Religious Competition and Revival in Italy

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Religious Competition and Revival in Italy
Interdisciplinary Journal of Research
on Religion
Volume 1, Issue 1
Article 5
Religious Competition and Revival in Italy:
Exploring European Exceptionalism
Massimo Introvigne∗
Rodney Stark†
[email protected]
[email protected]
Copyright 2005
by the authors. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be
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of the publisher, bepress, which has been given certain exclusive rights by the author. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion is produced by The Berkeley Electronic Press (bepress).
Religious Competition and Revival in Italy:
Exploring European Exceptionalism
Massimo Introvigne and Rodney Stark
The religious economy approach in the social scientific study of religion emphasizes the importance of supply-side factors in stimulating religious demand. Where many religious firms compete in a relatively unregulated market, levels of religious belief and participation will be far higher
than in situations in which religious life is regulated by the state either in favor of a monopoly
church or to constrain the market by subsidizing a state church and making it difficult for other
religious groups to compete. Changes in the level of competition should thus be followed by
changes in the level of popular religious commitment. This prediction is strongly supported when
applied to recent religious trends in Italy.
KEYWORDS: Italy, religion, revivial, secularization
Introvigne and Stark: Religious Competition and Revival in Italy
Until very recently, the continuing vigor of religion in the United States was
dismissed by advocates of the secularization thesis as “American exceptionalism.”
Much was written to explain why the United States was failing to accompany the
more “mature” and “sophisticated” European nations as they became fully modern,
irreligious societies—the consensus being that there was something seriously
defective about American culture (Berger 1969; Bruce 1989; Lechner 1991; Wallis
1986a, 1986b; Wilson 1982). Even Iceland was said to have achieved an advanced
state of secularization (Tomasson 1980), while the United States continued to
display the religious vigor that was deemed appropriate only for backward nations.
However, as so often happens, history failed to cooperate. In recent years,
modernization in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia has been accompanied by
a remarkable intensification and spread of religion (Huntington 1996; Jenkins
2002). In light of these massive developments, it is Europe that now appears to be
the exception in need of explanation (Woodhead, Martin, and Heelas 2001). As
Peter Berger (1997: 974) put it:
I think what I and most sociologists of religion wrote in the 1960s about
secularization was a mistake. Our underlying argument was that secularization and
modernity go hand in hand. With more modernization comes more secularization.
It wasn’t a crazy theory. There was some evidence for it. But I think it’s basically
wrong. Most of the world today is certainly not secular. It’s very religious. So is
the U.S. The one exception to this is Western Europe. One of the most interesting
questions in the sociology of religion today is not, How do you explain
fundamentalism in Iran? but, Why is Western Europe different?
This shift took the secularization faithful by surprise, leaving them with little to
offer as an explanation of European exceptionalism other than to repeat their tired
refrains about the incompatibility of religion and modernity. However, advocates of
what often is called “the religious economy theory” (Finke and Stark 1992; Stark
1983, 1998; Stark and Finke 2000; Stark and Iannaccone 1994) have said all along
that the low levels of religion in Europe have nothing to do with modernity or the
implausibility of faith. Rather, Europeans’ apathy toward religious organizations is
Bryan Wilson (1982: 152) even made the incredible claim that among these defects was a lack of
depth to American religion: “few observers doubt that the actual content of what goes on in the major
churches in Britain is very much more ‘religious’ than what occurs in American churches.” Of course,
Peter Berger (1969: 108) wrote much the same thing, suggesting that the churches in America “still
occupy a more central symbolic position, but it may be argued that they have succeeded in keeping
this position only by becoming highly secularized themselves ....” We suppose that if one mistook
goings-on at the liberal seminaries and in denominations such as the United Church of Christ and the
Episcopalians for the totality of American religion, one might reach such conclusions. Even so, one
cannot imagine an American denomination that is less religious than the Church of England.
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the expected result of highly regulated and constrained religious markets that
effectively prevent healthy competition: Protected and subsidized churches tend to
be inefficient, with the result that general religiousness suffers (Chesnut 2003; Gill
1998; Greeley 1996; Hamberg and Pettersson 1994, 1997; Stark 1983, 1985, 2001;
Stark and Finke 2000; Stark and Iannaccone 1994; Warner 1993, 1997). This is
compatible with the fact that it is religious participation that is so low in Europe,
while belief remains quite high (Winter and Short 1993). The disjuncture between
belief and participation prompted Grace Davie (1990, 1994) to characterize
Europeans as “believing non-belongers.”
