Your Religion Tomorrow

If Europe were a woman, her biological clock would be rapidly running down. It is not too late to adopt more children, but they won't look like her.

Philip Longman

In 1989, the clerical regime of Iran issued a fatwa ordering the death of author Salman Rushdie for his allegedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. In several European nations, the controversy spurred mass protests by Muslim residents hitherto known for their political quiescence. Some demonstrators carried placards reading "Islam—Our Religion Today, Your Religion Tomorrow," a slogan that was at once shocking, aggressive, and above all, eye-catching.1

Over the past few years, serious scholars have debated whether there might be some truth to this piece of bumper sticker futurology. European nations are presently undergoing historic transformations that mark a real crisis for the continent's traditional religious alignments. Many indices suggest a sharp decline of religious practice among old-stock white Europeans, whose ancestors would conventionally have described themselves as Christian. Timothy Garton Ash describes Europe as "now the most secular continent on earth." Further depleting Christian numbers, religious decline coincides with dramatically falling birth rates among old-stock Europeans. The decline of a religion, or even its death, will not necessarily alarm those who do not belong to the faith in question, nor need it have damaging policy consequences. Liberal or leftist Europeans see no tragedy in the emergence of a fully secular, progressive society.2 Yet the process of dechristianization, if that is what it really is, coincides not with the growth of scientific humanism, but rather the dramatic expansion of other religions of a traditionalist or fundamentalist bent, especially Islam.

As European Christianity recedes, so Islam offers a plausible rival for the loyalty of future generations; and at least in recent years, the most conspicuous form of that religion appears militant, intolerant, and deeply reactionary. As Bruce Bawer remarks, "when Christian faith had departed, it had taken with it a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose— and left the continent vulnerable to conquest by people with deeper faith and stronger convictions." It is almost too easy to find convenient images of the decay of Christianity, and the growth of Islam. Any traveler in modern European cities has noticed the new mosques, the abandoned and secularized churches, some transformed into museums. In the words of former film star Brigitte Bardot, who these days is a controversial anti-immigration activist, "From year to year, we see mosques sprout up pretty much everywhere in France, while church bells are becoming silent because of a lack of priests."3

This would not be the first time that a region regarded as a heartland of Christianity had lost that role, had abandoned the faith. In the early middle ages, Christian thought and practice reached their finest flowering in Near Eastern nations such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which would later become overwhelmingly Muslim. But could such a fate really overcome Europe, which for many people symbolizes the roots of the faith, the setting of the great cathedrals and abbeys, the scene of so many critical Christian movements and debates—the center, in short, of what was once Christendom? The symmetry is convincing. In the Middle Ages, the fading Christianity of the Near East had been supplanted by the brash faith of rising Europe; now, as European Christianity itself waned, so it would in its turn witness the religion's center of gravity shift to the global South.4

Such a change would have implications far beyond the sentimental. Traditionally, what we call "the West" found what unity and common purpose it had in the assumptions of culture and religion shared by both Europe and North America, and the eclipse of Christianity in one region would drive an enormous wedge between the two halves of the Atlantic alliance. If transatlantic cultural and political divisions seem vast now, what would they be when some leading European powers possess Muslim minorities of 20 percent of the population, and of the electorate?

Undoubtedly, European nations are changing culturally and socially, acutely so in such critical countries as France and Germany. Across the religious spectrum, we see forces pushing toward progress and reaction, assimilation and separatism, secularism and fundamentalism, tolerance and violence. Yet before writing the obituary of European Christianity, before consigning the continent to the fringes of the Muslim world, a reality check is in order. While nobody can pretend that

Christian religious practice is thriving in most of Europe, the situation is nothing as grim as some recent accounts suggest, nor do the population statistics justify the portrait of a wholesale barbarian invasion from Muslim lands. Certainly, European nations face difficult decisions about integration and assimilation, and the fundamental issues of cultural identity upon which such policies must be founded, and failure could provoke disorder or civil conflict. Yet other societies have negotiated these debates quite successfully in the past, not least the United States.

Visions of imminent European collapse contain a fundamental contradiction. European cultural and social arrangements have, it seems, gutted the continent's Christian heritage; yet prophets of Muslim dominance in Europe assume that Islam will somehow be immune to these same overwhelming pressures. In fact, both Christianity and Islam face real difficulties in surviving within Europe's secular cultural ambience in anything like their familiar historic forms. But instead of fading away, both have adapted to Eurosecularity (to use Peter Berger's term), and they are continuing to adapt. The fate of Islam in contemporary Europe must be understood in the wider religious context, so that both Islam and Christianity are considered together in terms of maintaining their hold on believers, and in their relationship with the secular order.

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