John Coughlan

In God’s Continent, the third volume of a trilogy, Philip Jenkins sets out to refute the claims of American conservatives and Muslim radicals alike that European Christianity is in terminal decline and about to be overtaken by a resurgent Islam. While admitting and regretting that there is much evidence to support these claims, he argues that they tell only part of the story. Christianity in Europe has undergone fundamental change in recent years, and there has been growth in the presence of Islam. Yet while traditional church attendance may have plummeted, new movements have emerged and old practices have been revived, breathing fresh life into the old faith.

Jenkins’s analysis of these changes--characterized by many as a crisis--is a balanced antidote to the hyperbole of such commentators as Michael Novak and George Weigel. Unlike many other parts of the Christian world, Europe’s religious landscape has been marked by the preponderant role of majority churches--Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, depending on the country--that are rarely in direct competition with one another. Many towns have just one church, its denomination being that of the surrounding area. Often the majority church is formally or informally considered to represent the faith of society as a whole. This contrasts with both the religious marketplace of the United States and with the competition for souls between religious denominations in the "Global South"--which, in The New Faces of Christianity, the second volume of this trilogy, Jenkins has forecast will shape the future of Christianity.

Much of Christian Europe’s so-called crisis can be traced to the dominant churches’ complacency in changing from churches of society as a whole to churches of individual believers. Their influence in society has become weaker as traditional forms of practice have dwindled. On a more positive note, Jenkins points to the success of new movements and the revival of pilgrimages as evidence of this shift toward more personalized religion. Yet while these provide succor for individuals seeking intense spiritual experiences, they do not reach out to the silent majority for whom Christianity used to provide a moral and social framework but whose engagement was limited to attending church every Sunday--and who now gain more satisfaction from a visit to the shopping mall.

While the number of practicing Christians in Europe has fallen, the projected rise in the proportion of Muslims is due not to their success in converting lost souls but to immigration and a higher birth rate. Indeed, Islam in Europe--as a religion--faces the very same pressures from secularism that have so marked the Christian churches. Jenkins, who teaches history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, argues that the true impact of this socioeconomic change will depend on how other groups--such as evangelical Christians, who are also immigrating into Europe from Africa and elsewhere and also have higher than usual birth rates--develop as a proportion of the population. The reasons for the apparent decline of Christianity and the rise of Islam are therefore quite different, and the relationship between these two aspects of "Europe’s religious crisis" coincidental rather than causal.

In the field of public policy, though, Jenkins suggests that these parallel developments might have a real impact: for example, European politicians would be less likely to make religious freedom in the Islamic world a foreign policy priority for fear of upsetting their domestic Muslim constituencies. While electoral politics should never be underestimated, this argument misrepresents the nature of European secularism. The European Union has in fact made respect for religious freedom a sticking point in its membership negotiations with predominantly Muslim Turkey. Moreover, the separation of religion and politics in Europe is defended with increasing determination precisely because, unlike the United States with its constitutional guarantee, spiritual and temporal power in "one-church states" too often became intertwined.

While Europe’s traditional churches may no longer command the faith of the majority, their strident interventions in public debate are often seen not as one voice among many but as an attempt to reassert their former influence. The devoutly Catholic French politician Franois Bayrou, for instance, felt obliged to remind Pope Benedict XVI of the distinction between God and Caesar when the pontiff renewed his call for a reference to Christianity in future E.U. treaties. With this principle of separation embedded in European political culture, Islam can expect no more special treatment than Christianity.

For a reader unfamiliar with the reality of religious practice in Europe, God’s Continent provides a useful overview with plenty of insights that are often obscured by the sensationalism of the mainstream media. For a more informed reader, however, it can be frustrating reading. Jenkins’s approach is first to present a ream of controversial opinions and often spurious arguments before finally letting the light shine in with the balanced diagnosis promised at the outset. Many of the sources for these arguments are the news media, and thus second-hand, which makes it difficult to distinguish between factual observations, selective quotations and outright biased opinions. On one occasion, the author quite deliberately cites inaccurate data in order to bolster his case--only to reveal 12 pages later that the quotation’s source is out-of-date. This polemical style inevitably undermines the resulting analysis.

As a rebuff to those polemicists who claim that Europe is about to become "Eurabia," though, God’s Continent hits its target.

John Coughlan is head of public relations at the Academy of European Law in Trier, Germany, and former staff member at the Commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conferences of the European Community.