But why are Europeans reluctant to express their religious beliefs in action?
Proponents of the religious economy theory argue that it is because Europe’s
dominant churches have long done little to attract people. Indeed, one area in which
secularization clearly has made significant inroads into belief among Europeans has
been the clergy who staff the protected monopoly firms, many of whom are not
merely unable, but also unwilling to actively minister to the public. Virtual atheism
is quite commonly and openly expressed by leading church figures in many
European nations, especially in Protestant societies (Stark and Finke 2000). In
contrast, when Americans confront denominations and church leaders of this sort
(and they do), they have many attractive alternatives. So rather than ceasing to go to
church, as so many Europeans have done, most Americans simply cease going to
those churches and switch their affiliations elsewhere. The point is that people will
switch, rather than quit, whenever churches actively compete for their support.
These principles are most readily applied within the context of a religious
economy, which consists of all the religious activity that goes on in a society: a
“market” of current and potential adherents, a set of one or more organizations
(“firms”) seeking to attract or retain adherents, and the religious culture (“product”)
offered by the organization(s) (Finke and Stark 1992; Stark 1983; Stark and Finke
2000; Stark and Iannaccone 1994, 1996). To sum up the relevant elements of the
religious economy theory:
1. If government regulation of religious markets suppresses competition, the
authorized religious groups will make little effort to attract rank-and-file support or
to meet religious “demand.”
2. Moreover, the authorized churches will tend to be controlled and staffed by
careerists, who are often quite lacking in religious motivation.
3. The net result will be widespread public religious alienation and apathy.
4. In addition, lacking effective religious socialization and congregational support,
religious beliefs will become tentative, vague, and somewhat eclectic.
5. However, deregulation will (at least eventually) produce a religious revival. As
religious organizations begin to compete for public support, participation in
organized faiths will rise, and religious beliefs will become more clearly defined
and widely held.
Introvigne and Stark: Religious Competition and Revival in Italy
There is considerable evidence that this model fits recent religious developments
in much of the world. The massive religious revival in Latin America began as
Protestant faiths gained a sufficient foothold to challenge the negligent Catholic
semimonopoly, thereby not merely converting millions to intense forms of
Christianity, but eventually also stimulating vigorous Catholic responses (Chesnut
2003; Clarke 1999; Gill 1998). In Africa, literally thousands of indigenous
Protestant sects now compete for members, not only with one another, but also with
an aggressive Catholicism and, in many places, with militant Islamic groups
(Gifford 1998; Jenkins 2002; Johnstone 1993). Indeed, the Islamic revival rests on
serious (sometimes bloody) competition among its many sects and factions
(Niandou-Souley and Alzouma 1996; Stark 2001; Stark and Finke 2000). Fenggang
Yang (2003) has offered in interesting variant of the model in which there is no
state-sponsored dominant or monopoly church clogging the market but all religious
organizations are repressed. Here, the emphasis shifts to demand as a religious black
market or gray market of firms arises and sustains intense commitment.
As for Europe, there have been several efforts to test the religious economy
theory on Western Europe as a whole (Stark and Iannaccone 1994, 1996; Stark and
Finke 2000). But the response by many Europeans, aside from hysterical proposals
to drive a “stake through the vampire’s chest” (Bruce 1999: 2), has mainly involved
a vigorous search for loopholes based on claims involving specific national
exceptions to all general statements about European religion (Bruce 1995, 1999,
2000; Buckser 1996; Lechner 1996). This is an unproductive exchange. It would be
far better to engage the secularization faithful on their chosen ground and to proceed
nation by nation, examining the religious situation of each in social and historical
detail. It was in this spirit that Eva Hamberg and Thorleif Pettersson (1994, 1997;
Pettersson and Hamberg 1997) conducted a series of studies of Sweden that strongly
supported the thesis that, even in this nation laboring under an openly irreligious and
repressive state church, small variations in religious competition produce variations
in religiousness. In similar fashion, Paul Froese and Steven Pfaff (2001) have
completed a detailed study of East Germany, finding that its extremely low current
level of religiousness was produced by an unusually intense government campaign
on behalf of scientific atheism, combined with severe repression of the churches and
the obvious and extensive complicity of the Lutheran state clergy in these and other
aspects of state misconduct. The religious economy model has also received strong
support not only from the occurrence of a religious revival in Hungary following the
collapse of the repressive Communist regime, but also by correctly predicting the
leveling off of that revival as a meddlesome state interfered with religious
competition (Froese 2001). We are aware of several other case studies of this sort
that are in preparation for other European nations.
