Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Godless Europe, Part Deux

Or, to be more precise, Godless France.

In France, Islam and secularism spread as Christianity lapses

In France and in almost every other European country, Christianity appears to be in a free fall. Although up to 88 percent of the French identify themselves as Roman Catholic, only about 5 percent go to church on most Sundays; 60 percent say they "never" or "practically never" go.

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Little argument exists about the severity of the crisis facing the Catholic Church in France. In contrast with the vigorous (and masculine) face that French Muslims present to the world, a typical Sunday Mass almost anywhere in France will feature an elderly priest preaching to a dwindling congregation of mostly elderly women.

"Mass is boring," said Odon Vallet, a religion professor at the Sorbonne. "The ceremony isn't very beautiful; the music is bad; the sermon is uninteresting. Mass is for people who having nothing else to do on a Sunday - no sports, no hobbies, no shopping, no entertainment."

Islam, meanwhile, is France's fastest-growing religion. But this is mainly a result of immigration patterns, not conversions. Most of the 4.5 million Muslims who make up about 7 percent of the French population are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa.

Global Islam is eager for converts. But in Europe, the situation is nuanced. According to Olivier Roy, a leading French scholar on Islam, Muslims in Europe would be happy for Christians to convert, while Christians merely want Muslims to become more secular.

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Last year, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope and took the name Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, it was seen as a sign that he would refocus the church's energies on rebuilding the faith in Europe. The Vatican was heartened when a million young people turned out last August for World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, and heard the new pope urge them to rediscover Europe's Christian roots.

Some experts also are encouraged on Christianity's behalf if only because things can't get much worse.

"If you are the type of person who buys stocks and bonds, I'd buy Christianity," said the Sorbonne's Vallet. "The price now is very low, so I think it has to go up."

Other analysts believe Europe's future is neither Christianity nor Islam, but secularism. A pragmatic reading of the numbers suggests that not only will Christianity never regain its dominant cultural role, but also churchgoers will be forced to recast themselves as minority groups or subcultures.

"Who truly thinks that Benedict XVI is the future of Europe?" asked Roy. "Secularism is the future."