The Age of Faith

Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University says the remarkable thing about the recent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria is that they are not remarkable. In a process largely unnoticed in the West, billions of people in Asia and Africa have swapped out their indigenous faiths for either Christianity or Islam. And to an even greater astonishment of Western intellectuals most have chosen Christianity. Now the equalization of numbers has caused a fault line to appear through the Third World at about the tenth degree of latitude where the two aggregations face each other "at daggers drawn".

The word "Christian", associated in the 19th and 20th centuries with the missionary enterprises of Europe, has now come to mean something different in political terms. Today Christianity is a religion of the Third World. Europeans have largely converted to some soft and watered-down variation of  the West's only indigenous creed, Marxism, as represented by John Lennon's "Imagine" song. Christianity can no longer be associated largely with the West.  Ex oriente lux a phrase which once described the belief that all great world religions rose in the East is now truer than ever. With Marxism shrinking to the margins of the Guardian, the monotheisms have reclaimed the field at least in raw numbers.

TE Lawrence in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, described the peculiar relationship of the monotheisms to the Middle East, populated by "the least morbid of peoples, they had accepted the gift of Me unquestioningly, as axiomatic. To them it was a thing inevitable, entailed on man, a usufruct, beyond control. Suicide was a thing impossible, and death no grief."

They were a people of spasms, of upheavals, of ideas, the race of the individual genius. Their movements were the more shocking by contrast with the quietude of every day, their great men greater by contrast with the humanity of their mob. Their convictions were by instinct, their activities intuitional. Their largest manufacture was of creeds: almost they were monopolists of revealed religions. Three of these efforts had endured among them: two of the three had also borne export (in modified forms) to non-Semitic peoples. Christianity, translated into the diverse spirits of Greek and Latin and Teutonic tongues, had conquered Europe and America. Islam in various transformations was subjecting Africa and parts of Asia. These were Semitic successes. Their failures they kept to themselves. The fringes of their deserts were strewn with broken faiths.

What might have surprised Lawrence, apart from the phenomenon that Islam in its doubt, was turning to suicide, was that by the early 21st century Christianity would have moved on from Europe and America to compete head to head with Islam in "Africa and parts of Asia".  Globally, as Jenkins sees it, the existential threat to Islam comes not from the declining number of Europeans indoctrinated in the quasi-Marxist "Imagine" creed, but from the burgeoning millions of the Third World.  Whether Muslims are impressed by the secular belief system captured so succinctly in John Lennon's song is open to debate. But the attractions of Christianity to the populations of the Third World apparently is not. Whatever the appeal of Islam in London might be, it is less so in Africa. "One factor driving Islamic militancy in many nations is the sense that Christianity is growing. Outside of the West, evangelism and conversion are two of the most sensitive issues in the modern world."

Christianity, which a century ago was overwhelmingly the religion of Europe and the Americas, has undertaken a historic advance into Africa and Asia. In 1900, Africa had just 10 million Christians, representing around 10 percent of the continental population. By 2000, that figure had swollen to over 360 million, or 46 percent of the population. Over the course of the 20th century, millions of Africans transferred their allegiance from traditional primal faiths to one of the two great world religions, Christianity or Islam—but they demonstrated an overwhelming preference for the former. Around 40 percent of Africa’s population became Christian, compared to just 10 percent who chose Islam.

With the numbers between Christians and Muslims equalizing in the region of the 10th degree of latitude, many places formerly dominated by Islam are now doubtful ground. It's upsetting the equilibrium. Jenkins thinks the Third World populations can work out a modus vivendi, "if only Washington and Riyadh can refrain from pouring fuel on the hostilities".  And probably they can, but the professor may be mistaken in believing Washington is pouring fuel on anything. There is no Western Christian equivalent of Saudi-sponsored "anti-Christian propaganda across the Global South". Consequently the Christian response to Islam will increasingly be independent of the West because the West has dealt itself out of the game. If the Western intelligensia takes any side in this fight it is likely to be Islam's. But in all probability the sophisticates will continue to think that all religions save "Imagine" are equally worthless superstitions and remain aloof; disdainful of taking the religious issues seriously.

The Independent, for example, falls back on explaining away the clashes on the grounds of primitivism combined with a competition for resources. And though doubtless it is true in some cases, outlets like the Independent would prefer that the aggressors, as always, be the Christians. It explains things in the following way not because it makes any sense, but because it provides them with mental comfort:

In Jos, population growth and economic decline has increased competition for land and other resources, heightening tension between communities.

Politics here have been poisoned by the distinction between the longer-standing Christians, or "indigenes", and Muslim "settlers". The former are favoured in land rights, the latter denied the opportunity to stand in elections. This has caused resentment, which has erupted in 2001, 2004 and 2008, leaving thousands dead, many more displaced and the city polarised. The truth depends on where you are in Jos. ...

Christians and Muslims used to live peacefully in the central Plateau state. But Muslims who have lived there for decades are still classed as settlers, and in the last decade there have been regular bouts of sectarian killing. The underlying reasons are economic – with competition for resources – and political – with a struggle for domination.

As a general assignment of guilt or innocence, the Independent's narrative is a fairy-tale. Al-Qaeda may eventually exploit this systemic blindness because the West is far less likely to react to massacres against Christians in the Global South than it is to react to airplanes flown into buildings in Manhattan. But Professor Jenkins raises a number of interesting issues two of which deserve some thought.  If Islam imposes a greater handicap on Third World societies than Christianity then will we not over time find that Christian indigenes prosper at a faster rate the Muslims?  If so there will be a widening gulf between the power of both which will spur a greater desperation within Islam.

The other is the implied question on the fate of Judaisim. What happens to the Jews in a world where hundreds of millions of people are either becoming Christians or Muslims? Perhaps it is all as well that the Jews are guaranteed existence by Yahweh himself. They will need His interest and His concern as none will be forthcoming from the bastions of Western thought. Neither of these issues are fit subjects for a respectable foreign policy journal article, but that doesn't mean we won't be dealing the consequences of these non-existent trends in a few decades.


Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5

Tocque: Requires Javascript enabled in Firefox 3.5, IE 8.0, or Safari 4.0