October 17, 2003


THE CHANGING CHURCH: Faith Fades Where It Once Burned Strong (FRANK BRUNI, October 13, 2003, NY Times)

This week Pope John Paul II is to celebrate his 25th anniversary as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, which is both Europe's and Christianity's largest denomination.

It has been a quarter century of enormous changes, and few have been more significant, for his church and mainstream Protestant denominations, than the withering of the Christian faith in Europe and the shift in its center of gravity to the Southern Hemisphere.

Christianity has boomed in the developing world, competing successfully with Islam, deepening its influence and possibly finding its future there. But Europe already seems more and more like a series of tourist-trod monuments to Christianity's past. Hardly a month goes by when the pope does not publicly bemoan that fact, beseeching Europeans to rediscover the faith.

Their estrangement has deep implications, including the prospect of schisms in intercontinental churches and political frictions within and between countries.

The secularization of Europe, according to some political analysts, is one of the forces pushing it apart from the United States, where religion plays a potent role in politics and society, shaping many Americans' views of the world.

Americans are widely regarded as more comfortable with notions of good and evil, right and wrong, than Europeans, who often see such views as reckless.

In France, which is predominantly Catholic but emphatically secular, about one in 20 people attends a religious service every week, compared with about one in three in the United States.

"What's interesting isn't that there are fewer people in church," said the Rev. Jean François Bordarier of Lille, in northern France, "but that there are any at all."

THE CHANGING CHURCH: Where Faith Grows, Fired by Pentecostalism (SOMINI SENGUPTA and LARRY ROHTER, October 14, 2003, NY Times)
The expanded Christian following in the developing world has translated into increasing power, both within developing countries and within mainstream denominations.

As church attendance has withered in Europe, senior Vatican officials and Roman Catholic leaders recognize and look to the developing world as fertile ground for conversions and growth, a place where the faith takes firmer root than it does in Europe or North America these days. Indeed, the successor to Pope John Paul could be a Latin American or African cardinal.

The growing assertion of the Christian south is provoking fierce doctrinal arguments, too, often over their preference for literal readings of the Bible and a conservative view on social issues. The Anglican Communion meets in October in London in an attempt to heal an unprecedented rift over homosexuality, a charge led by the head of the Church of Nigeria, which, with 18 million congregants, is the largest member of the Anglican Communion.

Tensions extend to the political sphere. The proliferation of Islamic law in northern Nigeria, which has set off rioting that has killed hundreds, is widely seen as the Muslim elite's response to Nigeria's new, hard-line Christianity.

Throughout Africa, the rivalry between Christianity and Islam, from Sudan to Ivory Coast, is growing.

More Believe In God Than Heaven (Dana Blanton, October 14, 2003, Fox News)
Fully 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, 85 percent in heaven and 82 percent in miracles, according to the latest FOX News poll. Though belief in God has remained at about the same level, belief in the devil has increased slightly over the last few years — from 63 percent in 1997 to 71 percent today. [...]

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they believe in God (by eight percentage points), in heaven (by 10 points), in hell (by 15 points), and considerably more likely to believe in the devil (by 17 points). Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they believe in reincarnation (by 14 percentage points), in astrology (by 14 points), in ghosts (by eight points) and UFOs (by five points).

Overall, most Americans think religion plays too small a role in people’s lives today (69 percent), with only 15 percent saying it plays too large a role and seven percent saying “about right.”

All of which suggests that, for at least the last couple years, folks, especially intellectual elites, have been asking the wrong question: the issue is not whether American and European interests are diverging--they obviously are, as a result of Europe leaving Christendom and its resulting geopolitical/economic decline and drift towards a sclerotic statism--but whether we should waste our energy on these dying former allies or should instead abandon a continent that has abandoned the core beliefs we used to share and should turn our attention to the vast swathes of the developing world that are moving in our direction.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2003 12:23 AM

I have no argument with the proposition that Europe has lost its faith, or that that augurs ill for our ancestral civilization; but I certainly would dispute Orrin's prescription that we should "abandon a continent that has abandoned the core beliefs."

Europe has seen dark days before. St. Augustine's Europe, for example: do we imagine that it looked any better as the Roman Empire fell and the barbarians conquered. Eventually, of course, the barbarians were converted, but Europe was never abandoned.

Posted by: Paul Cella at October 17, 2003 8:55 AM

Hmmm. If you are a secularist, like me, and thus indifferent to the role of religion in secular society except as it impedes right conduct, then the decline of Christianity in Europe, by itself, does not raise many fears.

After all, the Christian religion in England was at its lowest ebb when England was becoming the richest, most powerful nation on Earth.

Maybe religion has little to do with it.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 17, 2003 3:40 PM

Yes, Victorian England was a real triumph of the secular worldview.

Posted by: oj at October 17, 2003 3:46 PM

A fascinating question, deserving of dozens of posts and many comments.

The worry is whether any nation in the third world can rise above naked self-interest and join in the defence of common values. There is a bit if a "lurching for allies" feel to the last few months, which is fine for immediate strategic or military needs, but dicey for even the medium term. However, it is a very good thing for Europe and other allies (???) to know this kind of thinking is going on.

Posted by: Peter B at October 17, 2003 7:09 PM


Religion in England was at "a lower ebb" in the 1970's and now than in Victorian times. You are shaping reality to fit your pre-concieved notions. One should never be afraid of the truth. Not very scientific or rational.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 18, 2003 8:58 AM


It also seesm clear that the effects of a loss of faith are long in developing in full force. That is, a society can live on the habits of a discarded faith for several generations before real decadence sets in.

Posted by: Paul Cella at October 18, 2003 9:46 AM

The USA should absolutely make Africa the focus of the 21st century, for reasons entirely aside from religion, although the growth of a common religion there is welcome and helpful.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 18, 2003 5:05 PM