Our case is Italy. Over the past few decades, many people have confidently
included it among the European nations that are inevitably moving down the path to
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secularity. As late as 1993, Karel Dobbelaere (1993: 127) flatly asserted that the
“end of religion [is] near” in Italy as in all of Europe, and the prominent Italian
sociologist Sabino Acquaviva (1993: 55) seemed to welcome “the collapse of
regular practice” and “the growth of agnostics and atheists” (see also Acquaviva
1961, 1979). And despite withdrawing his support for the secularization thesis, Peter
Berger (1999: 10) continues to postulate “a rapid decline in church-related religion”
in Italy. But here, too, recent history has failed to conform to the theory. Instead, as
we will show, the rapid development of a highly visible competitiveness in Italian
religious economy and the rise of competition within Roman Catholicism have
spurred a substantial religious revival: Church attendance has risen, and there has
been a remarkable resurgence of Christian beliefs.
Aside from the national surveys of Italy done as part of the European Values
Surveys, the data used in this essay were collected under the auspices of the Center
for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Turin, some of which can be found in
Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (ERI) (Introvigne et al. 2001). These data were
not yet available when Italian sociologists Roberto Marchisio and Maurizio Pisati
first applied the religious economy theory to Italy, but the new data confirm and
greatly extend most of their findings (Marchisio and Pisati 1998; Marchisio 2000;
Pisati 1998). So too with the study by Pino Lucà Trombetta (2002): Religious life in
Italy is consistent with the religious economy theory. In addition, our analysis of the
deregulation of the Italian religious economy removes a “problem” postulated by
Luca Diotallevi (2001, 2002), namely, that Italy is “much too” religious to fit the
religious economy theory. In addition, we fully agree with Diotallevi that because of
competition among Catholic groups, both lay and religious, there usually is far more
“pluralism” within Catholic “monopolies” than in countries where Protestant state
churches prevail—as was noted in previous studies as well (Iannaccone 1991, 1992;
Stark 2001; Stark and Finke 2000).
For centuries, Roman Catholicism was the only licit religion in Italy. In 1880, when
William F. Bainbridge, a prominent American Baptist official, visited Rome, “the
police detectives of Pius IX searched all our baggage to keep us from taking a
[Protestant] Bible into the Holy City” (Bainbridge 1882: 247). Before 1947,
religious liberty was not even affirmed in the Italian Constitution. Roman
Catholicism was the state religion, and other religions were at best tolerated. It is
true that Italian unity was achieved during the Risorgimento, under the monarchy of
the House of Savoy, despite the opposition of the Catholic Church, and that
Great-grandfather of our colleague Williams Sims Bainbridge.
Introvigne and Stark: Religious Competition and Revival in Italy
following the Unification of 1861, an official climate of anticlericalism prevailed for
several decades. Anticlerical governments occasionally supported Protestant
churches, but these remained small and weak and did not achieve much success—in
part because local authorities often remained strongly pro-Catholic and hostile to all
minorities. After Benito Mussolini (1883–1945) seized power in 1922, he soon
found it convenient to sign a Concordat with the Holy See, granting a number of
privileges to the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic parish priests from then on
received their salaries from the state. Although Mussolini originally was a selfstyled atheist and anticlerical, his regime ultimately compromised with the Catholic
Church; religious minorities were subjected to gradual discrimination and
occasionally persecuted (see Rochat 1990).
With the fall of the Fascist regime and the end of World War II, a new
democratic Constitution was promulgated in 1947. It proclaimed all religions equal
before the law (Section 8). It explicitly recognized the 1929 Concordat with the
Catholic Church (Section 7), but it also called for other Concordats (known as
Intese) to be concluded between the state and other religious bodies (Section 8.3).
