Is Europe Losing Its Faith? Third World Christians Are Increasingly Devout, but Many Western Churches Have Fallen Victim to Secularization. (Religion)

By O'Sullivan, John | Insight on the News, August 26, 2002 | Go to article overview

Is Europe Losing Its Faith? Third World Christians Are Increasingly Devout, but Many Western Churches Have Fallen Victim to Secularization. (Religion)


O'Sullivan, John, Insight on the News


When Pope John Paul II came to Toronto for the World Youth Day Congress, he was arriving on a continent that still is significantly religious and leaving a continent that seems to have abandoned religion for agnosticism and material affluence.

It has been almost 100 years since Hilaire Belloc pronounced of Catholicism: "Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe." It seems a great deal longer. In Belloc's day, Europe was the center of the Christian world from which in the previous 300 years missionaries had ventured forth to convert the heathen. Today the Christian world increasingly is the Third World, where new Christians tilt dramatically toward evangelical and traditional forms of belief.

Christian conversions from other religions, mainly Islam, are proceeding rapidly in Africa and Southeast Asia. In Latin America evangelical conversions within Christianity are transforming bad Catholics into good Protestants. As a result Christian missionary traffic has gone into reverse gear.

Catholic churches in Europe rely on priests from the Philippines and India, and African bishops attend Anglican convocations to reprove their Western counterparts for liberal theology and sexual libertinism. It was a sign of this new world that the traditionalist candidate for the Archbishopric of Canterbury, defeated recently by a saintly but liberal academic theologian, hailed from Pakistan.

Missionaries are certainly needed in Western Europe. Regular church attendance there has sunk to single digits--7 percent for most Christian denominations in Britain, even lower in France and Germany.

By comparison with this gloomy picture, North America still looks moderately devout. About 40 percent of Americans and 20 percent of Canadians say they go to church regularly--and probably at least half of them are telling the truth.

If Europe is a post-Christian society, then North America still is a moderately observant one. But both exist in a world where Asia, Africa and Latin America are passionately devout.

Things may not be what they seem, however. Europe simply may be further along the road of modernist "disenchantment" with religion than either the United States or Canada. From the 1930s to the 1950s, European church-going imperceptibly became a matter of social respectability rather than a desire to worship God. From the 1960s, when everyone suddenly realized that his neighbor would prefer to sleep in on Sunday as well, church attendance progressively collapsed. Over time society became increasingly secular in law, custom, social atmosphere--and eventually in religion, too. …

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