St James Ministry Team

A blog from the Ministry Team of St James Church, Colwall, Herefordshire, UK


Religion and demography

I had an e-mail from friend, containing a forward from the USA quoting a Dutch newspaper to the effect that Europe was turning Muslim. (The paper incidentally was De Volkskrant, which I, in ignorance of Dutch, would translate People's Rant, a title which I am sure would sell well over here! Well, Babelfish tells me it actually means People's Newspaper, so there you are.) Anyway, the point being made was that what with immigration, but more importantly with the greater fertility of Muslim families, Europe would be one third Muslim by 2050. A simlar, but more general point is made in November's Prospect magazine where it is applied to all religions. Europe, having been secular is becoming more religious. The author, being a liberal humanist, regards this as a retrograde step.

What can one make of this? The first point is that demographics is a very inexact science. Birth rates are subject to all sorts of social influences, which act over time. Birth rates now are not what they will be in 2050, although the population then is being determined to some extent by the birth rates now. Added to that is the problem of attributing a religion to a population (what does it mean to be CofE in England?) and the degree of persistence of the religion. The actual growth of the number of people professing a religion is determined by the number born less the number falling away during their lifetime and the latter is harder to determine. And added to this problem is the difficulty of forecasting the political situation in 2050 when climate change is really beginning to bite.

However, whatever the outcome, it is clear that we are coming into close contact with people of other faiths and the more or less uniform communities we have come to expect in Europe will change to be much more diverse, in all sorts of ways apart from the religion. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is irrelevant if it is going to happen anyway: the question is, what should we do about it? Now I take it as an axiom that there is truth in religion and we follow the one we think is closest to the truth. But equally none of us is capable of grasping all this truth, and more to the point, following it. In this situation debate and interaction between religions can be good because they lead us closer to the truth. Thinking through what we really believe and follow in our lives will strengthen our religion -- or destroy it altogether if it is false.

But truth is certainly not served by conflict. Using religion as a territorial flag simply reinforces people into unquestioning acceptance of what their community believes rather than leading to that questioning and openness which is the key to approaching truth, and consequently, God. Our own history in Northern Ireland shows this happening in two communities, both driven further from the truth by conflict. I can say this because I believe God is the God of all, Roman Catholics and Protestants, Muslim and Christian. And when Jesus said, Love your neighbour as yourself, He illustrated that with the story of the good Samaritan, the point of which is reaching across a religious divide.

It is so easy to be negative. I would certainly think that anyone who thinks that by killing others he can go to heaven has an inadequate grasp of the truth. But let's not be too judgemental. I went on to the American Spectator web site and followed up some of their blogs. Well, if you think Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was violent just read some of those. Violence is found across the world, even in Christians who ought to know better. And liberal humanists may not be given to violence, but there is no tolerance or understanding for religious views, an emphasis on individuals amounting to selfishness and a hedonism destructive of higher ideals. Everyone can be criticised from someone else's point of view.

So how can we be positive? It all starts with, love your neighbour. Don't think about defending your corner, but rather look towards people in need of God, groping toward values and ideals only dimly seen. In 30 AD there were how many followers of Jesus? A 100? We don't know, but not many. By 300 AD it was the religion of the Roman Empire, not achieved by defending a point of view or by out-breeding the pagans, but by presenting Christ, a better way.

And one final point -- immigration and racial conflict will be the key issues for this century. Unless we can do something about it, Armageddon will be not far away.