Politically, however, a party that enjoyed numerous ties with the Roman Catholic
Church, the Christian Democratic Party, won the 1948 general elections and
remained in power (alone or as the leading party of a coalition) uninterrupted until
1994. Several restrictions applicable to religious minorities remained in force,
although a number of these laws were gradually declared to be incompatible with
the Constitution by the newly established Constitutional Court. Throughout the
1950s and early 1960s, Christian Democratic authorities remained openly hostile
toward religious minorities, particularly in southern Italy, and the religious economy
did not become truly deregulated (as the Constitution theoretically mandated).
Starting in the late 1960s, however, the Catholic Church’s own attitude toward
religious minorities changed as a result of Vatican II. Slowly but surely, almost all
laws limiting the activities of the religious minorities were amended or canceled.
In 1984 came truly dramatic changes. That year, the government was headed by
Prime Minister Bettino Craxi (1924–2000), the leader of the Socialist Party
(although the Christian Democrats remained the largest party in the coalition). Craxi
negotiated a new agreement with the Catholic Church, changing several key
provisions of the 1929 Concordat. Catholic parish priests no longer received a salary
from the state. On the other hand, Italian taxpayers were henceforth required to pay
a tax called otto per mille (meaning “0.8 percent”), corresponding to 0.8 percent of
their total taxes, which was then channeled to “humanitarian or religious” activities.
Unlike their German counterparts, Italian taxpayers cannot avoid the payment of this
tax by declaring themselves agnostic. They are allowed, however, to “give” their
otto per mille to the state, which is then empowered to use it for humanitarian or
cultural projects (more recently, for the restoration of historical buildings or
museums). Alternatively, taxpayers may ask the state to give the corresponding sum
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to a specified religious body. The necessity of offering an option to taxpayers
determined the need to establish Concordats (Intese) with non-Catholic religious
bodies. Although mentioned in Section 8.3 of the 1947 Constitution, no such
additional Concordat had been concluded before 1984.
Also in 1984, a Concordat was established with the Waldensian Church (the
oldest Protestant body in Italy, which also represented the Methodists following an
agreement concluded in 1975). Later, other religious bodies entered into similar
Concordats: Seventh-day Adventists and Assemblies of God Pentecostals in 1988,
the Union of Jewish Communities in 1989, and the Baptists and Lutherans in 1995.
Further Concordats with the Italian Buddhist Union and the Jehovah’s Witnesses
were signed in 2000 by then–Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema, but they have not
yet been approved by the Parliament, which is required before official
implementation. Under the otto per mille system, taxpayers are required to select
either the state or one of the participating religious bodies (all Concordat partners
except the Baptists, who have refused to participate in the religious tax system for
theological reasons) by marking the appropriate selection on in their tax return
forms. Again, unlike in Germany and other countries, those who fail to specify an
option are not excused from payment of the tax. Nor does their tax go automatically
to the state. It is, in fact, divided among participating religious bodies and the state,
in proportion to the choices specified by those taxpayers who have duly indicated
their chosen options.
The system is less complicated than it might seem. If a taxpayer indicates a
preference for the Catholic Church, for instance (or the Lutheran Church or any one
of the others), the state will transfer 0.8 percent of his or her taxes to the bank
account of the preferred religious body. If the taxpayer fails to indicate any option,
however, 0.8 percent of his or her taxes will be divided between the state and the
participating religious bodies in proportion to the choices made by those who did
indicate their preferred option. Because in 2001, for example, 83.4 percent of those
who specified a clear option did so in favor of the Catholic Church, this meant that
83.4 percent of the 0.8 percent tax paid by every “no-choice” taxpayer also went to
the Catholic Church. Because 13.42 percent of those who indicated an option chose
the state, 13.42 percent of the 0.8 percent tax paid by the “no-choice” taxpayers also
went to the state, and so on. In practice, however, both the system and the
calculation are more complicated because two participating religious bodies
(Assemblies of God Pentecostals and Seventh-Day Adventists) decided to accept
only the money of the taxpayers who explicitly opted for them rather than taking a
share of the taxes derived from the “no-choice” taxpayers. This will also be the
position of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, once their Concordat has been ratified by
Parliament. Thus, although in 2001 (the most recent year for which full data are
available), 61.1 percent of Italian taxpayers either forgot to indicate an option, did
not understand how to proceed, or decided that they did not want to specify an
Introvigne and Stark: Religious Competition and Revival in Italy
option for whatever reason, this carried no detrimental consequences for the
participating religious bodies, which eventually, together with the state, divided
these tax payments among themselves.
