Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
A new report finds that language matters more than religion.
When it comes to national identity, neither religion nor where you were born is necessarily very important. That’s the striking message from a newly published cross-national survey by the Pew Research Center. Polling over 14,000 people in 14 countries, researchers found that people overwhelmingly considered faith and birthplace to be secondary factors in forging a common national identity. Emphasizing the importance of language and customs over religion or place of birth, the report also reveals some significant generational shifts in attitudes governing what makes people belong to a nation.
Perhaps most striking in the report is the almost universal lack of majorities stating that religion is an essential component of their national identity.
As the table above shows, Greece was the only country polled where a majority felt that being Christian was a very important factor in national identity. Across the Western Hemisphere (Japanese respondents were not asked this question), Northern countries with a largely Protestant heritage felt religion held the least importance for national identity, but France and Spain also reported notably low scores in this index. In the United States, opinion on the importance of religion to national identity comes across as quite evenly split. Thirty-two percent of respondents held it as very important, but the report notes elsewhere that 31 percent held it to be not important at all.
Across all countries, younger people were far more likely to consider religion less important to national identity. In only two countries did the gap between older and younger citizens’ views on the relative identitarian significance of religion measure 10 percent or less. One was Poland—where the Catholic church has historically acted as a repository for nationalist aspirations repressed in other political arenas—and the other was France. France likely shows little difference in opinion between age groups because its strong tradition of official secularism means that the yoking together of Catholicism and national identity is singularly rare, even among the elderly.
One other country bucks the trend in a slightly different way. While Italians between 18 and 34 place less national importance on faith than over-50s do, they still find it more important than middle-aged Italians, suggesting a modest swing back to an understanding of Italianness that is more centered on Catholicism.
If many people are abandoning the idea of religion as the cement of national identity, they are not necessarily replacing it with an emphasis on where people are born. Figures on the importance of birthplace in national identity reveal a complex picture. While in Europe, only Hungary and Greece show a majority of respondents stating that birthplace is very important, more Europeans consider it very or somewhat important than not significant.
In the New World, Australians and Canadians consider birthplace less important than Americans. Among Americans, 32 percent overall gave birthplace prime importance to national identity. Less educated and older people were more likely to ascribe it importance. It also had notably greater significance to black non-Hispanic respondents than to either Hispanic or white non-Hispanic interviewees.
By contrast, the report notes elsewhere that just 21 percent of Canadians and 13 percent of Australians felt that birthplace was highly significant. One other country, however, possessed a large body of respondents asserting the link between national identity and place of birth: Japan, where 50 percent felt it was very important.
So if both faith and birthplace are waning (albeit far from dead) as markers of national identity, where do people think this identity lies? Across the board, the answer is language, followed (with the exception of Japan) by the sharing of national customs. In Europe, an overwhelming majority held that language was universally significant, albeit with notably lower scores in Spain and Italy.
Seventy percent of Americans felt language was very important, with a majority agreeing with this premise across all the different social segments recorded.
Sharing cultural traditions such as national holidays, types of clothing, and foods was also seen as a major factor. Interestingly, this was one area considered very important by more Canadian and British respondents (54 percent each) than Americans or French (45 percent each).
While the report reveals a fascinating picture, it poses as many questions as it answers. Take the respondents who say that birthplace is somewhat important as a factor in national identity—in which instances do these respondents feel it is important? And to what extent?
While national customs seem to be considered a more universal marker of identity than religion, what happens when these national customs have a religious base? Does, say, the celebration of Christmas become a more important marker because it has other, non-religious associations as a time for family celebration? Or do respondents see its importance as a nationally acknowledged celebration weaken from its specifically Christian connotations?
There are also some tantalizing absences that it would be interesting to know more about. Certain countries—notably Sweden—don’t seem to ascribe great importance to any of the potential markers of national identity explored in the report. While Sweden is sometimes portrayed internationally as a liberal utopia (often somewhat misleadingly), the overall impression it gives to visitors is one of relative homogeneity and cultural distinctiveness. So what are the shared cultural links that Swedes feel are the glue holding their identity together? In a world that seems to be slowly moving away from linking religion and birthplace to national identity, it would be interesting to know what develops in their wake as they leave the scene.