Last weekend, more than two million Protestants and Catholics in the UK attended church to celebrate Easter, millions fewer than just 50 years ago. The great fathers of sociology -- Weber, Marx, Durkheim -- all believed that industrialization, wealth and democracy would lead to the development of a massively secular society. Religion and its myths, the linchpin of dirt-poor traditional societies, would evaporate before detraditionalizing modernity.
They were right about Europe, but wrong about almost everywhere else. Evangelical Protestantism in the United States and Islamic fundamentalism are the planet's two fastest-growing religions; even Hindu and Buddhist fundamentalism are on the increase. Only Europe has moved in the direction the classic sociologists predicted.
A mere third of Europeans report that they think that life is worth living because God exists. In the US, 61 percent do, a proportion seemingly matched, although we don't have reliable evidence, within Islam. In those religiously inclined majorities, fundamentalists find it easier to recruit.
But why is rich Europe secular and rich America religious? And does the answer to that question give any clues about the rise in religious fundamentalism? For this increase advances one of the most pernicious and hateful phenomena in human history, ranking with polarization of the political right and left in its destructive and poisonous influence.
Whether it is the perpetrators of the Madrid atrocity or Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, calling Islam a "wicked religion," fervent fundamentalist religiosity breeds violence, intolerance and sexism. The sacred texts of Christianity and Islam may plead love, mutual respect and peace; their fundamentalist followers observe these doctrines in the breach.
You cannot watch Mel Gibson's controversial The Passion of the Christ without being provoked into these questions, for while it is breaking box-office records in the US and even playing to crowded cinemas in the Arab world, European audiences are smaller, less credulous and mostly interested in the film as a cultural and cinematic phenomenon rather than as a religious experience.
They are right. Gibson is a conservative Catholic fundamentalist. Each day's filming began with Mass; Gibson claims extraordinarily that the holy spirit was on the set throughout, with Jesus-like incidents of sudden healing. Gibson says he was God's tool. It is a perspective that saturates his film, with a cowled Satan appearing at key moments, rather as a vampire might in a classic Hollywood horror movie.
This perspective also reduces the whole to the level of farce, emotionally distancing the viewer from Christ's horrific last hours that are meant to trigger our rediscovery of what it means to be Christian.
Gibson insists on Christianity without compromise, and literal interpretation of the New Testament texts. Crucifixion was a blood sacrifice to atone for all humanity's sins at which both God and Satan were physically present. The moral message, in particular the transcendent capacity of love to produce mutual understanding and which retains my loyalty, just, to the Christian camp, is subsumed by a perverse insistence that Christian belief means that we have to plunge back into the values and myths of the pre-scientific, pre-Enlightenment, pre-democratic, barbaric and primitive Middle East.