God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
Though few today would think of Europe as “God’s Continent,” Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, does. He devotes his book of that title—with The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity, the third in a trilogy about global Christianity—to explaining how the religious situation in Europe is different from what most of us suppose. The title is the first of many surprises that await the reader of this well-researched, thoughtful book.
Jenkins covers so many angles that his argument is easily misunderstood. I have read short reviews that misrepresent him as saying that all is well with Christianity in Europe. Which is to get one point wrong and miss a lot of others.
European Christianity, he admits, is in a bad way. Ever greater numbers of old-stock Europeans (Europe’s nominal Christians) are remaining childless, and their median age is predicted to reach 52.3 by 2050, up from the already dangerous figure of 37.
Church attendance is low. In Scandinavian countries it is under five percent, even when the higher Muslim rates of mosque attendance are included. Churches and seminaries are closing; vocations are declining.
Europe’s long tradition of tolerance and its new adherence to multiculturalism make it a fertile ground for radical Islam. Jenkins points out that it is easier to practice radical Islam in Europe than in most Islamic countries, and that “London has more radical Muslims than anywhere in the Muslim world.”
Currently, Britain alone has about 1,600 Muslim militants under surveillance. That may not sound like too scary a figure—until you remember that the Irish Republican Army caused decades of havoc in Britain with never more than 500 committed fighters, and that Spain’s infamous Basque ETA has barely 100. As many as 200 mosques across the continent may be centers of revolutionary organization.
Islam has grown in Europe for reasons that antedate the War on Terror. Muslim immigration began in a big way in the 1950s, when there was urgent need for labor in Western Europe and the Iron Curtain prevented manpower coming from the East. Europe looked south, particularly to its former colonies, many of which were Islamic.
Those early generations of Muslim immigrants settled into European life and accepted their position as a minority within a nominally Christian context. It is only in the last decade or so that the second and third generation of their descendants have been recruited to radical Islam.
The high birthrate of European Muslims has brought about what Jenkins calls a “youth bulge.” Why those young Muslims are so open to radicalization is a large part of Jenkins’s story, but one factor he stresses is their rootlessness—the socially uncommitted state of the ghettoized and poor—and the consequent appeal of a universalized, global, puritanical, and radical Islam. (John Updike’s recent novel Terrorist deals with the same issue in an American setting.)
Islam appeals primarily to those of Islamic descent but not only to them. It is also a place for the chic rebels of the revolutionary left to find a new cause, now that Communism and feminism have disappointed them, and for those among the fashionably downtrodden to find a new antisocial alternative.
If Jenkins is right, then, the Muslim threat results from factors largely independent of religion: particularly a high population of young men of low economic and political status, and without enough education to be critical of Muslim propaganda.
But there are also signs that these same Muslims are not immune to the secular forces that have sucked the life out of European Christendom. Muslim divorces are up and their fertility rate is dropping in many countries. Jenkins says that Muslims in France exhibit an “almost Anglican” detachment from formal religious commitment.
He seems to assume that he is writing for a largely Christian readership that will welcome these signs of weakness in its foe. But are these really hopeful signs?
That liberal poison may work on your enemy is small consolation when you have imbibed so heavily yourself. If I have one criticism of Jenkins’s book, it is that he does not sufficiently acknowledge the way in which reversals for Islam are also reversals for traditional, conservative Christianity.
The strengths Jenkins finds in contemporary European Christianity are also a mixed bag. One quarter of Europe’s nominal Christians still say that religion is very important in their lives. If they count as serious Christians (and the traditional Christian will at least wonder if they do), they still outnumber Muslims four to one.
There are also areas of real Christian strength in Eastern Europe, of which Poland is the best example. Then there are the new ecclesial movements, both Protestant and Catholic, of which Cursillo and Alpha are probably the best known, though Jenkins discusses several others.
But growth in European Christianity is also mainly along Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic lines, and mainly in the population of immigrants to Europe from former colonies in the global south. Notwithstanding the renewal that immigrant Christians bring to the faith, they will also retain the outlook and concerns of their native lands, in many of which there are ongoing conflicts with Islam. As Jenkins reminds us, there is danger of “colliding Diasporas” on European soil, if immigrants renew their old hostilities in a new setting.
Despite these dangers and uncertainties, however, Jenkins seems to think that the prognosis is generally good for Christianity. But the more you are concerned about the future of traditional, conservative Christianity, the less there is to cheer about. To the extent it remains Christian, the Europe he foresees will be less traditional. And the forces of secularization will remain at least as strong.
Jenkins may well be right. You can’t help being struck by the breadth of his research and the impartiality with which he presents it.
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“Continental Drift” first appeared in the May 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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