While certain religions are growing in some parts of the world, they are in decline in other parts. But the decline of one religion is often met by the rise of another.
Consider the Christian faith. As Philip Jenkins wrote in his important 2003 book, The Next Christendom, the centre of gravity of Christianity is moving away from the West and the north, and heading south. While in decline in Europe, it is flourishing in places like Africa and Latin America.
Of course religious vacuums have to be filled. Thus the decline of Christianity in the north is often being filled by the rise of Islam. Tom Bethell, writing in the October 2006 issue of The American Spectator makes this very case. In his article, “Christian Fall, Muslim Rise,” he traces the rise and fall of these two major religions and the implications thereof.
He begins by noting how Christianity is on the wane in the Middle East. Lebanon, for example, was once “over 70 percent Christian; today it is less than half that”. Algeria is another case in point. “In 1958, there were more than 700 churches in the country where St. Augustine was born and died. Now there are about 20, and they are mostly empty.”
But Europe and the UK are also classic cases of Christian decline. Consider Britain: “A recent study showed that the Catholic Church in Britain is facing its greatest threat since the Reformation. Its membership is in ‘terminal decline,’ much of it recent. What Henry VIII persecuted the modern world simply ignores. The faith is withering away. Meanwhile, the Church of England has devolved into a museum. Those old cathedrals are still maintained-even admired as works of art. Increasingly, however, they are venues for music festivals. As for the Church of England’s Episcopalian equivalent in the U.S., it suggests nothing so much as a wounded animal beset by carnivores.”
How does one explain such decline? While secularism and Islam from without are threats to Christianity, much of its collapse is due to internal factors: “Enfeebled bishops, selected precisely for their feebleness, preside over dwindling flocks. Bishops have lost all authority and few listen to their public comments, which almost always deal with material (not spiritual) concerns. Rome slumbers on, imagining that English Catholics must above all repair the breach with Canterbury, and that the way to do so is to stand for as little as possible. Diplomacy triumphs over conviction. There is no sign that the old pope, John Paul II, paid attention to the problem. Benedict XVI understands that Catholicism is in trouble in Europe, but has not yet shown that he has the courage to do anything about it.”
He continues, “Christianity has been under constant attack since the time of the Enlightenment and the attacks have come from within. In recent decades, mullahs and imams have hardly needed to say a word against Christianity. All the work was being done for them by critics, reformers, apostates, defectors. In some ways Muslims are actually more respectful of Christianity than the Church’s internal foes. And Islam’s spiritual leaders have not lost the faith, defective though it is in key areas.”
Accommodating to the spirit of the age has not helped either. “A likely ingredient in the Christian decline is increased material prosperity, which turns minds and hearts toward the things of this world. One could say that wealth makes materialists of us all. (But why hasn’t there been an equivalent decline in the United States?) The Muslims of the Arab world, in contrast, have been unable to achieve anything beyond rudimentary levels of development. A material advance in the Middle East comparable to that of Western Europe possibly would undermine Islam. But why has it not already happened? The Muslims seem unable to achieve one of the most basic features of Western civilization-the rule of law. And they have remained largely frozen in a pre-medieval past. The strong rule by fear, force, and power replace law and consent, and property is insecure.”
To which the secularist might respond, so what? Why not replace dying Christianity with secular humanism? This may not work however, argues Bethell: “Just at the most basic level of demography, however, the secular-humanist option is not working. Sustaining a population requires each woman on average to bear 2.1 children. In the European Union, Daniel Pipes wrote, ‘the overall rate is one-third short, at 1.5 and falling.’ Should current population trends continue and immigration cease, the EU population of 375 million could fall to 275 million by 2075. Furthermore, birth rates are not lower than they already are (in France and Britain, for example, they are noticeably above the EU average) because Muslim immigrants to those countries are having more children than fallen-away Christians.”
And those who rejoice at the erosion of Christianity may not realise just how much such a loss would entail. Concludes Bethell: “As for those who imagine that the Christian legacy is one of imperialism, racism, and inquisition, and we are better off without it – legions on the left do believe that – they will have to start thinking about what will replace it. Some are already doing so. Whittaker Chambers is worth reading on these issues, even though Islam was still dormant when he wrote Witness. The attempt to reconstruct faith without God produced Communism, he wrote. And the attempt to live without any faith at all is, I believe, impossible. If faith collapses, civilization goes with it.”