The semi-deregulation of the Italian religious economy has been facilitated by
the political demise of the Christian Democratic Party, a party with multiple ties to
the Catholic Church. Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a series of
corruption scandals allowed the Italian judiciary (the most politically independent
judiciary in Europe) to prosecute a number of prominent politicians, ultimately
bringing about the end of the Christian Democratic Party. What was once the largest
political party in Italy collapsed under the corruption scandals and divided itself into
a number of small, newly formed parties, none of which has been able to count itself
among the main political players in any Italian general election from 1994 on.
In the past two decades, both immigration and deregulation have caused a dramatic
increase in pluralism and hence in the level of religious competition in Italy.
In 1970, there were fewer than 5,000 Muslims in Italy, but by 2004, their
number exceeded 750,000. At the beginning of 2004, foreign immigrants also
included 350,000 Eastern Orthodox Christians (from the former Soviet bloc),
47,500 Buddhists, and 60,000 Hindus and Sikhs (Caritas and Fondazione Migrantes
2004). Immigration became a key item on every electoral and political agenda, and
the perception of the Muslim community as “difficult to integrate” and as “a
problem” was further exacerbated by the events of September 11, 2001. The effect
of these immigrant faiths on competition has been very marginal, however, since
each is so closely tied to ethnicity.
However, the semi-deregulation of the Italian religious economy also expanded
pluralism and greatly increased the visibility of religious competition directed
toward native-born Italians in several ways.
First, semi-deregulation had prompted the entry into Italy of an increasing
number of Protestant organizations, most of them of the Evangelical and/or
Pentecostal variety. Of the 120 such groups that currently hold services in Italy,
fifty-seven have been founded or have arrived from abroad since 1984 (Introvigne et
al. 2001). These figures do not include the so-called parachurches, that is, the
independent missionary agencies that are not technically Protestant churches (such
as Youth with a Mission and Campus Crusade for Christ). The ERI lists forty-eight
such organizations, most of them introduced into Italy after 1984, that play an
important part in Italian Evangelical Protestantism in general. In 2001, there were
some 363,000 Protestants in Italy, 250,000 of them Pentecostal. Although the
number is still small (0.63% of the total Italian population) compared to the number
of active Roman Catholics (38%), the growth rate is impressive and, in some areas
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of southern Italy (such as around Naples area and in Sicily), may be compared to the
success of these groups in much of Latin America (Chesnut 2003; Gill 1998; Martin
1990; Stoll 1990). This is entirely consistent with the proposition that when a
religious economy becomes deregulated, aggressive new religious “firms” may
enjoy very significant growth rates.
A second result of deregulation has been to modify the prevalence and
significance of unconventional or “fringe” religions, sometimes called new religious
movements (NRMs) or cults. This too is as predicted by the religious economy
theory, which postulates that fringe movements thrive where the conventional
religious organizations are weak and, conversely, that it will be difficult to initiate
and sustain unconventional movements to the degree that the religious economy is
crowded with aggressive, conventional religious groups. Thus it follows that such
groups will be far more prevalent in Europe than in the United States.
When Stark and Bainbridge (1980: 114) first put forth that proposition, they
offered fragmentary data that seemed to support their claim, concluding that
“Although it receives little attention from intellectuals and less coverage in the
press, cult activity seems to be quite widespread in Europe.” This claim met with
widespread derision, especially from Europe, where, as Thomas Robbins and James
Beckford (1988: 19) pointed out, there was “a widespread but questionable
assumption that [unconventional religious movements] are relatively rare and
unusual phenomena.” In 1985, Stark followed up with far better data of much
greater scope, all of which indicated that religious novelty was much higher in
Europe. For example, when rates of Indian and Eastern cult centers were compared,
the rate was 1.3 million for the United States and 1.8 for Western Europe. Once
again, European scholars responded with contempt (Dobbelaere 1987; Wallis
1986a, 1986b).
Returning to the fray, in 1993, Stark claimed that, in fact, there were far more
new religious movements of all sorts per million population in Europe than in the
United States (Stark 1993). His data (based on preliminary surveys by J. Gordon
Melton) indicated that the number of movements per million population was 3.4 in
Europe (Western Europe plus Poland) compared to 1.7 in the United States. These
marked differences are consistent not only with the theory, but also with the recent
outbreaks of anticult fears and legislation in many European nations (Introvigne
1997; Richardson and Introvigne 2001). Regardless of what the secularization
faithful might still choose to believe, today most European intellectuals and the
press no longer pretend that “cults” are found only in “backward” America.
