Religion matters more than ever in global affairs. But don't count on the experts -- or the State Department -- to know that.
Speaking last December before journalists assembled by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Peter Berger had some explaining to do. Berger, an emeritus professor at Boston University, is a rightly esteemed sociologist of religion. "We live in an age of overwhelming religious globalization," he began. But, as late as a quarter-century ago, neither he nor most other academics saw it coming. Most analysts, he explained, had the same stale orthodoxy about religion's inevitable demise. "The idea was very simple: the more modernity, the less religion...I think it was wrong."
Except in Europe, where it has proven half-right, the idea was all wrong. This year marks the European Union's 50th anniversary. Next year is the 40th since Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae. Europeans mocked the pope's warnings about family planning cultures that promote abortion and produce few children. As a result, a fitting inscription for the European Union's gold watches would be "World's largest unfunded pension liability land mass."
Europe still has more Christians (over 500 million) than any other continent. In Rome and several other European cities, Catholicism, but not its practice, still permeates local culture, while its architectural pageantry promotes foreign tourism. But post-1968 survey data on European beliefs, church attendance rates, and more show that postindustrial modernity has indeed loosened if not broken Christianity's grip on the continent's diverse peoples. Still, this decades-in-the-making European vacation from Christianity is not a permanent vacation from religion itself. From Scotland to France, Christianity's slide has been accompanied by growth in other faith traditions including Islam. And it is not entirely clear that Europe's Catholics have fallen so far from the cradle that their children or grandchildren (if they start having some) will never return.
Most countries once ruled, in whole or in part, by Europeans have modernized to varying degrees, but without religion losing its hold. Christianity, in particular, is growing in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. One cannot begin to understand post-colonial Africa, for example, without knowing how profoundly religion matters--and which religions matter where and to whom. Nigeria is one small case in point. There are now about 20 million Anglicans in Nigeria, on the way to 30 to 35 million over the next generation. In 1900, Nigeria was one-third Muslim and had almost no Christians. By 1970, the country was about 45 percent Muslim and 45 percent Christian.
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