The much-heralded death of European Christianity

The much-heralded death of European Christianity March 26, 2018

The Daily Mail announces breathlessly that “Christianity in Europe is dying out.” This is just the latest in a long series of such stories that flit about the Internet, often heralded with equal glee by atheists (for obvious reasons) and by conservative American Christians who are happy to use their European brothers and sisters as a foil for their own allegedly more vibrant expression of the faith.

Peter Ormerod responds in the Guardian that this alleged “death” is actually a good thing for Christianity. It frees European Christians to embrace the “weirdness” of the Faith rather than trying to accommodate it to the pressures of society. I think he’s absolutely right. In my own experience traveling in Europe, I have been struck by how vibrant and generally hopeful the (admittedly small) congregations I’ve visited are. Also, there typically are a significant number of young people.

The use of the term “death” for steep numerical decline is highly misleading. Yes, Christianity as a “cultural norm” is dying–but hasn’t it been dead in that sense for a while now, in much of Europe? As long as there is even one new convert being drawn to Christianity, or even one person raised in the Faith retaining it or returning to it, the Faith is not dead.

To argue by numbers in matters of faith is one of the most vulgar and destructive mistakes we can make. Each human person is of infinite value. Life and death are not quantifiable.

Meanwhile, American Christianity, also in numerical decline compared to the recent past, seems to have wedded itself to structures of power with new fervor–at least conservative evangelicalism (and to some extent conservative Catholicism) has done so. I would much rather worship with a tiny congregation of European Christians free to proclaim the Faith in all its richness than in a megachurch whose Gospel was a corrupted blend of self-help superstition, American nationalism, and the worst cliches of prooftexting free-church Protestantism.

The further question that needs to be asked, though, is why the decline of European Christianity? The simple, and largely correct, answer given by Ormerod and others is that European Christianity has allied itself with power and that this has made it seem lacking in credibility. We often think of the medieval Church in this respect–the magnificent art and learning combined with the often brutal use of coercive power.

But while I do think that’s part of the story, I wonder if we blame the Middle Ages too much. There is a much more direct and more obviously corrupt connection with more recent European history. In the Middle Ages, the people in power who used coercion to enforce Christianity were generally acting, as far as I can tell, out of sincere conviction that Christianity was true. The common people, while often poorly observant, generally (so far as we can tell) also accepted the truth of the Christian Faith. And the elites engaged in a number of efforts to evangelize the poorly catechized, precisely because the genuine truth of the religion was commonly accepted.

But beginning with figures such as Machiavelli in the Renaissance, some members of the elite began to argue that religion was valuable because of its role in maintaining social order. This was of course a revival of a view held by many ancient pagans. It’s a fundamentally un-Christian, even anti-Christian position. By the 19th century, it was plausible for atheists to claim that many bishops (of the Church of England, say, but it was commonly believed that this was true of Catholicism as well) really “knew” that Christianity was false but maintained it for its social effects. One of the most common arguments against atheism was that it would lead to social chaos–an argument that tacitly conceded that the truth-based arguments for Christianity were at best inconclusive.

Now I suspect that unbelievers tended to exaggerate wildly how many members of the religious establishment really thought like this. If you think Christianity is patently false, you will have trouble imagining that its representatives are sincere. And of course we can’t rule out the possibility that people in the Middle Ages thought this way as well. Certainly some of the Islamic philosophers seem to have thought that the Qur’an and Shari’a were mostly there to guide people who weren’t capable of being guided by philosophy.

Nonetheless, it does look very much as if the modern era saw the rise of a more cynical attitude to religion, in which the maintenance of social order was no longer the natural outcome of believing the truth but a substitute for truth. And this is, in fact, what many people in Britain at least think “religion” is–simply an instrument of social control. Often Christians like myself get defensive about this and feel as if our unbelieving relatives and friends are being unfair. But we shouldn’t forget that, in fact, there were people who explicitly maintained that religion was valuable specifically for this reason–and there still are such folks.

This is the kind of religion decisively discredited by the World Wars. If your main reason for supporting a Christian order is that it keeps people in line and keeps them from killing each other, and you proceed to spend several decades killing each other on a massive scale, “religion” is going to seem useless.

And this brings us back to Ormerod’s point. The kind of Christianity that is dying in Europe needed to die. Religion for the sake of respectability, religion for the sake of social order, is not authentic Christianity. It is a particularly decadent and corrupted form of paganism with a Christian veneer.

In America, this kind of religion still has some legs. The widespread support of many evangelicals for Donald Trump–even the willingness to believe that in some vague way he’s really a devout Christian in spite of all the actual evidence pointing the other way–is rooted in a deeply fearful, power-hungry vision of the relationship of faith and society. Some conservative Christians seriously argue that without Trump and other Republican politicians, Christianity in America is doomed. And of course, what they really mean by that is that America will go the way of Europe.

Not only is this craven and faithless (as Greg Forster pointed out in this magnificent piece), but it flies in the face of the historical evidence from Europe. It is precisely this kind of thinking that has led to the current steep numerical decline in European Christianity.

In this, as in so many other things, if you aim for a lesser good you lose it, but if you aim for the true good you may (possibly–nothing is guaranteed) get the lesser good as well.

So why not drop all the triumphalist nonsense about how the “right” kind of Christianity flourishes numerically, and all the idolatrous rhetoric about saving Western Civilization. If we are going to be Christians at all, let’s be Christians because it is true and beautiful and gloriously weird. Let’s let the consequences take care of themselves. And if that means that we dwindle and die, so be it. The one thing we can be sure of is that if we cling to power we will face destruction anyway, having first corrupted and (so far as is possible) destroyed the faith delivered to us.

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