Used in the technical, nonpejorative sense of the word, a cult is a group outside of the conventional
religious traditions of the society in question. Hence Christian groups are cults in India, and Hindu
groups are cults in Italy.
Introvigne and Stark: Religious Competition and Revival in Italy
As far as Italy is concerned, in his 1993 paper, Stark found evidence of sixty-six
NRMs or cults. This number was based on the investigation carried out by Isotta
Poggi, an associate of the American encyclopedist J. Gordon Melton, who spent one
month in Italy in 1992, part of which was spent at the CESNUR office in Turin. At
that time, work on the Italian encyclopedia (ERI) was still far from complete. That is
no longer the case. On the basis of the criteria used in Stark’s 1993 article, according
to the ERI, there were not sixty-six NRMs or cults in Italy in 2001 but 353. This
figure does not include Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal movements
independent of the mainline churches (another 120). Excluding these, the rate of
movements per million population in Italy in the year 2001 is not 1.2 (the rate
mentioned in Stark’s 1993 study) but 6.0, more than three times higher than the U.S.
rate of 1.7.
However, as Italy develops a more crowded religious economy, and as the
conventional religious bodies become more vigorous, less conventional groups
should begin to find it more difficult to grow. Judging by the example of the
Jehovah’s Witnesses, this already has begun. Before the start of deregulation and the
consequent rise in competition, the Witnesses enjoyed spectacular growth in Italy.
As is shown in Table 1, between 1970 and 1980, the number of publishers
(Witnesses who engage in about twenty hours of missionary activities each month)
increased by 367 percent, and attendance at their Annual Memorial Service (the best
estimate of total adherence) increased by 317 percent. Things slowed down
considerably during the next decade as deregulation began be felt: Publishers
increased by 117 percent and Memorial attendance by only 88 percent. Then came a
remarkable drop. From 1990 through 2000, publishers increased by only 27 percent
and attendance by only 14 percent. These data come from official Witness
publications, which have been found to be very trustworthy (Stark and Iannaccone
Table 1: Jehovah’s Witnesses in Italy, 1970–2000
Average Number
Annual Memorial
of Publishers
Source: Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Brooklyn, NY: WBTS, 1971, 1981, 1991,
A third very significant aspect of religious competition in Italy has been the
public impact of the assignment of the religious tax. No one involved in legislating
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the religious tax early in the 1980s could have imagined that as a result, religious
groups in Italy would soon be engaged in an intense, very public, yearly competition
to persuade taxpayers to give their taxes to one religious “firm” rather than another.
But that is what happened. Every spring, when taxpayers file their returns, and are
instructed to indicate their preference for one of the six participant religious “firms”
(or the state or nothing), the image of the religious market suddenly comes alive in
Italy. Participant religious bodies (with the exception of the rather quiet, and poor,
Assemblies of God Pentecostals) hire leading advertising agencies in an effort to
attract new taxpayers. Campaigns are aimed both at reminding church members that
indicating their personal preference on the tax form is important and at capturing
nonmembers. According to the European Values Survey, in 1999, 89 percent of the
Italian population claimed to be “religious,” while only 40 percent were actually
involved in a religious body with any regularity (Abbruzzese 2000: 422; Inglehart,
Basañez, and Díez-Medrano 2004). Persuading those who “believe without
belonging” to earmark their tax option for the benefit of a specific religious body is
crucial in Italy. Slogans range from those that stress the humanitarian (rather than,
strictly speaking, religious) activities of the Roman Catholic Church to the wellknown “I give my ‘otto per mille’ to the Waldensian Church because I am not a
The otto per mille tax system reminds Italians every year that there is a religious
economy and creates, at the same time, both real competition and awareness of
pluralism. In fact, Italians have responded to this annual campaign by contributing
quite disproportionately to non-Catholic groups. Because the government is very
slow to publish the results, the most recent complete data available are for 1997
(Fresco 2001). (The authors have examined official data through 2001, but these
omit the number of individual taxpayers who use each option.) The 1997 data
showed that although the Waldensian-Methodist Churches claim only about 25,000
members, 127,585 Italian taxpayers chose them to receive their otto per mille.
