Around 140,000 people crowded into St Peter’s Square to hear Pope Francis deliver Christmas mass today, Christmas day. Rome, and by extension Europe, has been the centre of Christianity ever since Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity some 300 years after, according to Christian tradition, Peter, the first pope, arrived there from the Holy Land to spread the gospel and was later crucified. Two millennia later, Christianity is the world’s most popular religion—there are 30% more self-identified Christians in the world than Muslims—and Europe is still the continent with the largest Christian population.
Nonetheless, European priests and ministers are preaching to ever-emptier pews. Just 10% of adults in France and Sweden go to church once a month or more. In Ireland, regular attendance fell from 90% in 1990 to 60% in 2009. Shrinking congregations have led the Church of England, one of Britain’s largest landowners, to close 1,900 churches since 1969, 11% of the total.
Although immigration has caused the non-Christian share of Europe’s population to rise, the vast majority of the decline in churchgoing stems from creeping secularism, and a trend among the young to favour individual “spirituality” over organised religion. Data from the European Social Survey (ESS), which polled 55,000 Europeans across 29 countries in 2012, show that around a third of Europeans who consider themselves Christian say they attend services once a month or so. Across Europe some 190m people go to church regularly from a nominal Christian population of 585m (see map).
By contrast, sub-Saharan Africans are embracing the gospel with the literal zeal of the converted. According to the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in 1910 just 9% of the 100m people on the African continent were Christian; today the share is 55% of a population of a billion. Moreover, figures from the World Values Survey (WVS), which covers 86,000 people in 60 countries, indicate they are remarkably devout: across five sub-Saharan African countries for which data are available (Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Zimbabwe), 90% of people calling themselves Christian also said they attended church regularly. If those nations are representative of the region as a whole, then perhaps 469m churchgoers now live in Africa. Another 335m or so churchgoing Christians live in Latin America, three-fifths more than in Europe.
Why has Christianity’s centre of gravity shifted south and west? The relationships between church attendance and other survey data provided by the ESS and WVS, along with national-level statistics, offer tantalising clues. One important influence is the dominant strain of Christianity in each region. All else being equal, Orthodox Christians—who do not celebrate Christmas until January 7th—are 14 percentage points less likely to attend church than Catholics, which could be a product of historical antipathy towards religion in the ex-Communist countries where they predominate. The world’s 280m Orthodox Christians reside primarily in Europe. By contrast, evangelicals, who are rare in Europe, are seven percentage points more likely to attend church than Catholics.
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SOURCE: The Economist