Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University as well as the author of numerous books. His most recent title, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis, offers a measured assessment of Europe’s religious future. Below Jenkins was kind enough to answer some questions for OUP.
OUP: This is the final book in your series on the future of Christianity, how does it differ from the other titles?
Philip Jenkins: The Next Christendom and New Faces of Christianity both explored the rise of Christianity in areas where it is relatively new and growing, chiefly in Africa and Asia. God’s Continent discusses the historic heart of Christianity, where the Christian faith is said by many to be in deep trouble, and perhaps on the verge of extinction. Even writers I respect greatly such as George Weigel share this view. And it is alarming if true, since it may suggest that Christianity is inevitably bound up with poverty, and will fade away when living standards rise. I reject this view. I believe that European Christianity is instead adapting to a new society in which traditional assumptions about (for instance) family, community and gender roles, are in rapid transition. The change to new attitudes and assumptions is painful, but it is happening. And these changes will, I believe, affect Islam in Europe, and beyond.
OUP: Where is Eurabia and what do you think it will look like?
Jenkins: Eurabia is a dystopian nightmare land where white Europeans have very few children while their Muslim neighbors have many, so that Muslim immigrants swamp traditional Europe, making it what Bernard Lewis calls “part of the Western Maghreb”. I have real problems with the idea because I think it’s based on shaky demography, but also because it recalls for me so many nativist campaigns in bygone years – against Catholics in nineteenth century America, Jews in early twentieth century Britain, and so on. It is quite possible that in sixty or eighty years, some fifteen or twenty percent of Europeans might have family roots in Muslim countries, but that is quite different from assuming that they will all be stereotypical “Muslim fanatics”, or even Muslim at all. My guess is that Muslims in Germany will be very German, Muslims in Britain very British, and so on. By all means, let Europe and the United States suppress extremists and violent radicals, but that’s quite different from panicking over people who happen to be from the Middle East or South Asia.
OUP: The public tends to have an anti-Islam backlash after an event like 9/11 or the French riots. How does your book debunk alarmist assumptions about Islam?
Jenkins: There is plenty to worry about in contemporary Europe, and I write at some length about some of the extremist parties and movements that threaten lethal violence. Yet I make several points that people have really fail to note.
First, the numbers of Muslims are far smaller than most Americans think, so that a maximum of around 4.5 percent of Europeans are presently of Muslim stock – and I use that phrase advisedly. When we talk about “Muslims”, often we are including many non-religious people who happen to have roots in Muslim societies, but who are not followers of Islam in any religious sense. If we look at an American city or state which is four or five percent minority, we probably call that community “white”, so why do we have a more hostile response to a comparable number of Arabs or Muslims in Europe?
Critically too, I’m not sure that many of the incidents that people cite when they warn about “Eurabia” arise from the issue of Islam as a religion, as opposed to conflicts of race and class, and the best example of that would be the French riots of 2005. I see very little evidence of any religious motivation there. This does not mean that such outbreaks are not serious, but governments have to respond to them differently than they would if they represented a true religious movement.
Also, we should not complain about Muslim failure to assimilate into European societies when these populations have been there such a short time. Think how poorly assimilated America’s minorities were in the 1920s, which is a fair comparison – about thirty years after the beginning of the main influx.
Finally, forecasts about Muslims taking over Europe assume that Muslim birth rates will continue to be very high. All immigrant populations have high fertility in the first generation, but usually that usually falls within a generation or so, and that is exactly what we are seeing in Europe. Moreover, the home countries for most of Europe’s migrants have experienced a dramatic fall in fertility just in the past decade, and that will certainly have its impact in Europe itself.
OUP: Why has Christianity developed differently in Europe than in South America or Africa? Are there underlying cultural differences at play?
Jenkins: Africa and Latin America are by and large much poorer than Europe, and poorer societies tend to rely more on some particular forms of religion to help them through life -that doesn’t mean they are more religious, but the religion they espouse is more overt and enthusiastic. But the real question is why Christianity has developed so differently in the United States, which is so comparable to Europe, and that is a real problem for the whole secularization thesis. The US is just as developed as Europe and far richer by most standards, but is obviously much more actively religious by any standard you care to name. Why? I examine, and reject, most of the familiar explanations, but one point I do make concerns the sheer size of the US, which is a subcontinent as well as a nation.
The difference in geographical size has many implications, but just consider the consequences for internal migration. A German or a British person who relocates to the far distant end of his or her own country has usually traveled at most a few hundred miles, while a move of comparable distance within the United States might well leave a family within the same state. Even before the advent of modern air travel, a migrating European was likely to maintain touch with his or her roots, unlike an American counterpart who moved, say, from the East Coast to the West Coast. In the US, then, frequent movement and internal migration are likely to leave individuals cut off from their homes and familiar social networks, driving them to seek new networks and forms of instant community. Often, the best and easiest place to find such interaction is within a hospitable church in a well-known denomination, a singularly attractive setting for young families with children. A society marked by constant movement, by frequent uprooting and replanting, by ever-growing cultural diversity is more accustomed to seek the institutional support of religious bodies, and also to accept the spiritual ideas presented in that environment. Attendance at these institutions thrives, and thus churches and synagogues flourish in the US in a way they don’t in Europe. That’s only a part of an explanation, I know, but it’s suggestive.
OUP: How do the legal systems of Europe discourage religious orthodoxy?
Jenkins: European courts tend to enforce certain concepts of rights that make highly liberal assumption about gender roles and especially homosexuality. This raises enormous problems for conservative religious organizations that might believe that homosexuality is sinful. Also, laws prohibiting “hate speech” can in practice be used to limit evangelism or proselytizing. Europe in the near future will face many conflicts between religious bodies and the courts, and many of the familiar themes in American religious freedom law will need to be fought out from square one.
OUP: Claire Berlinski was very critical of you in her review, why?
Jenkins: Claire Berlinski is the author of a highly controversial book on the subject of religion in Europe, a prolonged shriek against Muslims and Arabs (and Europeans!) by the name of Menace in Europe. Since I refer to her book repeatedly in God’s Continent, each time pointing out its flaws, she was probably not the fairest reviewer for a newspaper to choose to give an objective response to my work.
But even having said that, I thought her review gave a grossly inaccurate impression of my argument. To give an example, I argue at some length that institutional Christianity is seriously declining in Europe, but that there is a powerful underlying quest for Christian spirituality, and I devote two chapters to new and rising movements within the churches – renewal movements, immigrant churches and so on. Yet Berlinski quotes me as saying that the only piece of good news for Christians is that “The number of visitors each year to Lourdes is rising.” That’s a wildly inaccurate description of my argument, and it’s a characteristic sample of her review.
OUP: What is your favorite book?
Jenkins: Probably my absolute favorite author is Charles Williams, the associate of C S Lewis and Tolkien, and I read everything I can get of his – novels, plays, poetry, theology. But I read all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff. In terms of fiction, I have an odd assortment of favorite writers, including Dickens, but also Jim Thompson the great noir writer, fantasy writers like Arthur Machen, and even – guilty secret – the horror author H. P. Lovecraft. I also go back to G. K. Chesterton time and again, especially to The Man Who Was Thursday and to lesser known pieces like The Ball and the Cross.
To read more OUPblog posts by Philip Jenkins click here.