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Christianity exploding in southern hemisphere; Islam growing in western worldcomment (0)

May 30, 2002


One of the often-heard comments since Sept. 11 is that Islam is growing so rapidly it will soon become the world’s largest religion, overtaking Christianity in just a couple of decades.

Many of these projections are traceable to the work of Harvard University scholar Samuel P. Huntington, who has put forward the idea of a “clash of civilizations.” But a new book about Christianity in the Third World says Huntington and others are missing the global demographic picture.

Islam is indeed expanding as Christianity loses its force in the Western world, particularly Europe, says historian and religious studies scholar Philip Jenkins, author of “The Next Christendom.” But the numbers of Christians are exploding in the southern hemisphere, he reports.

In his book, newly published by Oxford University Press, Jenkins argues that the post-Sept. 11 commentaries have overlooked the dramatic upsurge of Christianity in places like Africa.

“Basically, you’re talking about Africa being 9 percent Christian back in 1900, and close on 50 percent today. That’s a huge change,” Jenkins said in a telephone interview from his home in State College, Pa., where he teaches at Penn State University. “Somewhere in the 1960s, the number of Christians in Africa outpaced the number of Muslims in Africa. A great, historic change — and nobody paid attention to it.”

As of 2000, there were approximately 2 billion Christians and 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia, which Jenkins draws upon extensively in his book.

Cataclysmic clash

While disputing Huntington’s prediction of a reversal of numerical fortunes, Jenkins does think Christians and Muslims are heading toward a clash that could become cataclysmic. But he sees Islam as facing off in the future not primarily with Western Christianity, but with Christian countries in the developing world.

In a worst-case scenario, he pictures Christian and Islamic countries of the southern hemisphere locked in religious conflicts reminiscent of the Middle Ages. “Imagine the world of the 13th century armed with nuclear warheads and anthrax,” Jenkins writes. He says he put the finishing touches on the book the day before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Roman Catholicism and the Pentecostal churches figure heavily in the author’s portrayal of a “new Christendom” in the Third World, and he sees ample signs of conflict between these two branches of the faith in places like Latin America.

However, since Sept. 11 the warnings of fierce religious rivalries have revolved mainly around Islam.

In his 1996 book, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Huntington predicted that Muslims would outnumber Christians by 2020 or soon after. “In the long run — Muhammad wins out,” he wrote.

But Jenkins asserts that Huntington’s reading of global demographics is skewed. “The problem is that he’s only looking at the high birth rates in Islamic countries. He’s not looking at the high birth rates next door in Christian countries.”

Jenkins points out that the countries with the fastest growing and youngest populations are evenly distributed between Christian and Muslim societies. Based on these trends, he sees Christianity keeping its massive lead in the foreseeable future. Looking farther ahead, to 2050, he still counts three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide.

Beth Baiter, a spokeswoman for Huntington, said he has been in such demand as a writer and speaker since Sept. 11 that he is “granting almost no interviews.” He did not respond to an e-mail request for comment on this point.

Future projections

Jenkins says nobody really knows which religion will prevail in 2050, but he adds it is fairly safe to project the next three or four decades.

He points to countries like Uganda, where between 40 percent and 50 percent of the people are age 14 or under. One would expect such a country to have a booming expansion for at least 30 or 40 years, he said.

Add to that the religious trends there. “There’s a reasonable bet that Uganda is going to be ... about 80 percent Christian in 30 or 40 years. It’s possible that there will be a massive overnight conversion to Islam or Mormonism, but I really doubt it,” Jenkins said.

Most commentators are clueless to these religious realities in the developing world, he said.

“Everyone knows — quote, unquote — that Christianity was taken to places like Africa by missionaries and then presumably when imperialism ended, then Christianity died with it. That’s the impression. But any book written today on religion and Africa, say, would talk about this religious explosion as one of the most remarkable events in the continent,” he said.

It might be more accurate to say southern hemisphere Christianity came into its own only after Western colonial powers packed up and left in the 1950s and 1960s.

“It’s like ... the end of the Roman Empire. It’s after the Roman Empire falls that Christianity really takes off big time in Europe. And that’s exactly what happens in Africa. It’s after the British, the French and the Belgians leave that Christianity takes off,” Jenkins said.

“Think about it. When the empires close down, if you become a Christian, then you no longer think, ‘I’m just doing what the white bosses want me to do.’ It’s no longer like a subservient thing. It’s something you do because you want to, because you believe it.”         

(RNS)

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