Friday, May 18, 2007
Philip Jenkins' God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis is a very good book. In fact, I recommend anyone interested in Islam & Europe to buy it and read it! It is dense on data and citation, and the narrative benefits from the author's multi-faceted understanding of the history and development of religions and religious institutions. While Jenkins' previous two books, The Next Christendom & The New Faces of Christianity, painted a vibrant & fresh portrait of Christianity across the world, from Africa to Latin America and Asia, God's Continent is geographically more narrow-focused, though thematically broader. Unlike many academics Jenkins has the ability to be sympathetic toward his subjects without seeming patronizing or turning into an advocate (though on occasion he does verge upon the latter). Importantly, as an Episcopalian he does not necessarily view all religions as fundamentally outmoded and primitive, allowing contempt to cloud the narrative. Though his sympathies and potential biases are pretty obvious, the data are so abundant that it takes little effort to arrive at conclusions at variance with the author's.
Despite the occasional lapses from objectivity, God's Continent is not a work of rhetoric steeped in anecdote and reliant upon shared norms to render it credible scholarship, its empirical bent is central, the narrative is an extended argument awash in data. The Next Christendom was a tightly presented brief that the future of the Christian religion lay the Third World, specifically, in Latin America, Africa and Asia. In it Jenkins' made the case that the Secularization Hypothesis is false, that it applies primarily to Europe, and that the United States is not an exceptional nation in its religiosity, rather, it is reflective of the worldwide vitality of organized religion. In large measure The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity were aimed at a secular and progressive Western audience out of touch with the realities of religious expression, but whose own lives might soon be impacted by the changes being wrought by demography. After all, it is entirely plausible that within the next generation the Pope is more likely to be an African prince of the Church than a conservative German theologian. This is a very different book with a different audience. Though Jenkins does spend a fair amount of time engaging secular liberals and their confusions regarding the nature of the religion of the masses of "Europeans," his most biting rebuttals seem to be aimed at American conservatives who glory in visions of Eurabia. There are numerous quotations of Front Page Magazine, Mark Steyn and Claire Berlinski, mostly to emphasize the exaggerations and substantive weakness of the claims. God's Continent relays clearly the message that the reports of Christendom's demise are greatly exaggerated. I won't repeat the general arguments made by the likes of Steyn and Berlinski, rather, the first half of Jenkins' book does the leg work by simply collecting data and doing elementary school level math. Here are, for example, the number of just evangelical Christians vs. Muslims in Europe, inclusive of the Russian Federation:
The author's point in offering these data is that no one speaks of the evangelical "bounce back" in Europe, even though it is a reality, and numerically more significant than the Muslim presence. Jenkins does suggest that there are those on the Left who are wedded to the Secularization Hypothesis, and continue to view religion as the opium of the masses which is naturally going to fade away. And so they dismiss, ignore, or minimize, the vitality of Christian religious movements within the continent. But it seems his greater irritation is toward American conservatives, who prematurely mourn a religious civilization as if it is dead and buried for the sake of politics and propaganda.
Jenkins offers several reasons why commentators have a tendency to view Europe as "Allah's Continent" even though only a small proportion of the residents of Europe are Muslim. First, scholars tend to count one as "Muslim" on the slightest pretext, because Islamic identity is viewed as a catchall. In contrast, Christian affiliation is associated more closely with a pro-active identification. This results in the exaggeration of the number of religious Muslims and an underestimate of Europeans with sentiment or sympathy toward Christianity. In other words, while secular individuals from a Muslim background can be assumed to have some relationship with the Islamic cultural complex, the same certainly applies to secular individuals from a Christian background! Jenkins himself regularly repeats the claim that "8-10% of French are Muslims or of Muslim origin." The latter is key, it is well known that French "Muslims" are nearly as secular in their habits as French "Catholics," and a recent survey found that 4% of respondents identified as Muslim. This implies that a non-trivial number (assuming that around 1 out of 10 French citizens is of ethnic identity which is conventionally Muslim) of French Muslims have even disavowed a nominal association with the religion, which is parallel with a concurrent decline of Catholic identification in the mainstream French population since the 1960s. Second, there