Counting Europe's believers
The Catholic Church in Norway has recently been involved in a curious scandal that differs radically from the familiar controversies involving sexual abuse by clergy. Just over the last five years, the number of Catholics registered by church authorities has almost doubled, to around 120,000. This magnificent-sounding growth, however, has often involved counting immigrants without their knowledge or consent, on the presumption that their ethnic and geographical background made them likely Catholics. Furious law enforcement authorities charge that Catholic authorities undertook this manipulation with the cynical goal of securing a greater share of public funds, and have even cried fraud.
We can debate the ethics of the church’s behavior, but it does point to a critical and little-appreciated aspect of the study of religion in contemporary Europe. What the Norwegian church did with Catholics is precisely what virtually all public bodies do regularly with non-Christians, and those decisions have shaped (and malformed) our sense of that continent’s religious and ethnic make-up.
Some years ago, I published a book on religion in contemporary Europe entitled God’s Continent, in which I described the array of extremist Islamist groups threatening the continent’s public security. At the same time, I urged that Europeans kept the “Islamic Peril” in a proper perspective, and that we should avoid excessive and alarmist projections of the numbers of Muslims in the West. A decade ago, the officially declared size of Western Europe’s Muslim population was around 4.3 percent of the regional total, rising to around 4.6 percent if we include the whole continent from Ireland to the Russian border. The proportion has risen somewhat since then, but not massively. Even if we take high population projections, then by 2050 we might be talking about a European Muslim population peaking at around 15 percent of the whole. By the standards of minority communities in US history, that is not a large figure.
But as the recent Norwegian case reminds us, counting people on the basis of their presumed religious loyalties is a very risky enterprise. When we use such figures, just what do we mean by “Muslims”?
To illustrate the statistical problems involved, let me introduce you to two imaginary friends of mine. Imagine two young men, both born in Europe and speaking only the language of their country of birth: call them Tony and Tariq. Tony, of white European stock, was baptized Catholic, and generally defines himself as such. Even so, he very rarely sets foot inside the precincts of a church, except for a wedding or funeral, and his knowledge of Christian doctrine or history is close to nonexistent. Tariq is of ethnic Pakistani or Moroccan origin, but his connection to the faith of Islam is just as tenuous. He drinks, fails to observe Ramadan, is not careful about observing dietary laws, and is as sexually opportunistic as Tony. He has a vague idea that his father attends a mosque but is not sure where it is. Tariq is, in short, anything but a good Muslim.
But statistically, the two individuals are reckoned very differently. In compiling religious statistics, agencies would certainly count an “ethnic” individual like Tariq as a Muslim, and part of Europe’s Muslim population. This casual attitude toward religious classification would not matter if agencies applied the same standards across the board, but they do not. Tony, our hypothetical man of Catholic origins, might be counted as a Christian in some statistics but not others.
When estimating religious communities, both agencies and scholars tend to accept the very broad definition of Islam offered by that religion itself, which defines as a Muslim anyone brought up in a Muslim community, or whose father is a Muslim. In this context, the word Muslim is actually shorthand for “a member of ethnic communities established in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, and drawn from African or Asian nations where Islam represents the default religion.” It has no necessary religious connotations, and conflates ethnic, cultural, and religious categories. Honest demographers speak more vaguely of counting “potential Muslims.” Christians, in contrast, are defined in terms of self-identification or religious practice—for instance, by regular church attendance.