When it comes to statistics about religion, Europe is an urbane continent full of empty cathedrals, while America offers rows of suburban megachurches.
Consider what happens when the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asks a basic "salience question" to determine the level of interest in faith-related matters around the world. Participants are asked to answer "yes" or "no" in response to this statement: "Religion is very important to me."
About six out of 10 in the United States say "yes," noted political scientist Luis E. Lugo, who has directed the research center since 2004.
"There is not a place in Europe, even in Eastern Europe, that comes close to that kind of level of religious commitment," he said, during a religion-news seminar in Washington organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life. Even Canada, he noted, now "looks like Europe on this question."
In Great Britain, 33 percent of those polled said religion was "very important" in their lives, compared with 27 percent in Italy, 21 percent in Germany and 11 percent in France. In Poland, the number was 36 percent, with Russia at 14 percent and the Czech Republic at 11 percent.
This rift between the old world and the new has existed for decades. Lugo said that when he discusses these statistics with Europeans they say, "Ah! See, we knew it. The United States is a very strange place. It's just full of religious zealots."
But then Lugo clicks to another chart as he describes what he calls the "religious futures market." The goal is to map the intersection of faith and demographics, including factors such as fertility rates and religious conversion trends in various nations. What happens when Lugo adds statistics from Latin America, Asia and Africa to his "salience question" chart?
The numbers are stark. In Guatemala, 80 percent of those polled said religion was "very important" in their lives. That number was 77 percent in Brazil and 72 percent in Honduras, but only 39 percent in Argentina.
And Asia? The "yes" total was 95 percent in Indonesia, 92 percent in India, 91 percent in the Philippines, but only 12 percent in Japan. And Africa? Senegal checks in at 97 percent, Nigeria is 92 percent and the numbers only declined to 80 percent in Angola.
Lugo said the typical response by Europeans to these numbers could be summed up in one word — "Whoa!" Then there is nervous laughter.
The bottom line: When it comes to weighing the role of religion in world affairs, Europeans who worry about America have to ask: "Who looks strange now?"
"The world as a whole is even more religious than the United States," Lugo added. "So it is not the United States that needs explaining, in many ways, when it comes to religion, it is Europe that needs to be explained. Why this secular continent … surrounded by a sea of religiosity?"
This global reality raises all kinds of questions, such as:
* Why are fertility rates linked to the fervency of religious beliefs? "The most secular parts of the world have the lowest fertility rates," he noted, "and the most religious have the highest fertility rates."
* How will Europe respond to high rates of immigration by religious believers, especially Muslims and Christians from Eastern Europe?
* Can the continent of Africa avoid being shaped by conflict between Islam and Christianity — two growing, conversion-oriented faiths on that continent?
* How will the move of more Catholics into what Lugo called "high-octane Pentecostalism" — inside the Church of Rome and in Protestantism — affect Latin America, Central America and, finally, North America?
If researchers focus strictly on Europe and North America, they may conclude that secularism and liberalized forms of faith are on the rise. But if they look at the global numbers, said Lugo, they will see a completely different picture of the future.
"You don't have to be a genius to conclude that it is going to be more religious and less secular," he said. "There is not a European country, for instance, that is anywhere close to a replacement birth rate. Not even close. All of their populations are declining. … So on that basis alone, you can predict that the whole religion question is going to become even more important, in terms of global affairs."