Christianity in the Twentieth Century

by Brian Stanley, Princeton, 504pp, £27

A cynical old priest of my acquaintance, long dead, and so politically incorrect as to be, perhaps, scarcely quotable in 21st-century print, once said to me: “I never take much comfort from those who tell us that the Church is flourishing in Africa, even if it is declining in Europe. All this suggests to me is that when the Africans reach our level of prosperity or educational advantage, they too will become secularised.”

It is politically incorrect, but is it true?Sociologists of religion in the past decades have been divided between those who believe that secularised Europe is a “special case”, and that humanity goes on being essentially religious, and those such as the late Bryan Wilson (no relation of mine, though a friend) who – to quote Brian Stanley – “hold that Europe exemplifies the secularised default setting to which the modern (or at least the modernised) world is generally heading”.

Which is true? This is the central question that surely confronts Stanley in his Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History. Without wishing to spoil it for you, he does not entirely make up his mind.

This is partly because, kind, modern person that he no doubt is (I do not know him), he would shrink from the suggestion that, with the growth of widespread educational or economic advantage, it was inevitable that humanity become more “rational”. Still less does he wish to suggest that Western Europeans are in any way more sophisticated than those Muslims, Hindus, animists or Christians who continue enthusiastically to practise their faith in less prosperous areas of the globe.

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