‘Religion is no longer important in Belgium!’, they declared. Wherever I travelled in Belgium over the course of 1976–1977, the year of my sabbatical leave from an American university, and my eighteenth consecutive year of fieldwork in Belgian society, friends, colleagues, and informants announced this.
I was particularly puzzled by this statement because I had always considered Belgium to be a society deeply imprinted by religion: by its diffuse Catholicism, and its complex reactions to it. Belgians from the whole range of philosophical, political, linguistic, regional, and social-class milieux in which I had worked knew that this was my considered judgment. Yet, on this visit, they seemed intent on showing me that religion was less important to them, and in their society, than I had supposed. The picture that many Belgians painted was of a society where religion had not merely waned, but spontaneously, and with great rapidity, had virtually disappeared. However much this image intrigued me, neither sociological theory, nor my own first-hand observations on previous trips to Belgium made it seem credible.