Archive for May 2019

Demography is Destiny”: a Demographic Perspective on Secularisation

May 26, 2019

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The famous maxim that “demography is destiny” may, or may not, be attributable to Auguste Comte, but it was certainly Comte who first wrote about how population trends and distributions could determine the future of a country.

In the social sciences, predictions about human behaviour are based on theories and models, which are often proved wrong over time. However, demography is the branch of social science where predictions are more reliable. This article explores the impact of demographic change on religious populations and how this could relate to the future of secularisation in Europe.

The Maxim of Secularisation: The Church in Europe is Dying
Another maxim, at least as far as the popular press is concerned, is that Christianity is dying in Europe, with Europe becoming more secular. A headline in this morning’s Spanish newspaper El País stated that “Spain is the third highest country in Europe for those abandoning Christianity.” They quoted a Pew Research Center report which compared a whole variety of religious metrics for Eastern and Western European countries, yet the author of the El País article concentrated on the difference between those who said they were raised Christian and those who confess Christian faith today.

Christian affiliationThese are sobering statistics, particularly for Western European countries (those in blue in the table). But secularisation is a complex phenomenon. The unique history and context of each country mean that neighbouring countries may be on different secularisation trajectories. A closer look at this table suggests that desecularisation is happening in many Central and Eastern European countries. And even in the same country, secularisation and desecularisation may be occurring simultaneously, depending on the measure you use.

A single arresting statistic to summarise a complex reality can be misleading. Many factors influence religious trends in Europe and this Pew report explores some of them, not least the link between Christian affiliation and national identity. Yet none are, in themselves, reliable predictors of future trends. The most reliable indicators of Europe’s religious future are demographic phenomena, specifically:

  • Europe’s ageing population;
  • Inward migration of religious populations from other parts of the world;
  • Differential birth-rates between populations.

The Greying of Europe
Low fertility rates, low mortality rates and increased life expectancy mean that Europe’s population is getting older. In all of the EU’s 28 member countries, the total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime) is below the level necessary to maintain that country’s population. And if current fertility rate trends continue in much of Central and Southern Europe, their population size will be cut by half in the space of two generations.

Fertiity rateThe 2018 Ageing Report from the European Commission suggests that the “old-age dependency ratio (the number of people aged 65 and above relative to those aged 15 to 64) in the EU is projected to increase by 21.6 percentage points, from 29.6% in 2016 to 51.2% in 2070.” This will have significant implications for Europe’s labour force and public spending, especially the provision of public pensions.

This almost imperceptible demographic change is closely linked to another, more visible one: immigration. The need for skilled and unskilled workers to maintain Europe’s economic growth serves as a significant “pull factor” for migrants, especially as the native working population is in decline. Despite the stubborn resistance to immigration in many Central and Eastern European countries and the hardening of migration policy across the EU, European states face a stark reality. Without immigration many European countries will see a sharp population decline in the coming years. (European Environmental Agency, 2016).

Differential birth rates
Lastly, we should note the higher differential birth rates of migrants. Over the last 50 years, many religious people from the rest of the world have migrated to Europe. According to the recent Pew Research Center report Europe’s Growing Muslim Population (2017), nearly half of this growth is due to higher fertility rates relative to non-Muslims. The Muslim population of Europe today is around 5%, though that is predicted to grow to over 10% by 2050. Less noticeably, though no less significantly, many Christians from the Global South have migrated to Europe. These are less easy to quantify, and I have been unable to locate research on the differential birth-rates of Christian migrants, but very significant numbers of African, Latin American and Asian Christians can now be found in towns and cities across Europe.

Demographics and Secularisation
Sociologists of religion have frequently focussed on religion as a social phenomenon where the conscious choices of individuals in a given, if dynamic, context cause the rises and falls in religious adherence. The main non-social mechanism for religious change is demography, specifically migration and differential birth-rates. Where migration is low and fertility no different to that of the rest of the population, the non-social mechanisms are less important. However, when migration and differential birth-rates are significantly higher this can have a dramatic demographic effect.