is the regional concentration of Muslims. Rotterdam is half Muslim (in a nation that is 4% Muslim). Greater London is 10% Muslim (in a nation that is 2.5% Muslim). Paris is surrounding by suburbs dominated by ethnic North Africans. There are other dense "pockets" of Muslims throughout Europe, from the industrial heartland of Germany to Malmo to Copenhagen. Muslims are highly concentrated in particular locales, and this ties in to the third issue, and that is that the European elites also concentrate in the same urban conurbations where Muslims are preponderant. Brussels, the capital of the EU, is 20% Muslim! I am always surprised when I read papers in England complaining that a television show with one non-white character out of 10 does not "reflect Britain." But a quick survey of the UK Census shows that this is in fact a proportional representation of Britain (in fact, more than a proportional representation). Nevertheless, it is not a representation of London, and that I believe is the critical variable, because the chattering class naturally conflates its own circumstance with that of the nation. Fourth, Muslims are a problem. Issues of class and race are confounded with the role of religion, but Islam qua Islam and its relation to the West are obviously of some importance in the world at this point. Even if only half of South Asians in Britain are Muslim, they are the half which grips the attention of the media and the public because their impact is not banal or workaday. Discussions about "Asians" and their problems in Britain elide the reality that the "Asians" are invariably the Muslims. Fifth, there is politics at work. Parties on the Far Right in the late 20th century emerged in large part because of the Muslim problem, so it is in their interest to heighten its threat. Elites on the Left co-opt Muslims as tools in their own conflicts and culture wars with the Right, high and low. If Muslims serve as the new revolutionary class then it is in the Left's interest to promote them and encourage the perception of the power of this constituency, as well as to facilitate its mobilization under the leadership of individuals with whom other segments of society can negotiate. In the United States there is the peculiar synergy of jingoism and anti-Europeanism that is the hallmark of much of the New Right combined with the neoconservative perception that anti-Semitism is locally on the rise across Europe and that Islam and Islamism are both regional and worldwide problems which the continent is not addressing.
Against the salience of the Islamic presence on the European continent Jenkins makes a powerful case that Christianity is still a vital, if not preeminent, force on the cultural landscape. He rebuts the common assertion that Europeans are atheistic & materialistic in the majority with a simple appeal to the same survey which I have pointed to. Europeans have become sharply detached from organized Christianity, but majorities still retain sympathy with supernaturalism broadly construed, and large minorities (in some nations the majority, e.g., Greece, Spain, Poland and Ireland) of religious believers remain with a strong Christian identity. And then there is the gray land of Europeans who are weakly connected to Christian orthodoxy, but have powerful cultural affinities with their traditional denominational backgrounds (Edward Said, an atheist from an Anglican religious background, often said that Islam was his civilization. Similarly, it seems plausible to say that many atheists in the West are of the Christian civilization, whether they like to admit it or not). The large numbers of Europeans who make recourse to rituals such as baptism & confirmation attest to this sentimental attachment. Additionally, there are some metrics on which Europeans might be said to exhibit greater religiosity than Americans. For example, the enormous numbers of Catholics who make pilgrimages to holy sites throughout the continent dwarfs any cognate in North America, no doubt in part because of the relative dearth of "sacred spaces" in the United States in comparison to Europe, but also perhaps because that is part of European religious practice which has no equivalent in the United States. Though it seems fair to say that the average European is less religious than the average American, it is also important to remember that many European cultures are not characterized by the wall of church-state separation which Americans take for granted, and religious assumptions may "guide" the society in a manner surprising to some. For example, on the issue of abortion Europeans have had a range of responses, with some states as liberal in their laws as the United States (generally in Scandinavia and Britain), but most more conservative (Germany), and some rather restrictive (Portugal). This diversity is a function of the fact that religious forces, especially the Catholic Church, are political actors who serve to act as breaks upon "progressive" social tendencies. While in the United States such as activism might be seen as improper, or evidence of the power of the Religious Right, in nations where the church is given a nod in the Constitution (though not necessarily established) and explicitly religious parties have long existed such objections are not feasible.
