Historian Niall Ferguson apparently doesn’t believe in God, but he does want others to believe. If this sounds odd, it is because Ferguson — often an unually insightful thinker — believes that the collapse of belief in Europe threatens to undermine European civilization. Writing with specific reference to Britain and the larger European context, Ferguson had this to say:
I am not sure British people are necessarily afraid of religion, but they are certainly not much interested in it these days. Indeed, the decline of Christianity — not just in Britain but across Europe — stands out as one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times.There was a time when Europe would justly refer to itself as “Christendom.” Europeans built the Continent’s loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarreled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the Earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith. Now it is Europeans who are the heathens. According to the Gallup Millennium Survey of religious attitudes, barely 20% of West Europeans attend church services at least once a week, compared with 47% of North Americans and 82% of West Africans. Fewer than half of West Europeans say God is a “very important” part of their lives, as against 83% of Americans and virtually all West Africans. And fully 15% of West Europeans deny that there is any kind of “spirit, God or life force” — seven times the American figure and 15 times the West African.
Furthermore: Why have the British lost their historic faith? Like so many difficult questions, this seems at first sight to have an easy answer. But before you blame it on “the ’60s” — the Beatles, the Pill and the miniskirt — remember that the United States had all these earthly delights too, without ceasing to be a Christian country. To be frank, I have no idea what the answer is. But I do know that it matters.
Niall Ferguson isn’t sure why Europe has become so thoroughly secularized, but he does know that it matters. A spiritual vacuum will not remain empty. A society that turns its back on Christianity will soon worship at very different altars and follow a very different way of life. Ferguson wonders if the turn from Christianity makes Europe a “soft target” for terrorism. He describes himself as “a hard-shelled materialist.” I wonder if the shell is cracking.
NOTE: Slightly different versions of Ferguson’s article appeared in The Los Angeles Times and The Telegraph [London]. Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University.
R. Albert Mohler Jr.
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