Eric Kaufmann’s book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? (2010) convincingly argued that the cumulative effect of migration from religious countries and higher fertility rates among those with religious faith will ultimately result in a reversal of the secularisation processes in Europe and the West. Rather than the rest of the world becoming more like Europe, Europe will become more like the rest of the world.

Recent Research on Religion and Fertility
Fertility and migrationInterest in the link between religion and fertility has increased remarkably in the last twenty years. An online Religion and Fertility Bibliography now runs to more than 700 books and articles. The societal consequences that sustained low fertility levels are having across a whole range of issues is explored at length in Poston (ed., 2018) Low Fertility Regimes and Demographic and Societal Change. The final chapter in Poston’s book deals with Religion and Fertility.

In it, Ellison et al investigate the effects of fertility changes on religiosity making use of four responses from the World Values Survey data in a very similar way to our own Nova Index of Secularisation in Europe (NISE) as described in the October 2010 issue of Vista. Their four measures were attendance at religious services, religious salience (the importance of religion in a respondent’s life), religious belief (specifically whether they believe in God or not) and private religiosity (measured by frequency of prayer). Multi-level regression analysis was then conducted on two independent variables, namely individual fertility (as recorded in their WVS response to the number of children they had), and country level fertility using Total Fertility Rate.

The results were clear: “both the individual level and country level fertility variables are significantly associated with all individual level religious variables in the anticipated directions” (p.223), that is to say, less religious people demonstrate lower fertility. Nothing surprising there. Where Ellison et al break new ground is in their reversal of the traditional causal relationship. Normally it is argued that as people become less religious, they have fewer children but these researchers suggest the inverse: declining fertility is what is leading to reductions in religious participation, salience and belief. In conclusion, they suggest “at least tentative evidence that the connections between religion and fertility may be bidirectional” (p.228).

Missiological Implications for Europe
These, and other, trends lead us to identify four key missiological implications for European mission:

The Greying of Mission. If half the European population will be over 65 by 2070 this will require a complete rethinking of mission priorities. Care for the elderly will become one of the principal activities of Christian mission.

The future of Islam in Europe. It is clear from recent migration and differential birth-rates that the number of Muslims in Europe will continue to rise. This poses a significant challenge for secular European societies but also for the church. Churches everywhere will need to help their congregations to engage in dialogue and outreach to their Muslim neighbours. They must also resist the rhetoric of populists and nationalists who would seek to legitimise racism through “defending our Christian identity.”

Migration and the future of the European Church. Slow, gentle and silent demographic effects can have a profound impact over the long-term. The arrival of millions of Christian migrants from the rest of the world has been largely ignored yet these “new Europeans” are renewing and changing the face of Europe’s churches. Their passion, vibrant spirituality and confidence in the agency and power of God are no less of a challenge to secular Europe than Islam. If European churches and migrant churches can learn to work and witness together this can have a powerful testimony in tomorrow’s Europe.

“Go Forth and Multiply”. Rodney Stark (1996) has shown how the favourable fertility and mortality rates of the early Christians relative to the pagan population helped to fuel a 40% growth rate over several centuries. Could this happen again? If Ellison et al are right, then an increase in the religious population in Europe will require an increase in fertility rates among European Christians. Perhaps one of the most radical things that young Christians can do today is to get married and have a (large) family.

Secularisation is not the “telos” of history. Predictions of the demise of Christianity in Europe don’t take into account the promise that Jesus made to Peter that “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

The destiny of the church depends on more than demographics but we must not ignore the insights that demography provides to the future of Christian mission in Europe.

Jim Memory

Ellison, et al in Poston (2018) Low Fertility Regimes and Demographic and Societal Change, Cham: Springer.
European Commission (2018) The 2018 Ageing Report,
European Environmental Agency (2016)
Kaufmann (2010) Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, London: Profile.
Pew Research Center (2017) Europe’s Growing Muslim Population,
Pew Research Center (2018) Eastern and Western Europeans Differ on Importance of Religion, Views of Minorities, and Key Social Issues,
Stark (1996) The Rise of Christianity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Two Swallows

May 16, 2019


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Two swallows don’t make a summer, says the proverb. Yet two recent Dutch books about reflection on roots could perhaps signal a significant climate change in Europe concerning interest in the Bible and Christianity.