Similarly, the Lutherans, with 8,000 members, were chosen by 36,811 taxpayers,
while the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jews attracted twice as many taxpayers as
they have members. In terms of percentages, the 2001 data showed very similar
distributions. For example, of the nearly 40 percent of Italians who specified a
religious groups to receive their tax, 1.3 percent chose the Waldensian-Methodists.
Surely, this bespeaks effective competition.
If lazy monopoly churches are the cause of low rates of religiousness in Europe,
then according to the religious economy theory, the transformation of the Italian
religious economy should soon produce some degree of religious revival. And it
has—in quite a dramatic fashion!
Introvigne and Stark: Religious Competition and Revival in Italy
Table 2 is based on the World Values Surveys conducted in 1981, 1990, and
1999. As can be seen, religiousness in Italy rose very remarkably over this nineteenyear period. For example, belief in life after death went from a minority view (44
percent) to the view of a substantial majority (59 percent). Belief in hell also rose
dramatically during this era. These findings not only are of considerable substantive
significance, being based on large national samples, but also are highly statistically
significant. In addition to these increases in commitments to basic Christian tenets,
the proportion who pray has risen, as has church attendance, the latter from 32
percent who went weekly in 1981, before the onset of substantial deregulation, to 40
percent in 1999. This means that on a given Sunday in 1999, there were more than 4
million more Italians in church than in 1981. Finally, the proportion who responded
that God was unimportant in their lives fell from 9 percent in 1981 to 8 percent in
1990 and down to 5 percent in 1999. If this is not a substantial religious revival,
then that term has no plausible meaning.
Table 2: The Italian Religious Revival, 1981–1999
(N = 2,018)
(N = 1,348)
(N = 2,000)
Believes in a soul
Believes in life
after death
Believes in sin
Believes in hell
Attends church
God is unimportant
in my life
* p < .000.
Source: World Values Surveys and, for 1999, Abbruzzese (2000).
Table 3 is even more powerfully indicative of an Italian revival. Here, the data in
each survey have been limited to young people, those in the 18- to 29-year-old age
group. Belief in life after death shot up from 51 percent in this group in 1981 to 74
percent in 1999. The proportion who pray also rose. Church attendance increased
quite substantially between 1981 and 1990 but appears to have fallen off a bit from
1990 to 1999. Finally, the proportion of younger people saying that God is
unimportant in their lives decreased even more than was the case in the population
in general.
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Table 3: Revival Among Young Italians (Age 18–29 Years)
(N = 511)
(N = 623)
(N = 445)
Believes in a soul
Believes in life
after death
Believes in sin
Believes in hell
Attends church
God is unimportant
in my life
* p < .000.
Source: World Values Surveys and, for 1999, Abbruzzese (2000).
Proponents of the secularization theory have reacted by claiming that the various
World Values Studies (WVS) data suffer from sampling problems and overreport
religious attendance. However, research conducted by scholars who were not
involved in the WVS, including some by its critics, moves in very much the same
direction. In 1992, Roberto Cipriani, a senior Italian sociologist and hardly a
champion of religious economy, published data from eighteen towns in central
Sicily. The total of those who reported attending Mass “almost weekly,” “weekly,”
or “more than weekly” amounted to 55 percent of his sample (Cipriani 1992: 146).
While central Sicily is mostly rural, Carmelina Chiara Canta, a sociologist with the
University of Rome, published research on Sicily as a whole in 1995, with a sample
that took into account large cities such as Palermo and Catania. Canta reported that
42 percent in Sicily went to Mass “two or three times per month,” “weekly,” or
“more than weekly,” and the figure was 41 percent for Palermo, which is commonly
referred to as a very secularized city (Canta 1995: 126–127). In 1997, Berzano and
Introvigne published research on a large sample from the province of Foggia, in
Puglia. The area is admittedly more religious than the national average, but the sum
of those attending Mass “weekly” and “more than weekly” was 51 percent (Berzano
and Introvigne 1997: 276). Finally, in 2003, research was published, part of an
international project, whose authors read like a who’s who of those who had
criticized the WVS data, most of them staunch critics of the religious economy
theory. According to their data, taken from a national sample, those who attend
Mass “at least once a month” (note the “at least”), “once a week,” “more than once a
week,” and/or “daily” amount to 50 percent of the Italian population and 47 percent
of the younger cohort of the sample, including interviewees born between 1975 and
1981 (De Sandre 2003: 125). Although differences in sampling and outcome
Introvigne and Stark: Religious Competition and Revival in Italy
obviously exist, these data are not very far from those of the WVS, particularly
when one considers that the questions here referred only to Catholic Mass, thus
excluding from the count the members of the small but existing religious minorities
in Italy.