Jenkins also bridges some of the ideas in his previous books by pointing out that a substantial proportion of the immigrants to Europe are Christian. These communities serve as vital hubs of religious evangelism and Christian belief. To some extent one might wonder what Third World Christianity has to do with European Christianity, but of course many religious denominations are international. Just as there is a global Islam, the revivalism of which has world-wide ramifications, so the beliefs of Christians outside of Europe impacts those within Europe. The Anglican Communion is now demographically a predominantly African Christian community. Similarly, Roman Catholicism is a religion with a representation on every continent, and its primary regions of growth lay in Africa and to a lesser extent Asia. For Roman Catholicism this is critical because the sharp decline in the number of seminarians across Europe, excepting Poland, has resulted in the common presence of non-white priests and monastics. In parts of France immigrants and transplants from Francophone West Africa have been critical in filling the breach left by the lack of replenishment of clerical ranks from the native populace. In other situations we have peoples who are reaching & pushing back to the "mother church." African Lutherans are uncompromising in their criticism of the Lutheran hierarchy of northern Europe, who they accuse of being decadent and ineffectual. The Mizo peoples of northeast India were originally converted to Christianity by Welsh Protestant nonconformists, but with the decline of fidelity to organized Christianity in Britain they have now sent missionaries back to Wales (in some ways one might contend this is an expanded recapitulation of the evangelization of Anglo-Saxon Britain from Ireland during the late 6th and early 7th century, as the Irish themselves were converted to Christianity by the Romano-British). The zeal of Korean missionaries is also well known, and their recent problems in the Middle East show just how seriously they take the "Great Commission" (I do find it rather peculiar when 3/4 of their fellow Koreans remain non-Christian that they venture off to foreign lands like the Irish who ventured into the pagan lands of barbarian Europe). The point here is not that the Scotch will be converted back toward "orthodox" Presbyterianism by the Koreans, it is that the same international religious tendrils which have wafted the embers of Islam across the Mediterranean also have resulted in an indwelling of Christians from across to the world to the continent which has been the faith's traditional home. Even if native Europeans were totally lacking in any religious vision or sentiment, Islam is certainly not the only alternative on the scene, for immigrants from other Christian hands have replanted a very vital strand of contemporary Christianity, heavily influenced by the Pentecostal movement, upon European soil.
Emphasizing the native European attachment to Christianity (revival movements, staunchly Christian nations like Poland), as well as immigrant Christianity communities, allows Jenkins to make his case that Islam does not look across a godless continent filled with nihilists, unchallenged and unassailable. When intellectuals, American and European, speak of the death of Christianity and the post-Christian landscape, they are highlighting two distinct dynamics. First, the European elite is in many ways post-Christian. Tony Blair, though an Anglican of some religious convictions, is diffident and tentative in expressing his Christian faith in public. European statesmen such as Francois Mitterrand have been openly irreligious, while even in Catholic Poland until recently the head of state was personally an unbeliever. Though American elites are often accused of being "out of touch," Jenkins argues that European elites exhibit a far greater distance from their "hinterlands" in terms of outlook and world-view (he suggests that the small size and low number of cultural capitals results in a far greater centralization in terms of elite socialization). Dutch elites in the immigrant filled cities no doubt find it easy to forget that their nation is host to a "Bible Belt" of Calvinist believers. Nations as disparate as Norway, France and Scotland have regions of elevated Christianity commitment. But these concentrations of organized Christianity highlight the second trend: the reemergence of the ancient classical pattern where Christianity is simply a major cult within a religiously diverse landscape. The analogy is not totally apt insofar as unlike late antiquity Christians and Christianity still command the heights of the culture, and are a far greater proportion of the population identify as Christians. Additionally, while late antique Europeans lived in a landscape where pagan religious assumptions were normative and served as the cultural backdrop, today's post-Christians live in the shadows of their Christian cultural past. Nevertheless, Europeans have ushered in an age where a wide range of beliefs are acceptable and in currency, just as it was so in late antiquity. This is a time when the Prince of Wales admits that he would prefer to be a defender of the faiths, not a faith. European is post-Christian insofar as Christian assumptions are not unchallenged and always at the center of the cultural discourse because the culture is by definition and necessity explicitly Christian. In decades past the Roman Catholic Church in Italy would not have to reiterate its central role in Italian life, because that would be a given. But today the presence of a Muslim minority, as well as the rise of secularity, means that Italian Catholicism must pro-actively make the case for its relevance and centrality.
And it is this counter-reaction which Jenkins argues is nearly inevitable. He offers a historical perspective, in 1798 the Pope was held captive as anti-Christian revolution swept Europe. Many savants of the age predicted the death of Christianity and the ancien regime. Despite the restoration after the fall of Napoleon, the ancien regime did fall and transform into the modern era of nation-states, but Christianity did not die. It is also important to remember the power of anti-clericalism throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century, and the allure and appeal of radical politics for the European working classes. In 1881 Italian nationalists attempted to seize the body of Pius IX and throw it into the Tiber river. In France the Catholicism and laicism have been at tension for two centuries. If Europeans tire of the ennui of secular materialism and consumer decadence it seems far more plausible that indigenous religious traditions, prominently local Christianities, will serve the role as the vehicle for a revived organized supernaturalism as opposed to Islam. There are already signs that in parts of northern Europe where Islam is prominent that locals are exploring their relationship with Christianity anew. In Scandinavia the Lutheran churches were (or are) arms of the state. In Denmark they term it the Distant Church, and these churches exhibit all the sclerotic tendencies of government bureaucracies. But just as Pietism arose in response to the cooling of Reformation embers, so a second look at religious traditions visited only in passing, at confirmation and marriage, may be induced by the alternative example of Islamic religious communities which are defined by their relationship to their god. The pessimism in regards to European Christianity seems to resemble the nostalgia that some intellectuals felt toward classical paganism, which encapsulated a native spirituality more congenial with nationalist sentiment. European neo-Paganism is in fact a reconstructed tradition which serves as a religious focus for a wholesale re-identification with a national past, mythic or not. But in the generality it failed as a mass movement, and the reason is simple: paganism died in Europe as an organized and explicit movement, its influence was felt within the cultural substratum in custom and tradition, and re-scaffolding these folkways in a systematic manner into a new religious movement proved impossible because the chain of connection across the generations had been broken. The same is not true of Christianity, hundreds of millions of Europeans remain Christian believers, the chain of belief has not been broken! Christianity is not a memory, but a living tradition in some recess, but that recess has been a draw down from a high point after the revivals of the 19th century in the face of 18th century rationalism.
