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God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis

Philip Jenkins
Published by Oxford University Press in 2009

Jenkins’ book attempts to place both Christianity and Islam in the context of secular Europe. Though Jenkins works with the definition of “secular” noted in the previous review by Todd Ream, Jenkins does not believe that by itself it offers a sufficient explanation for the problems Christianity is experiencing in Europe. He contrasts similar conditions in the United States to that of the European situation and notes that the results are not the same (43-51). But it is an open question as to whether some of the comparisons Jenkins’ book makes between Europe and America are valid—for example, his comparisons to the American racial situation. American blacks and whites are predominantly Christian and many from both races have been in the United States for similar lengths of time. This is different from the European situation with many of its recent immigrants being Muslim.

It is also an open question as to whether the secularizing forces in Europe will affect Islam in the same way as they have Christianity. One of the main differences noted by Jenkins is that Christianity was tied to the government, and these governmental ties contributed to its decline. Islam as a religion is not tied to any European state government as Christianity was and is.

Muslims who see no differentiation between church and state live in a very secular state in Europe which pushes religion to the side of life. Perhaps this is part of the reason why Muslims are often anxious to have their own shaira laws rule in predominantly Muslim areas of European cities and at times reject the laws of the land in which they live (251-252).

Often this reviewer has wondered why some Muslims have had such animosity towards the West. Having lived in Central Asia, traveled in Europe, and having read Jenkins’ book, one has a better understanding of the concerns Muslims have about secularization and the decline in morals and values that they see around them. Europe is aggressively anti-religious. It is antagonistic to traditional religious values accepted by many Christians andJews as well as most Muslims—monogamous marriage, strong families, sexual purity, the importance of religion and its place in the public realm. It would appear that Europe’s acceptance of homosexuality, homosexual marriage, living together without marriage, and abortion has contributed strongly to Islam’s view that the West is corrupt morally (38-41, 271-282). Though there are some nuances, Europe’s aggressively secularist position and acceptance of the above practices have contributed to the rise of more radical views among some Muslims, and a lessening of loyalty to the European nations in which they live. Jenkins notes that the secular intolerance of religion in Europe today is every bit as strong as the religious intolerance of the past (41).

Picking up on one thought in the other part of this review—the dissatisfaction found among some European Muslims—one finds causation in multiple factors including economics, displacement from one’s native country, Europe’s secularity, fundamentalism in religion, and communication which have given rise to a pan-global view of Islam, and politics.

Many political activists have seen their causes (communism, socialism, and leftist liberalism) die on the vine. Now some have embraced the Muslim faith as the only attractive countercultural organization, gravitating towards its more radical expression as a means of rebellion against governments, against the establishment, and against the West. Thus for these European converts, Islam is not seen as a religion but as a political cause or an ideological belief. As one individual put it, “Look to capitalism, it has only existed for 75 years and it’s crumbling already. Communism is finished. The only other ideological belief around now, not a religion, Islam is not a religion. Let’s make it clear. It’s a political ideological belief” (227).

The above statement illustrates the complexity of the interplay of religion, race, economics, and class in Europe today. These factors necessitate more carefully nuanced studies of the European religious scene and caution about projections for the future. One of the plusses for Christianity in Europe is that due to the secularization of Europe Christianity may find its way in the world not as a state religion but as a religion supported by its adherents who are Christian by choice, not by birth nor merely by being born in a certain country. Modern European Christianity may become an association of faith rather than something one is joined to simply by being born in a particular country.

Jenkins also sees much more fervor in European Christianity than is often thought—even though it is a faith in decline. Jenkins emphasizes the strength and vitality injected into European Christianity by the recent Christian immigrants from the Global South—most of whom are Pentecostal and very active in their faith. However, Jenkins does not seem to think that they will succumb to the forces of secularization as their predecessors in Europe did. This raises the question as to whether the secularization that adversely affected their ancestors will bring about the same result in them.

The tensions noted in Jenkins’ book illustrate the need and necessity of building bridges of understanding between the three major religious faiths, not only in Europe but throughout the world. Peter Kreeft’s book Ecumenical Jihad: Ecumenism and the Culture War (IgnatiusPress, 1996) encouraged Muslims, Christians and Jews to join hands in opposing the secularizing forces of the world around them. Bridges of understanding are needed to offset the bunker mentality that often divides Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Many European countries tolerated Muslim extremists in their countries as long as they did not perpetrate any crimes against that country. Globalization has also led to Europe’s toleration of many Muslim practices that would be banned in other countries. However such toleration has begun to change with the recent bombings in Britain and Spain. The unwritten contract of European tolerance for Muslim extremism seems to be unraveling.

Jenkins believes that secularist opposition to Christianity and the encounter with Islam may cause a religious revival among European Christianity. This waits to be seen. Jenkins also encourages a level religious playing field for all religions. The Muslim faith, especially after the “Cartoon Jihad,” is protected by many European laws, but Christianity does not receive the same protection. Blasphemy against Christ and Christianity appear acceptable in Europe, and even some anti-Semitism, but no hint of denigration of Islam is allowed. All religions need to be granted the same protection. There also needs to be open dialogue with which to deal with problems and difficulties that arise between Christians, Muslims and Jews. Jenkins notes also that the great majority of Muslims in Europe are more moderate than the more visible and outspoken small number of more radical Muslims.

Many Europeans have difficulty understanding the fervency of the religious beliefs of Muslims as well as of Christians in America. They wonder why Muslims cannot live secular religion-less lives like most Europeans do. Or if they are to be religious, they see that religion to be like the “pallid…forms of liberal Christianity,” having little or no orthodoxy or morality which conflicts with secular Europe’s views (259-260). As Jenkins notes, perhaps “the issue is not so much a Muslim problem as a religion problem,” modern secular Europe’s failure “to understand religious thought and motivation” (259). Thus more often than not, Europeans deal with Muslims on the basis of race rather than on the basis of their faith. These are things that need to be addressed for Europe to deal with its growing Muslim presence effectively.

Jenkins’ book casts an optimistic view of Europe and its religious future. Whether the carefully researched views of Jenkins or those who see Europe’s future very differently are correct will await the determination of the sifting sands of time.