If God isn’t dead, at least Christianity is. That’s the impression you might have after driving past churches in many suburbs on Sunday mornings. It is white heads that you will see straggling through the doors — to hear sermons from priests and ministers over 60.

Sexual scandals have rocked all churches, not just the Catholic Church. This has made it easier for traditional Christian views on public morality to be sidelined by governments. Warnings that Christians should keep their religion to themselves often crop up in legislative debates — most recently in discussions of destructive research on embryos and of gay marriage.

Islam, on the other hand, seems awake and vigorous, if fearsome. Some of its young men are prepared to die — and kill — for their beliefs. The chador, hajib and even the burka are ever more visible on the streets of European cities, symbols of the proud commitment of many Muslim women to their creed. The most pessimistic pundits paint dismal pictures of Eurabia, a Europe which is dominated by Islam and where non-Muslims live in a state of dhimmitude.

"That the Church has had small influence of late, and seems likely to have little more in the immediate future, is the Church’s own fault," says author Bernard Iddings Bell in an article entitled “Will the Christian Church Survive?” in a leading American magazine, The Atlantic Monthly. If you live in London or Sydney or Toronto or Boston, you might agree with Mr Bell. But you would be just as wrong as he was — back in 1942.

Since then, the influence of Christianity has grown immensely — so much so that 60 years later the same magazine ran a major article which predicted that Christianity will be the dominant force on the culture of the 21st Century.

Nowadays Western countries form a shrinking proportion of an overwhelmingly religious world. In the words of the American writer Father Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister who became a Catholic priest a few years ago, “the extraordinary thing happening on planet Earth today is the desecularisation of world history”.

Many people assume that secularisation — the sidelining of God and religious values from public life as merely private matters — goes hand in hand with modernisation. As countries become wealthier, more technologically advanced and better educated, so the theory goes, religion automatically fades from view. But although this does seem to have happened in Western Europe, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, and in a few other places like Japan, it is not happening elsewhere.

In particular, it is not happening in the richest and most powerful country in the world, the United States. That is why British and Australians find Americans so puzzling: so rich and yet so thoroughly, if somewhat inconsistently, religious. (Sociologist Peter Berger says Indians are the most religious people in the world; Swedes are the least religious; and Americans are a nation of Indians governed by Swedes.)

Sociologist of religion Philip Jenkins, a lecturer in history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, believes that Christianity will, in fact, be the dominant idea of the 21st Century. This is the theme of his 2002 book The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity. Ironically, shortly before his book was released, he summarised his ideas in The Atlantic Monthly, the same magazine which published the gloomy forecast of Bernard Iddings Bell more than 60 years ago.

Backed up by an immense armoury of statistics and historical analysis, Jenkins argues that “the 21st Century will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs, guiding attitudes to political liberty and obligation, concepts of nationhood, and, of course, conflicts and wars”.

Jenkins doesn’t seek to assess the truth of Christianity, although as a Protestant, he is sympathetic. He is simply analysing obvious trends which few people in this part of the world have heeded.

Population growth

The first, and possibly, the most decisive, is demographic. Birth rates have plummeted in Europe, the historic home of Christianity. Other English-speaking countries, with the exception of the United States, are having trouble replacing themselves without immigration. In the US, the birth rate has risen to about replacement level — thanks in great measure to immigration and higher fertility amongst Latinos, who have strong religious traditions.

“Within the next 25 years the population of the world’s Christians is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 per cent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 per cent will be in Asia. Those proportions will grow steadily. By about 2050 the United States will still have the largest single contingent of Christians, but all the other leading nations will be [in the] Southern [hemisphere]: Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. By then the proportion of non-Latino whites among the world’s Christians will have fallen to perhaps one in five.”

Amongst Catholics, Jenkins says, the trend toward “Southern” Christianity is particularly marked. In the early 1950s, Africa had about 16 million Catholics; now there are 120 million and by the year 2025 there will probably be 228 million. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, almost three-quarters of all Catholics by the year 2025 will be found in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Statistics on Catholic baptisms cited by Jenkins sum up the trend. Of the 18 million baptisms in 1998, 8 million were in Central and South America, 3 million in Africa and just under 3 million in Asia — more than three-quarters of all Catholic baptism. The annual baptism total for the Philippines is higher than the number of baptisms in Italy, France, Spain and Poland combined.

Increasing religious conservatism

Setting aside the merits of controversies between so-called “liberals”, who favour accommodation with secularised society, and “conservatives”, who take a more traditional and supernatural view of the role of the Christian faith, it is quite clear where the demographic movement is steering Christianity. It is toward conservatism.