One is written by Inez van Oord, the publisher of Happinez, a very successful New Age glossy magazine offering happiness through a range of eastern spiritualities. In her book Rebible (2017), she surprised her readers by saying that ‘in recent years we have embraced Buddha like a teddy bear, read spiritual gurus and visited ashrams and monasteries in India, and eventually you ask yourself: what are my roots, where do I come from? That is actually Christianity. We have been born on Christian ground. I have let the years go by, but I found the time ripe to explore Christian spirituality. The nice thing is: we can do that again. It’s okay to talk about Moses. You want to know who you are. Who knows? Perhaps it’s more familiar to return to Christianity. That has rooted my youth, that’s where I came from. So the question is: what can I do with it?’

Our true identity needs to be found in our roots, says van Oord. Which doesn’t mean returning to the stultifying legalism of yesterday’s church, she argues, but rather drawing fresh inspiration from the ancient wells of scripture. Inez (hence the title ‘Happinez’) took a journey of personal discovery through the Sinai wilderness with her theologian brother in pursuit of such inspiration. Rebible was the result.

Van Oord’s ability to ‘feel trends’ earlier than most enabled her to start several publications widely resonating with readers. If she is right in her intuition, we may well be entering a season where the spiritual emptiness of our secular age will prompt more to reflect on their spiritual roots.

That this new sound comes from a leading spokesperson for the New Age movement is surprising enough. But a second and more broad-ranging book published recently comes from a former editor of a national left-wing newspaper who now believes Dutch society threw the baby out with the bathwater some four or five decades ago.

OngelofelijkIn her book Ongelofelijk (‘Unbelievable’, 2018), Yvonne Zonderop describes her sense of liberation as a young woman after leaving the Catholic church in disgust, along with other members of her generation. During the sixties and seventies, faith disappeared behind the front door, she writes. Secular became the norm. Freedom, individualism and autonomy became the celebrated values.

Yet, Zonderop now realises, this personal liberation has had great social consequences. Something important has been lost. Her generation has raised a whole new generation without Christian roots, which for centuries had nurtured and formed western culture and morality. A common foundation for society has been eroded. Who knows what the Exodus meant? she asks. Who can explain the biblical scenarios Rembrandt painted? And who realises that without Christianity we most probably would not have a democratic constitutional state?

After decades, Zonderop has come to see that her generation had robbed themselves of the cultural context in which they had grown up. Yet now it is becoming obvious that the alternatives to religion for offering meaning and values are scarce. Millions of Dutch people continue to waver between faith and unbelief. In politics, the Christian heritage keeps resurfacing, she observes, because it is the source of our culture, democracy and ethics.

She quotes a doctoral candidate from the University of Amsterdam who researched individualisation as the motto for Dutch education after World War Two. Observing that baby boomers valued individuality, he concluded: ‘but, woe to you if you did not wear jeans or did not criticise religion!’

Which recalls for Zonderop a comic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian film in which the Messiah figure tells his crowd of followers that they are all individuals, they are all different; to which the crowd responds by chanting in unison: ‘Yes, we’re all different!’ Then a lone voice pipes up: ‘I’m not.’

Zonderop now views the ideal of individual freedom as having held Dutch society in a strong grip, of which the collective departure from the church is just one example. But freedom has now become a devil’s dilemma: when you make a mistake, you’re on your own. Today’s youth, she argues, seek the support circle of friends to fall back on. Social capital is more important to them than individual freedom. Religion can become a source of meaning for them again.

The loss of togetherness is more broadly felt in society these days, writes Zonderop. People miss the social cohesion formerly offered by trade unions and churches. They miss the ‘vertical dimension’, where someone higher than you is looking after your welfare, whether that be a group leader or God.

