained that the statues originally appeared hundreds of years ago as a strategy to avoid paying property taxes by transforming secular structures into un-taxed religious buildings. It gives new meaning to the phrase “tax shelter.”
Sometimes religion is a novelty, something looked upon with curiosity. Het Elfde Gebod (The Eleventh Commandment) pub is located in the shadow of the Cathedral of Our Lady and is one of the many buildings that incorporates Mary into its façade. Inside, statues of Christian saints and martyrs line the walls, some of which are visible through the front windows. This cleverly-named pub suggests a religious-like devotion to beer, some of which is produced by Trappist monks in Belgium.
At the Jane Restaurant, “Food is our religion” ( This upscale restaurant is housed in a repurposed military chapel and incorporates religious symbols into its decor. The kitchen has replaced the altar.
Frequently, religion is visible only to insiders. If you look closely, you can see a white cable over the bridge in the top left corner of the photograph. This wire indicates a religious boundary: it is the limit an Orthodox Jew may carry objects on the Sabbath in Antwerp. Reminders like this enable and constrain activities on the Jewish day of rest. Most religious outsiders, including these cyclists, are oblivious to the cable’s significance.
As the banner on the right side of this photo indicates, “Diamonds love Antwerp”—the city is the diamond capital of the world. For hundreds of years, Jews dominated this lucrative trade, and the Beth Moshe synagogue, sandwiched between modern buildings in the diamond district, is one of the many reminders of that history. More recently, South Asians have taken over the diamond business. Some blame the Orthodox Jewish practice of Sabbath observance—abstaining from doing business on Saturdays has disadvantages in a fast-paced, globalized marketplace.
Some Christian groups are starting new churches in Antwerp. This storefront Pentecostal church appears to be a part of a missionary outreach effort: the church’s name appears first in Portuguese, with Dutch below. While the door may be open, passersby like this Muslim woman are unlikely to enter.
A storefront mosque in close proximity to a cathedral under repair may be emblematic of one demographic shift underway in Belgium: Muslim innovation amidst Christianity in disrepair.
Belgium’s religious landscape is changing. A chalkboard at the exit of an exhibition about cultural diversity in the MAS museum invites people to add detail to Antwerp’s skyline. The Cathedral of Our Lady was painted into the social landscape (left) as a permanent part of the city’s identity. It seems only a matter of time until the Muslim community, represented by a mosque (center right) drawn by a museum visitor, is as indelible a feature of Belgian society as the Cathedral.

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