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  • Timeline of Religion in Europe

  • History of Christianity in Europe

  • Religion in Europe in the 1500s

  • Major Religions in Europe Today

Home > Resources > Everything You Need to Know about Religion in Europe

Everything You Need to Know about Religion in Europe

The history of religion in Europe is complex, diverse, and often marked by violence. From the Roman era onwards, religions have vied for dominance, tolerance, and freedom of expression. What were the key events in European religious history during the medieval, early modern, and modern periods? And what is the religious landscape of Europe today?

Timeline of Religion in Europe

Distinguishing religious thought and behavior from organized religion is crucial. Religious behavior dates back to the paleolithic era, while organized religion originated during the Neolithic era about 11,000 BP. This article centers on organized religion and its influence on the European continent.

The earliest historical records in Europe primarily come from Mediterranean civilizations. Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome were the most studied cultures and religions by historians. However, Celtic and Germanic religions also spread across Europe from the north.

The merging of Paganism and Judaism beliefs eventually led to the rise of primitive Christianity during the Roman Empire, which became the dominant religion in Europe by the fourth century AD.

History of Christianity in Europe

The religions of the Greeks and the Roman Empire were later labeled as "paganism" by the dominant Christian faith. The rise of Christianity led to the suppression of all other religions, including unofficial forms of Christianity.


A polytheistic religion where practitioners worshipped multiple gods and goddesses, often at temples or private shrines. The term "paganism" originates from paganus, meaning "villager."

The Edict of Milan in 313 AD marked the end of persecution against Christians. Emperor Constantine issued this decree, protecting and tolerating the Christian religion within the Empire. While Constantine himself may not have converted to Christianity, his actions set the stage for Emperor Theodosius to declare Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 391 AD.

Religion in Medieval Europe: Christianity Hegemony

During the medieval period in Europe, Christianity held a dominant position, with the Pope in Rome serving as the central authority for all Christians across the continent. The Pope held significant political and religious influence over Christian rulers and feudal lords.

In the eleventh century, the Gregorian reform was implemented to strengthen the Church's organization and hierarchy, aiming to eliminate corruption within the clergy.

Ecclesiastical: Referring to matters related to the church, God, or clergy.

The Medieval Church

The Medieval Church was very concerned about rival religions, which they considered heretical. Historian R.I. Moore argues that as the Church gained power, it focused on rooting out those who did not conform to their version of Christianity. This need to drive out other faiths led to the Crusades and the Inquisition.

The Crusades

The Crusades started when the Byzantine Emperor requested military assistance from Pope Urban II in 1095. Viewing Muslims as a common adversary, the Pope seized the chance to initiate a sequence of holy wars.

The Crusades led to catastrophic outcomes for non-Christians in Europe.


  • During their journey to the East, Crusaders massacred Jewish communities through organized attacks known as pogroms, which occurred throughout Europe.
  • La Reconquista, or "Iberian Crusades," (1085-1492) was an extended crusade to liberate the Peninsula from Muslim rule.

The Albigensian Crusade

Catharism emerged and grew in popularity in Southern France. The Cathars in the region diverged from mainstream Christianity. Pope Innocent III denounced Catharism as a severe heresy and initiated a Crusade against them, spanning from 1209 to 1229.

The fierce conflict of war and the equally severe Inquisition led to the downfall of Catharism, leaving no remnants by the 14th century. The Albigensian Crusade was not the sole instance of Crusades being launched against "heretic" Christians. Other instances comprise:

  • the Drenther Crusade in the Netherlands from 1228-1232.
  • the Bohemian Crusade of 1340.
  • the Hussite Wars in the early fifteenth century.

The Inquisition

During the 13th century, the Church focused intensely on enforcing authority over the beliefs of Europeans. In the early 1200s, Pope Innocent III established a system to uncover heresy: the Inquisition, a tribunal intended to uncover and eradicate heretics. Inquisitors used accusations, interrogation, and torture to pinpoint possible heretics and compel confessions from the accused.

The most notorious Inquisition was the of the late fifteenth century. The rulers, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, established the to uncover hidden non-Christians. Thousands of individuals were put to death during the Inquisition's three-century existence.

Religion in Europe in the 1500s

The 16th century was a time of significant change for religion in Europe. The Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the Wars of Religion all played a role in reshaping Christianity.

The Catholic Church, despite making reforms, lost its dominance in Europe that it had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, Protestantism gained a strong foothold in many northern regions.

The Protestant Reformation was sparked by Martin Luther in 1517. Luther, a German priest, criticized the corrupt practices of the Catholic Church, such as selling indulgences. His ideas spread quickly, advocating for a personal relationship with God and the importance of reading the Bible independently.

The Counter-Reformation was the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant Reformation. Pope Paul III called the Council of Trent in 1545 to reform the Church and address the divide between Catholics and Protestants. However, the efforts to reconcile with Protestants were largely unsuccessful.

The Wars of Religion erupted across Europe, particularly in areas with Catholic rulers. These conflicts stemmed from disagreements over religious authority, with Catholic kings seeking to enforce their religion and Protestants fighting for religious freedom. In modern Europe, religion continued to evolve during the Enlightenment. The era saw a separation between church and state, weakening the traditional connection between religion and politics.

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the rise of The Enlightenment, introducing novel methods to elucidate the seemingly inexplicable. Rationalism and critical thinking became tools used by Enlightenment intellectuals to interpret the natural world.

As a result, this innovative approach led some individuals to reassess their faith and the role of religion in politics, further altering the religious landscape in Europe. A fundamental aspect of Enlightenment philosophy was the promotion of religious tolerance.


During the Enlightenment, a growing doubt arose that supported belief in a higher power without endorsing the traditional Church. Followers of this view thought that God created the universe but chose to simply watch over rather than intervene in the lives of his creations.

Some historians contend that the fragmentation of religious life triggered by the Reformation combined with advancements in technology and science prompted certain individuals to adopt a more secular way of life detached from institutionalized religion.

Conversely, some posit that the key support for this assertion — a decline in church attendance — might actually reflect a growing trend towards personalized and privatized forms of religious practice rather than a decline in spiritual belief.

Major Religions in Europe Today

In Europe today, Christianity remains the predominant religion. In a 2019 survey, over 70% of the European Union's populace identified as Christians, with 41% choosing Roman Catholicism, 10% Eastern Orthodox, 9% Protestant, and 4% other Christian denominations.

Islam accounted for 2% of religious Europeans. Surprisingly, 17% identified as non-believers or Agnostics, with 10% identifying as Atheists. Judaism, on the other hand, fell under the 4% "other religions" category.

Due to secularization during the Modern era, many Europeans do not consider religion to be of great importance in their daily lives. A Gallup poll conducted in 2008 asked Europeans about the significance of religion in their lives and found that, at the lowest end, only 16 percent of Estonians viewed religion as important, in contrast to 90 percent of Georgians and residents of Kosovo.

Although religion no longer plays as central a role in European state politics as it once did, it remains a significant aspect of European culture and daily life for many individuals. The preservation of religious architecture dating back to the Medieval era allows both religious and non-religious individuals to experience and appreciate this heritage.

Furthermore, migration has led to increased ethnic and religious diversity in many parts of the continent, a trend likely to continue in the coming decades.

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