What is the relationship between rates of church attendance and national identity? When more than 50 percent of a country’s population does not attend religious services, is that the tipping point that makes for a secular nation?

The Economist just published a very short notice reporting on an analysis of the European Social Survey from 2008 and 2009. It’s not terribly surprising. In many of the countries surveyed, well over 40 percent of respondents say they “never” attend religious services except for special events (like weddings); in most, the figure is well over 30 percent.

This notice would be completely unremarkable except for a phrase casually embedded in the lead paragraph (emphasis mine, below):

[. . .] over 60% of Czechs say they never attend religious services, with the exception of “special occasions” such as marriages and christenings. France, Britain and Belgium are also secular nations, with over half of respondents never going to services.

Of course, sociologists know that the  nation is a collectivity, and that it is more than the simple aggregated sum of individual beliefs and behaviors. To be a secular nation, or  a religious one, is not solely reducible to whether individuals attend church; it has also to do with language, history, culture, public discourse, and the law. (For a sensitive and interesting discussion, read Christianity and American Democracy, by Hugh Heclo.) In a survey conducted in 2003 for the American Mosaic Project, well over 3/4 of Americans say they believe that the U.S. is a Christian Nation; despite increasing rates of non-church attendance and the growing popularity of declaring oneself a religious “none,” the public presence of religion in the U.S. is notable and, for many, compelling, shaping the way they think about national identity.

That said, there is some substantive relationship between rates of religious adherence and national character, national identity, and national culture. It seems wise, however, to view the implications of these survey findings as contested terrain, not a settled question.