The book’s subtitle, “About the surprising comeback of religion,” refers to the closing chapters which describe a number of new expressions of church in the Netherlands, and particularly Amsterdam, today. A wave of pioneers is appearing, both within and outside the church, showing rumours of the death of Christianity to have been greatly exaggerated. Zonderop ends her book with a surprising citation from a Muslim German-Iranian art critic connecting the loss of the spiritual dimension with the rise of populism.

Jeg modte JesusIn his intriguing book, Wonder Beyond Belief: On Christianity (2017), Navid Kermani observes: “It is completely understandable that many Europeans are afraid for Islam and seek security in the familiar. If you no longer know your own culture, you can’t be open to other cultures. It is a great shortcoming if you don’t know what Pentecost is. German literature of the 19th century can’t be understood if you don’t see the Christian allusions. Many writers of that time were ministers’ sons. German literature and music are saturated with Biblical references. If we don’t know that legacy, we don’t know ourselves. And then we become susceptible for racism, xenophobia and nationalism.”

Another secular journalist, Charlotte Rørth from Denmark, recently wrote about a totally surprising encounter she had in a Spanish church. In I met Jesus (2017), she described herself as a complete outsider to the church: “For us, the basis of everything is that one asks questions, looks for proof, finds answers, continues learning as time goes on. But suddenly I know something that I did not yet know half an hour before and which I cannot prove.”

Till then she had only known about Jesus from a distance. Now she saw him so clearly in front of her – surrounded by his disciples – that for her there was no more doubt: “He was simply there, and he is alive! And He loves me so much that I have no choice but simply to love others too.” When she came out of the church, others asked her: “Why are you surrounded by such a light? You are really shining!”

Her book, which quickly reached the bestseller lists, has been hailed in Denmark’s secular press as breaking the taboo on speaking about religion and spiritual experiences, a significant step forward for freedom of speech in a very secular country.

This is perhaps what philosopher Charles Taylor predicted in A Secular Age: “We are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no-one can foresee.”

Jeff Fountain

Narrating the Gospel: The relevance of Charles Taylor’s ‘A Secular Age’ for mission in Europe

May 5, 2019

A secular age

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Hard news was obviously in short supply on Friday December 28th, 2018. Hence, The Times ran a feature about a YouGov survey of 1,660 people in the UK. The findings suggested that there are more people attending church (albeit less frequently), a reduction in the number of professed atheists, an increase in the number of agnostics, and an increase in the numbers of those who say they pray occasionally.

This single survey is hardly a game-changer, but it does seem to confirm what other surveys of the last five years suggest: that it’s time for a review of the way that many Christians in Europe have become conditioned to thinking about faith across the continent. Most of us tend to see the history of Christianity in Europe in two main periods. During the first period from around the 4th to the 18th century, Christianity provided the framework for understanding morality, faith, social order, God, and just about the whole of life. After the Enlightenment of the 18th century, science and reason overthrew religious credibility and authority and the slow, steady demise of Christendom set in. If life in the earlier period was lived under a sacred canopy, in the latter it was lived from a secular launchpad.

For academics who retained an interest in studying European Christianity, a debate raged about how best to support this version of events with the best statistical data available. Callum Brown provoked attention (and sales) with his book The Death of Christian Britain (2001, 2009). Grace Davie puzzled, at a late stage of her thinking, over Religion in Britain: A Persistent Paradox (2015). Some argued that modernity was necessarily and inevitably secular. Others described national Churches dealing in things of ‘ultimacy’ and ‘transcendence’ on behalf of their respective nations. The debate was lively and fascinating.

In the middle of these debates, I was trying to advise Baptist churches in the UK about the nature of their mission task through into the early 2000s. It was challenging. Many church pundits and commentators were convinced that secularism had triumphed, the churches were in terminal decline, and that the churches of Europe should either oppose science and reason to their dying breath, or that they should strike an uneasy truce with secularisation.
Twelve years ago, Charles Taylor took around 800 pages with A Secular Age (2007) to tell a different story. Taylor was a Catholic, Canadian philosopher with a huge reputation. In 800 pages he says a lot of things that deserve much more space than we have available in this short article. However, it’s worth trying a short summary.