On the other hand, most of the revival is among Catholics, since Italy has
become even more Catholic than it was before deregulation. That is, the Catholic
Church has been so greatly invigorated by Protestant competition that the proportion
who reported themselves to be “active” Catholics rose from 33 percent in 1981 to 35
percent in 1990 and on to 38 percent in 1999 (Abbruzzese 2000: 397–455). This
Catholic revival seems to have become even more apparent in the wake of the
terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Even very
secular journalists and intellectuals make increasing mentions of Italy’s “Catholic
heritage” in the face of a perceived “non-Western” (i.e., Islamic) challenge, and
some bishops have been happy to report that Catholic church attendance appeared to
rise after September 11, 2001. A possible, and less welcome, additional
consequence of September 11 is an increase in Catholic hostility to newly
established minorities. Unlike other European countries, Italy has no significant
secular anticult movement, and Catholic countercult groups, although vocal, were
not strongly supported by the bishops, who did not want to be accused of being
intolerant, of protecting a quasi-monopoly, or of “rocking the boat” that granted
significant advantages to a number of different religions after the 1984 reform (see
Introvigne 2001).
It also should be acknowledged that in Italy, and perhaps in most Catholic
nations of Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was not as disabled by being a
monopoly faith as has been true for Protestant state churches (Iannaccone 1991;
Stark and Finke 2000; Stark and Iannaccone 1994). For one thing, the Catholic
Church has never been subject to the sort of state control, including state intrusions
into doctrinal questions, that has often occurred in Protestant nations (Gustafsson
1990). For another, the Catholic Church has benefited from quite high levels of
internal competition to offset the lack of external competitors, as has been
demonstrated by Luca Diotallevi (2002). The most effective of these intra-Church
competitors—the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, Opus Dei, and Comunione e
Liberazione—also have offered quite high intensity faith. Each of these groups has
been growing in recent decades, while the more liberal sectors of the Church have
declined somewhat. Specifically, 10 percent of Italian Catholics tell pollsters that
they belong to a Catholic movement. According to the Catholic Charismatic
Renewal, about 250,000 Italians actively participate in the group, and several
million more maintain some degree of connection to the movement (Pesare 2000).
Produced by The Berkeley Electronic Press, 2006
Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion
Vol. 1 [2005], No. 1, Article 5
In an essay comparing the religiousness of Germans and German-Americans, Stark
concluded that “faced with an American style [highly competitive] religious
economy, Europeans would respond in the same way as did their American cousins”
(1997: 187). The data presented in this paper seem to confirm that conclusion
insofar as Italians are concerned. What is, by comparison with the United States, a
quite limited deregulation and the advent of rather modest levels of competition
have been sufficient to produce an approximation of American levels of religious
belief and practice—which suggests that much of the American pluralism is
redundant vis-à-vis activating popular responses (Stark and Finke 2003). The longterm durability of the Italian revival seems guaranteed by the fact that it has had the
greatest impact on the younger generation. This is not a case of elderly Catholics
suddenly returning to the piety of their youth, but of youth displaying levels of piety
above those of previous recent generations.
The implications of these findings for the secularization thesis are devastating.
That thesis is, after all, a theory that is compatible with only one trend: religious
decline. It is challenged even by a substantial period of religious stability; it is
refuted by any meaningful signs of increasing religiousness. In contrast, the religious
economy theory not only can explain religious revivals and stability, but also has
successfully predicted the recent religious declines in Poland, Quebec, the
Netherlands, and Hungary (Froese 2001; Stark and Finke 2000; Stark and
Iannaccone 1996).
When Peter Berger gracefully retracted his support for the secularization thesis,
he might also have noted that it is not merely that most of the world remains quite
religious. Instead, he might have pointed out that much of the world—including the
Islamic countries, Latin America, Africa, and China—has become significantly
more religious than it was even thirty years ago. These developments place
European exceptionalism in the proper perspective. As long as their religious
markets are highly regulated, the apparent secularization of many European nations
will be sustained. But should significant and authentic competition arise, it seems
likely that other Europeans will embrace religion just as the Italians are doing.
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