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John Wilson

Future Contingency

Elsewhere in this issue (p. 23, to be precise), you'll find Greg Cootsona's review of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Wall Street trader whose previous book was the 2004 release Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Taleb argues that we consistently assume an excessive degree of predictability, even inevitability, in the course of events large and small. When we are taken by surprise by an event none of the experts saw coming, we summon them—and without batting an eye they proceed to explain how this once unimaginable happening was in fact entirely predictable, ho-hum, what's the fuss? (For a related argument, see Lee Clarke's Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2006. Clarke wants us to pay more attention to potential events that are admittedly improbable but possible nonetheless—events with consequences so catastrophic we ignore them at our peril.)

All right, you may say, but what's the payoff? Something along the lines of "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition"? For an answer, best set Taleb aside and turn to Philip Jenkins' new book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis (Oxford Univ. Press), for a how-to in epistemic humility informed by history. Two converging trends are at the heart of Jenkins' book. The first is the decline of Christianity in Europe, for many centuries the heartland of the faith. The second is the growth of Islam in the same region, fueled by immigration and higher birth rates. Again and again Jenkins shows how commentators on these trends are guilty of the bad habits that Taleb excoriates. Christianity is dying in Europe. It's inevitable. Europe will be dominated by Islam a century from now. It's inevitable. And so on.

A better case study can hardly be imagined. In 1967, my professors overwhelmingly assumed that religion—already moribund, in their judgment—would become increasingly irrelevant in the years to come. (Complacent assumptions have not of course been limited to secularists confidently waiting for religion to wither away. Christians have contributed more than their share.) If my teachers back then had been given a glimpse of the world in 2007, they wouldn't have been at all surprised by the marginalization of the church in Europe—that's just what they expected. But Christianity in the United States so robust that it's become fashionable to warn against theocracy? Enormous growth for Christianity in Africa, Asia, Latin America? No, that's not what the experts said. And Islam? Islam was hardly so much as mentioned.

Given the enormous disparity between the future as imagined forty years ago and the world we actually inhabit, you might suppose that today's prophets would be a bit more circumspect. You'd be wrong. And that's why Jenkins' book is so valuable. He's a cool contrarian, not out to peddle an alternative ("inevitable") future while heaping contempt on received opinion.

So, about Christianity in Europe he is judicious, neither downplaying the church's profound loss of cultural authority nor making too much of the modest counter-trends he singles out and yet suggesting that the death notices may be premature:

Viewed over the centuries, perhaps the best indicator that Christianity is about to expand or revive is the widespread conviction that the religion is doomed or in its closing days. Arguably the worst single moment in the history of west European Christianity occurred around 1798, with the Catholic Church under severe persecution in much of Europe, and skeptical, deist, and unitarian movements in the ascendant across the Atlantic world.

It was in 1798, Jenkins observes, that the army of the French Republic "seized Pope Pius VI and carried him into exile, an event that many took to mark the end of the papacy." Play with the numbers of that year and you get 1978. Who in the shadow of Pius VI's ignominious fate was foreseeing the installation of John Paul II? And yet, as Jenkins reminds us:

That particular trough in Christian affairs also turned into an excellent foundation, from which various groups built the great missionary movement of the nineteenth century, the second evangelical revival, and the Catholic devotional revolution. Nothing drives activists and reformers more powerfully than the sense that their faith is about to perish in their homelands and that they urgently need to make up these losses further afield, whether overseas or among the previously neglected lost sheep at home.

In this book as elsewhere, Jenkins is very good on the dynamics of immigration and diasporas. In his treatment of Christian communities in Europe, he notes that non-European immigrants are "set apart from the old-stock population by many aspects of belief and practice," a bit of an understatement, perhaps. This theme takes on greater prominence, of course, in his account of European Muslims.

Some readers will complain that Jenkins is far too optimistic about the trajectory of Islam in Europe. That would be true if he were pretending to the kind of certainty the doomsayers radiate. As I read him, he is suggesting alternative possibilities. Yes, there is a real possibility that the "ultras," as he calls them, will flourish, with devastating consequences all around, but it's also possible—and, in Jenkins' view, more probable—that the "Christian-Muslim encounter" in 21st-century Europe will not be so apocalyptic.

A growing population of observant Muslims could reinforce the secularist prejudices already dominant among European elites. In turn, this might foster a degree of rapprochement between Christians and Muslims, who might form a united front in certain contexts. On the other hand, there is evidence of a marked asymmetry in the way European elites treat Islamic demands, Islamic controversies, and so on in comparison to their Christian counterparts, in part motivated by fear. (See Paul Berman's essay, "Who Is Afraid of Tariq Ramadan?", in the June 4 issue of The New Republic.)

Among the doomsayers one of the strongest arguments is demographic. If Europe's indigenous population, characterized by "subreplacement fertility," lacks even the will to reproduce itself, isn't the discussion pretty much over? (See for example Mark Steyn's essay, "It's the Demography, Stupid," in the January 2006 issue of The New Criterion.) Jenkins doesn't devote as much attention to this question as might be expected. He does point out that birth rates among Muslims are dropping steeply in many areas.

On the one hand … . On the other hand. Does this boil down to mere temporizing? No. There's no embarrassment in saying we don't know how the European secularist-Christian-Muslim tensions will play out. We have far too many people running around proclaiming with dogmatic certainty what will or will not happen—often with the implication that if you're not on board with the prediction, you are in denial, you're weak-minded, you just can't face facts.

Sometimes the charge may be true, but often it is not, and Christians in particular should be wary of such claims. After all, we have a long history of failed predictions, ends of the world that turned out to be nothing more than twists in the road, fizzled apocalypses, half-baked Antichrists. (How many popes have been cast in that role down through the centuries?) Something bad is always happening somewhere, wickedness is at large, and now and then the darkness flowers in such a spectacular fashion that it seems to blot out the sun. Predict trouble and you can never go wrong, as long as you are suitably vague about the specifics.

This world will pass away … sometime. In the meanwhile, Philip Jenkins is an excellent guide as we think about Christianity, Islam, and secularism in 21st-century Europe and in the world more generally. His conclusion is very much worth pondering:

The church's strong European roots mean that tactics and movements that originate here are likely to spread to other parts of the world, so that as in earlier centuries, European Catholicism provides a creative laboratory of faith. The opportunities to interact with Islam give lessons learned in Europe still wider applicability. And the presence of so many Christian immigrants makes it all the more probable that solutions devised in Europe will spread around the world.

How different this view is both from the pessimistic assessments (Christian, conservative, sometimes both) and the Euro-boasting (see for example Mark Leonard's Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century) with which we're familiar. Contrarian? Yes, but what else did you expect from Philip Jenkins?

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