Religion in Europe: it’s complicated

Since moving to Sweden over six years ago, I’ve taken a far closer interest in trying to understand Europe and stay alert to trends, developments and so on. It’s not easy, Europe is a complicated place. Even knowing the borders of Europe is not always as easy as you think. West, south and north are relatively straightforward with the Atlantic (though what about Iceland? It’s culturally European but closer to Greenland which is North America), the Arctic and the Mediterranean providing clear boundaries but the east….well the east is a little different.

But knowing the geography is the easiest part of understanding Europe. After that it gets a lot more tricky as Ian Parry found out.

Generalising about Europe is hard.

I read an article once that said there were four Europes: Northern Europe which is mostly Protestant and deeply secular. Southern Europe which is mostly Catholic but being influenced by secular thinking at a rapid rate. Eastern Europe which is still largely Orthodox and perhaps more open to spiritual influence. And then the Balkans which is a mix of Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim and some Protestant communities. Complicated, isn’t it?

Then I read another article which pointed out how fast Europe is changing. We seem to be post-everything. There are the post-Christians, the post-Communists, the post-moderns, the post-migrants and the post-seculars. Apparently, we are even post-truth. The plot thickens.

Then I read yet another article which pointed out that plenty of Europe hasn’t changed very much at all. Some parts are still pre-Christian, while in other parts Christendom is alive and well. It also said that alongside all the post-modern types there are still plenty who are very 20th Century ‘modern’ types and even plenty who are relatively pre-modern. It also said many are pre-secular, many are secular, and some are post-secular. Add all that into the mix, and it starts to get overwhelming.

This just shows that when we speak of Europe the right question should be which one? West and East are very different and so are North & South. Climate, culture, religion, languages – all completely different. There are different demographics at work depending on which side of the Hajnal Line you live.

And when it comes to Christian identity and faith there are two different stories going on. Take a look at this map from Cartomission.

The red areas (and it’s not the first time I’ve found myself living in a red zone) show where Christianity is declining and the blue where it is growing. Now some of that is about identity as much as it is about personal faith in Christ but it shows the great need of Europe for the Gospel.

The question of identity is thrown into sharp relief and made into a hot political topic by the rise of the Muslim minority in Europe. The Pew Research Center has just released a helpful report on Europe’s Growing Muslim Population. First it shows that it’s not as high as most people think right now and remains a minority everywhere.

The question is, how big will that minority be?  Pew looks at three possible scenarios of no migration, medium migration and high migration. Because Muslim families have more children than non-Muslims the proportion grows under every scenario.  There are a few interesting implications for Sweden especially under the medium and high migration scenarios.

Because Sweden has allowed high immigration from Muslim countries it already has one of the higher proportions at 8.1% and if there is zero migration by 2050 that will become 11%. If there’s medium migration (which is the most likely) it will grow to 20% which is a significant group. If there’s high migration then this happens

Now this is just a projection but it’s the sort of projection and map which could be used in a fear-inducing way. Because there is often a clash between what is considered European values and Muslim values the question of identity is a huge prickly one. Sweden under most scenarios is going to become a huge testing ground between secular European values and a large Muslim minority.

I would imagine it’s likely that right-wing groups will use the Christian history has a blunt weapon in a fight for identity. Remember they’re not actually standing up for Christian belief or practice and certainly not standing up for the Gospel.

In the middle of this Christians need to be active against both sides. We need to stand against a fear based approach to immigration. We do not want our Christian heritage to be used as a blunt racist weapon, we reject that approach. Those on that side need the Gospel of love, grace,  mercy and compassion. We also need to bring a prophetic voice to the fast changing secular culture that has unmoored itself from its ethical roots in Christianity and rejected almost wholesale the claims of Christ.

We also have confidence because we have nothing to fear about a rise in this group or that group and we see the opportunity to share the Gospel with millions of people whose countries were previously closed to the Gospel not as something to fear but as an opportunity to be seized.

As Ian Parry helpfully says

Europe may be a hugely complex and totally opaque melting pot of humanity to you and me, but it is an open book to God. There is not a cultural trend, an unmet aspiration, a social catastrophe, a broken heart, a new resolve or a political upheaval of which He does not know. Go up to the largest macro scale trend or down to the smallest individual cry. He is present. Comprehending. Knowing. Reigning.

I will go further. He is no mere observer. He is active in his sovereignty. He is sleeves rolled up and hands on. This is significant. Though invisible to the naked eye and the analytical mind, in the depths of all this unknowable-ness, God is working the wonderful alchemy of grace and redemption. The atonement still stands. The tomb is still empty. Jesus still saves. He is still building his church. And the gates of hell still can do nothing about it. This is what we need to know as we think about our bit of Europe, and indeed, as we consider the rest of it. God is working.

Amen to that.

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