Here we go! Taylor suggests there are three ways to understand how ‘secular’ is used. Firstly, prior to the fifteenth-century Protestant Reformation, ‘secular’ was used to describe all the non-sacred things that religious people did. Eating, washing, travelling, and trading, for example, were all ‘secular’ activities, pursued by religious people with a sense of the transcendent presence of God, or the divine. Secondly, following the Reformation (‘The Reformation is central to the story I want to tell’, A Secular Age, p.77), and fuelled by the European Enlightenment, ‘secular’ became a way of describing the non-religious.

You were either religious or secular, being both was no longer possible. People could now choose to live their lives without the approval of a transcendent being. Instead, they could live mostly self-validating lives with reference only to immanent realities such as human reason, the nation-state, science, etc., and in some cases developed extreme hostilities to religion.

Taylor argues that European Christians have largely accepted this second understanding. As a result, we have typically tried to live out our Christian witness by picking a fight with human reason and science. The problem with this, if Taylor is correct, is that our arguments then rest on the same assumptions that reason and science rest upon. Simply put, we often resort to logic, historicity, and empirical defences of our faith. These are arguments based in the appeal to immanence.

Taylor argues for a third way of understanding ‘secular’: that religious and non-religious people alike are secular because we inhabit an era in which faith, atheism, and humanism are all available as options. More than this, they are options that do not have to be watertight categories. Taylor notes that there have always been people who, ‘want to respect as much as they can the ‘scientific’ shape of the immanent order… but who cannot help believing that there is something more than the merely immanent…’ (p.548).

For Taylor, the loss of transcendence in a secular age is disastrous for human beings. Elsewhere, his work on ‘social imaginaries’ is his personal effort to re-engage human beings with story, mystery, the poetic, the numinous, and the imagination. European Christians who refuse to deal with the miraculous, the presence of angels, the inspirational lives of saints (they don’t have to be Roman Catholic saints!), the real presence of God in the everyday, the possibility of sacred spaces, the necessity of resurrection, the reality of evil with personality and intelligence, and the life everlasting, among many others, have simply lost sight of the missional power of these elements of our Christian story.

Taylor would encourage us to refer to all these, often, and to tell stories that inspire and stimulate imaginative leaps (slowly shuffling forward might also be OK) that enlarge the possibility of faith for those willing to listen. He talks of ‘the power and genuineness of the experience of wonder’ (p.607), for example. A growing number of evangelicals see that Taylor’s insights encourage an approach whereby apologetics that rely on story and narrative are more persuasive, and convincing, than apologetics that rely on argumentation and empirical data alone.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is not an easy read. It’s big, for one. However, he writes in such a rich and compelling way that it’s easy to miss the fact that he’s actually telling us a very sophisticated story. He also quotes poetry at length (see pp.761-765, for example). That’s all deliberate, because he’s trying to persuade and inspire the imagination of his readers in a way that he argues is necessary in our secular age.

Reading Taylor is also an immensely hope-filled and optimistic exercise. Reviewing him for The New York Sun, Michael Burleigh captures this well: ‘A salutary and sophisticated defence of how life was lived before the daring views of a tiny secular elite inspired mass indifference…’ Taylor offers the intriguing prospect that we may yet see a return to an “Age of the Spirit.”

Taylor frequently talks of the shared human ‘aspiration to wholeness and transcendence’ (pp.262-627). As a Roman Catholic, Taylor would not be embarrassed by Christians engaged in thoughtful and genuine efforts to re-enchant Europe by planting many and varied seeds of transcendence. Such language might seem a long way from what many of us understand when we use phrases such as ‘proclaiming the gospel’. Taylor wouldn’t distance himself from this, but his work does challenge us to reconsider whether our understanding and proclaiming of the gospel has lost all sense of enchantment and transcendence, and is instead too much reminiscent of a verbal ‘fist-fight’.

If we were, instead, to re-learn the art of narrating the gospel in a way that captures its weird, miraculous, other-worldly, subversive, and transformative intent, it is still possible that Christ’s followers in Europe will live to feel that they have contributed, in some way, to a future ‘Age of the Spirit’.

Darrell Jackson is Associate Professor of Missiology, Morling College.