“The denominations that are triumphing across the global South — radical Protestant sects, either evangelical or Pentecostal, and Roman Catholicism of an orthodox kind — are stalwartly traditional or even reactionary by the standards of economically advanced nations,” writes Jenkins. “The Catholic faith that is rising rapidly in Africa and Asia looks very much like a pre-Vatican II faith, being more traditional in its respect for the power of bishops and priests and in its preference for older devotions.” Pentecostals are growing rapidly in less developed nations. Jenkins claims that there are 400 million Pentecostals world-wide today and by 2040 there could be a billion — far more than the number of Buddhists and about the same as the number of Hindus.

The trend is also obvious in the United States where the New York Times reported that socially conservative churches which demand high commitment from their members were growing far faster than other religious groups. Between 1990 and 2000, the Mormons were the fastest growing religious denomination in the US, whose numbers increased by 19.3 per cent. Behind them were the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, at 18.6 per cent; the Assemblies of God, at 18.5 per cent; and Catholics, at 16.2 per cent. (About one in four Americans is now Catholic.)

“I was astounded to see that by and large the growing churches are those that we ordinarily call conservative,” said the author of the study, Ken Sanchagrin, of the Glenmary Research Centre. “And when I looked at those that were declining, most were moderate or liberal churches. And the more liberal the denomination, by most people’s definition, the more they were losing.”

Conservatism is a loose and inaccurate term which makes an uneasy fit in religious discussions. Without resorting to verbal legerdemain, one could easily call “conservative” moral stances “radical” because they run against the grain in a highly secularised society. However, it is a useful label for sketching differences of opinion.

A clear example of Jenkins’s contention that southern hemisphere Christian churches are in the ascendant is the fierce debate over homosexuality at the 1998 Lambeth conference of the world-wide Anglican communion. Liberal Anglican bishops pushed for acceptance of homosexual priests and bishops, but they met ferocious resistance from African bishops.

In the words of Bishop Wilson Mutebi of Uganda, "Homosexuality is a sin and any bishop who teaches otherwise is committing a sin. He must repent in order to be in communion with us. If he does not, we cannot be in the same church as him." The upshot of the dispute was that the bishops voted 526 to 70 with 45 abstentions for a resolution declaring that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Scripture."

After the Church of England accepted the notion of civil partnerships (and allowed a former bishop-elect to “partner” another clergyman) the Nigerian Anglican Church changed its constitution and removed references to communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. The fiery Anglican primate of Nigeria, Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, has described Europe as a “spiritual desert”. Since Nigeria already has more practicing Anglicans than any other country, it is not difficult to see which hemisphere’s point of view will prevail.

Moral leadership

One clue to the future of a society is the people to whom it looks for moral leadership. The voice of religious leaders is often muted or drowned by jeers and catcalls in secularised societies. But Jenkins observes that the situation is far different elsewhere.

“Across the global South cardinals and bishops have become national moral leaders in a way essentially unseen in the West since the 17th Century,” he writes. A number of contemporary clerics have been martyred in Africa and South America and are widely revered. These include the Anglican Archbishop Janani Luwum, of Uganda, who was murdered by Idi Amin, and several Catholic prelates — Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador, Archbishop Christophe Munizihirwa, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Cardinal Emile Biayenda, of Congo-Brazzaville. In South Africa and the Philippines, churchmen were amongst the leaders of pro-democracy movements.

In many countries, political life is closely bound to religious life in a way unseen in countries of a European background since the 17th century. This may not always be a healthy development, for it raises mischievous problems of religious tolerance and separation of Church and State which gave Western nations great grief. But it indicates that Christianity is likely to shape future political and social development in Africa and South America in a way which is almost unimaginable in the West.

Not all of Jenkins’s observations will fill Christians with good cheer. There are burgeoning but unorthodox (to say the least) Christian movements in Africa and South America which range from the weird to the dangerous. The Brazilian-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God offers “strong prayer to destroy witchcraft, demon possession, bad luck, bad dreams, all spiritual problems” and promises “prosperity and financial breakthrough” for its members. A few years ago more than a thousand members of a Ugandan sect called the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God died in a mass suicide. Some of these eccentric movements, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, are leading players in bloody local wars.

It won’t be smooth sailing for Christianity in the next hundred years, Jenkins writes. But Peter’s barque and the other boats in the Christian fleet are far from sinking. Instead, it is the demographically irrelevant, secularised societies of the West which may find that they have been left floundering as the winds of change blow a gale about them.  

Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Coren is host and producer of the nightly Michael Coren Show on CTS television. He is a weekly columnist with the Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg Sun and The London...