God's Continent spends a great deal of time on the role and nature of Islam in Europe. Jenkins offers many ideas and posits future trends which might surprise some. I won't cover these in detail in this post, but rather will follow up later, as I want to keep the focus on Christianity. But I have to ask, why the relative ignorance of much of the data that Jenkins presents in his book? Part of it is surely human psychology. Readers of this weblog are intelligent, but they can get carried away as much as anyone. A regular reader of this weblog (going on 5 years) conflated the fact that the majority of elementary age children in Rotterdam were Muslim (the city is, as I said, half Muslim) with the possibility that the majority of Dutch children were Muslim! Another reader in a chat was worried about the numbers of Muslims in France, and when I asked him numbers he assumed they were in the 20-30% range. I respectively offered that the concern is laudable, but one should take 5 seconds and go to Google to look at the range of data (15% is probably the high bound). Another reader responded that in France the problem was that one can't speak out against immigrants and Islam. I was busy so I didn't respond that the National Front has been a powerful anti-immigrant force (though ineffectual) for a generation now, winning 10-20% of the national vote, so such a contention seems highly misleading. Th reader was likely not stupid, but they were simply blurting out impressionistic thoughts and telegraphing sentiments common in the right-wing press (i.e., the inevitable "Death of Europe," its weakness in the face of Islam and jihadism, etc.). I have been guilty of this myself. A few years ago I asked on an e-list I was a member of "what northern European nation will become Muslim first?" By "first" I meant in this generation, within 10-20 yeas. I was stupid and lazy, and basically engaging in intellectual masturbation instead of courting the data.
I regret the time wasted on this, though it was enjoyable at the time. In some ways it was a byproduct of the web-masturbatory tendencies of the whole "warblogger" period, where people who knew nothing felt free to say anything about everything. I wasn't a total retard, but my working hypothesis was that a "tipping point" might be reached where Europeans start to convert to Islam. Now, if I was an absolute ignoramus this sort of model might be plausible, but, I did know some history. I'd read a fair amount of Roman, Byzantine and Islamic history, and I had a sense of how "religious change" occurs. I also knew that the idea that Christianity wasn't a lower class religion, that in fact it was a cult of the urban "middle class," and that it spread to the society at large via elite patronage after the conversion of Constantine and the suppression of pagan cults during the reign of Theodosius. Finally, I'd also read a fair amount of sociology of religion and knew of the importance of social networks in the spread of new religions, and the utility bundles which they needed to bring to be successful. In expressing views which seem laughably simplistic in hindsight I was catering to my masturbatory tendencies and my detestation of Islam, using worst case scenarios to stoke my own sense of Schadenfreude, that the Europeans were getting what was coming to those pussies. My own animus toward the central tendency of the Muslim religion remains, but I have come to grips to the likelihood that to grapple with reality one must model it properly. So small details matter, for example, 1/3 of the Muslims within Europe (excluding Russia) aren't immigrants or their children. Rather, they're part of the old communities of the Balkans. This is relevant to projecting the impact that non-white immigrants have upon European Islam, and making an identity between racial minorities and Islam. The cultural influence of Islam and is relationship with race and class are important, plausible high bound estimates of the number of Muslims (e.g., assuming no defection and a broad definition of "Muslim") allow us to arrive at a ~20% figure for what proportion of the residents of European are of that faith in 2050. The Republic of Macedonia is about 33% Muslim. These are members of the Albanian ethnic minority, a long established community in the Balkans. Though today a co-dominion between the Christian Slavs and Muslim Albanians has been achieved, it is only after a civil war in which the Albanians reacted to what they perceived to be overbearing domination and prejudice. An analogy between Macedonia in the 1990s and Europe in 2050 is not totally apt, insofar as Muslims in Macedonia are established as one ethnic community speaking a common language, sharing a common history, and also deriving some support from neighboring Albania. But, this might be a situation which allows us to get a sense of the outer boundary of the problems which Islam might cause, in regards to serving as a focus for rebellion of a minority community which demands concessions from the majority. Nevertheless, it is a far cry from the imposition of Sharia across Europe and domination by mullahs and clerics.
