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?