Sociologist: Christianity in Europe Far From Dead

Points to Possibilities of a Brighter Future

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MILAN, Italy, OCT. 21, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Christianity is not dying in Europe, says a specialist in the sociology of religion. In fact, its future might be brighter than before.



This is the claim made by Philip Jenkins, an American Episcopalian, when he spoke with the Italian newspaper Avvenire about the idea that Christianity is disappearing in Europe due to the influence of Islam.

"Christianity in Europe will be very different to that of a century ago," he affirmed, "but it could be even more alive."
 
Jenkins is a professor at Penn State University in Pennsylvania and Baylor University in Texas, and author of a trilogy on the future of Christianity.

The first two volumes -- "The Next Christendom" and "The New Faces of Christianity" -- concentrated mainly on the rise of religion in the global South of the world.

The third volume, "God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis," takes a look at Europe, affected by a significant decline in practicing Christians, combined with a growing presence of Muslim immigrants.

In the interview with Avvenire, granted on the occasion of the publication in Italy of the third volume, the sociologist said "there is little possibility that Europe will become Muslim."

"When a person imagines such a future, he is thinking of Muslims' present rapid demographic growth, and this is projected into the future," Jenkins explained. However, "the moment that immigrants assimilate European customs, their birth rate clearly declines. Moreover, because of the influence of relatives who have emigrated to Europe, the birth rate of Muslims residing in countries such as Algeria and Morocco is also diminishing rapidly."
 
In Jenkins' opinion, "Islam has no choice but to become European, and the principal force that will bring this change is young Muslims, in particular women."
 
"When I observe this movement, what comes to mind is the assimilation of immigrants in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century, especially Italians, so different from the old Americans in regard to religion, language and customs," Jenkins said. "At once they fused in a truly convincing way, and became hyper-patriotic Americans, but this change required at least two generations. We cannot hope that the process of assimilation will be faster for Muslims in modern Europe."
 
Outdated?
 
Jenkins pointed out that the idea of the Islamization of Europe and the disappearance of Christianity actually stems from certain European intellectual elites who favor Islam and reject Christianity as a "rancid symbol of an old Europe."
 
"For many years," he said, "intellectuals have regarded Islam as a genuine religion of the Third World, whereas Christianity was considered as [the religion] of Europe and North America."
 
In reality, the sociologist continued: "Christianity is notably rooted today in Africa, Asia and Latin America, especially among the poor, but many Europeans do not acknowledge this.
 
"The moment they see the extremism of some Muslims, European intellectuals understand that they have based themselves on deceptive stereotypes. In countries such as England, Denmark and Holland, people are looking again at the Christian roots of the ideas that built their societies, the idea of liberty and of individualism.
 
"Needless to say, to return to these roots does not mean to hate or fear Islam, but it obliges Europeans to think again from where they come, and what their foundations are in the intellectual and ethical field."
 
Shifting
 
In Jenkins' opinion, what has been lost in most of Europe "is not Christianity, but the feeling that the latter is -- in an obvious way -- the religion of all, a sort of automatic religion."
 
He expressed his belief that the "end of a kind of great monopoly," is under way, a monopoly "that had grown comfortable because it had no competitors, and which forgot its principal objectives."
 
"But there is a long way to go before proclaiming the death of Christian Europe, including in the western part," the sociologist asserted. Now the Churches "must work more energetically in a free market of ideas, and this is why the new ecclesial organizations are so important. They have to look at Europe as a mission continent, an object of evangelization."

Jenkins observed that "one of Christianity's greatest challenges today is to present a Christian point of view on social and political topics, such as bio-technologies" and especially "the defense of the concept of humanity."
 
"The Churches have many allies while they reform and restructure themselves, for example, the millions of immigrant Christian faithful scattered over Europe," he concluded. "Christianity in Europe will be very different to that of a century ago, but it could be even more alive."