My own concern with this issue as an American has to do with my interest in Europe, the font of Western civilization, and the source of modernity as we understand it. To Americans "Europe" can mean many things. To some liberals it is a socialist utopia of secularism. To many conservatives it is a decadent civilization which we must look to as a warning, a caution about what America might become if it turns its back on its own peculiar cultural traditions. I think that we Americans have to get over some of these issues, and take and accept Europe on its own terms. It is a great civilization, of which we Americans are a branch. It lives to validate its own purpose, and not serve as a prop for our own political quarrels forward our own national interest. Of course, I believe that acknowledging this reality does serve American national interests, but that is a separate issue altogether. Do most liberals know that German abortion laws are stricter than those of the United States? What about the prevalence of right-wing parties which promote a racialist ideology? Do conservatives know that the greatest number of Christians still reside on the European continent? If they are Catholic do they give thought to what their pessimism implies for the Bishop of Rome and the great religious centers and sites of their faith? Presumably conservatives glory in the canon of Western civilization, but will they sit still in the face of the transformation of the lands from which that canon emerged? There is one particular issue which I think puts into stark relief the wrongheaded attitude that Americans have toward Europe: Turkey. Some conservatives seem to want Turkish admission to the E.U. solely for its proximate impact, as it might please our military ally and somehow aid in the "War on Terror." Many liberals see it as part of the multicultural project, a testament to the inclusiveness of modern civilization. But what about the Europeans? After all, they're the ones who have to live out this experiment! The European elite is conflicted, and the populace seems dead set against it. I won't elucidate the reasons why Turkish admission is not a "good idea," but the promotion of this position on the shallow grounds which I have seen on both the American Right and Left highlights the fact that in some ways my nation's elites look to Europe as if it was just another part of the great world "Out There," just as blacks and other minorities are charming and "diverse" people in the far off lands away from the Upper East Side or the other redoubts of the American oligarchy. In the interests of short term tactical position within their own social systems, their own set of hierarchies, they are willing to sell down the river the civilization with which we most definitely have a "special relationship."
The birth, death, and evolution of cultures are complex topics. Like a ball of yarn it is almost impossible with untangle all the strands to get a clear picture of the underlying structure. That being said, the largest threads can be extricated and they serve as a infrastructure which scaffolds the overall structure. Religion is one of the those "infrastructures" within "culture" in its broadest sense. Religion is either the justification or the cause of social change, of public debate, the trigger for cataclysmic wars and the mediator of the most banal of social exchanges. I have written copiously about the different things that religion can mean, that it can be. Like the felicitous alignment of molecules within ore to generate a magnetic field, organized religion can be a powerful cultural force to channel social impulses in concurrent directions. But the basic raw material of magnetism is always there within a molecule, even if they are not aligned together within the ore. We can not project demographics with a linear model which assumes that fertility rates will stay constant, nor can we assume that the increased "secularism" in the West which began during the 1960s will continue without end. We can also evaluate hypotheses about mass conversions of Europeans to Islam by using models and analogies to other situations and scenarios where such things did occur. Masses of Africans converted to Islam and Christianity within this century, while Papuans accept the "white man's religion" so as to imbibe some of his magical technology. European warlords took upon the mantle of Christianity to validate their monarchies within the commonwealth of post-Roman states, one God and one King. And with them came peoples, willingly or not. It does not take a deep understanding or knowledge of history to dismiss the probability that Europeans will look to the ghettos and housing projects for their spiritual renewal, even assuming that they are the soulless golems which some of their critics accuse them of. Rather than focusing on the Europeans it is more important to look to European Islam, because it seems highly like that though it will be a junior partner in the dance with post-Christendom, it will definitely have something to say and help shape the course of events.
Note: I'm going to delete any comments that I perceive do not add value. If you reply to a non-valued comment I'll just delete your whole comment too, so just be warned. This post is partly for Google, and partly to encourage people to read this book and draw their own conclusions. More data is welcome! Your uninformed opinion, not so much.