Religion's decline and fertility

Total Posts:  2323
Joined  19-02-2006
23 June 2007 04:54

I read this morning and found it interesting. It is long article from an academic journal but it really does question some strongly held assumptions. The main being the relationship between the fertility rates and religious belief. If your one to get excited about essays of such a nature from Stanford university's The Hoover Review Policy Forum journal then this is the article for you. Dawkins is mentioned and it deals with Nietzche, but quite informative and so simple that you might say (like I did) This makes sense it is so simple that I should have thought of that. (I think all good philosophy makes you say that)


The Thesis

This essay represents what might be called a radical friendly amendment to the revisionists. It questions the theory of secularization and, by extension, its father Nietzsche, not by citing current facts about religious renewal or historical facts about Christianity’s influence, but rather by exploring a hitherto unexamined logical leap in the famous story line. To be fancy about it for a moment, what secularization theory assumes is that religious belief comes ontologically first for people and that it goes on to determine or shape other things they do — including such elemental personal decisions as whether they marry and have children or not.10 Implied here is a striking, albeit widely assumed, view of how one social phenenomenon powers another: that religious believers are more likely to produce families because religious belief somehow comes first.

And therein lies a real defect with the conventional story line about how and why religion collapsed in Western Europe. For what has not been explained, but rather assumed throughout that chain of argument, is why the causal relationship between belief and practice should always run that way instead of the other, at least some of the time. It is as if recent intellectual history had lined up all the right puzzle pieces — modernity, belief and disbelief, technology, shrinking and absent families — only to press them together in a way that looks whole from a distance but leaves something critical out.

This essay is a preliminary attempt to supply that missing piece. It moves the human family from the periphery to the center of this debate over secularization — and not as a theoretical exercise, but rather because compelling empirical evidence suggests an alternative account of what Nietzsche’s madman really saw in the “tombs” (read, the churches and cathedrals) of Europe.

In brief, it is not only possible but highly plausible that many Western European Christians did not just stop having children and families because they became secular. At least some of the time, the record suggests, they also became secular because they stopped having children and families. If this way of augmenting the conventional explanation for the collapse of faith in Europe is correct, then certain things, including some radical things, follow from it.


Total Posts:  461
Joined  16-12-2006
23 June 2007 06:51

I read the article rather quickly - it’s a simple idea, but a bright one.
I’m strongly in favor of the collapse of the traditional family and the collapse of religious authority, as well as being in favor of a steep decline in population.
The sort of religion I follow is developing quite nicely in Europe. I don’t know what sort of community structure it’s associated with there. Here in America I know it’s not emerging from traditional family ties. So I’d be curious to find out more about this cause and effect between ‘religion’ and ‘fertility’ when my type of religion is taken into account.
My type of religion is described very well in a best selling book I’m reading right now - “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert.  This is a delightfully written book detailing a year of travel after a bitter divorce and failed love affair. Because she is a professional writer she was able to take a year to be on her own in Italy, India and Indonesia with this book paying for her trip. She is seeking balance in her life, and although I haven’t quite finished the book, she has definitely found it. Part of what she has found she calls ‘God’ and I love the way she is able to use that word without worrying too much about what it means. She is able to articulate her meditation and spiritual experiences so that I know exactly what she’s talking about.
Women like Elizabeth Gilbert and myself have nothing against marriage or children or religion. But we are very much against confinement.  Give us the opportunity to earn our own money, and say goodbye to stale marriages and sclerotic, male-dominated churches.

Total Posts:  2890
Joined  02-12-2004
23 August 2007 11:36

It’s an interesting article, but I don’t think it’s very convincing. If people are likely to become religious by having children, would it really matter how many children? The idea of religion leading to larger families also seems to follow much more naturally than their caricature of claiming it only relates to the Catholic contraception ban makes it seem. That leaves their main point of evidence is a time delay between family size decrease and religious service attendance dropping. The simpler explanation, I propose, is that many people lost faith earlier and simply didn’t advertise it. I predict a statistically significant increase in the number of American atheists showing up within the next ten years (time frame arbitrarily chosen).

Total Posts:  136
Joined  22-08-2005
13 October 2007 21:07

I’m not certain that religion itself leads to higher fertility rates, and secularism leads to lower birth rates. Rather, you have several factors which are more prevalent amongst the religious which lead to higher birth rates:

1) A more restricted role for women. This runs from the absolute subjegation of women in Islam to a stress on motherhood as the most important role of women amongst moderate Christians. However, I’m not certain that a moderate Protestant American Christian is that likely to have more children than the average non-believer. The increased fertility rates for believers are probably boosted by more conservative sects.
2) Less access to birth control. Religion seems to view sex as something wrong in itself, and so discourages the availability of birth control on the grounds that it will encourage casual sex. This, of course, doesn’t work. What it does do is encourage casual pregnancy. The status of women also plays a role here; when women have few rights, the rights they most often lack are reproductive rights—access to birth control.
3) Lower education. Rates of religiosity have an inverse correlation to level of education. People with lower education have more ‘accidents’ than those with higher education, and those with higher levels of education tend to delay having children longer, until they are finished school and have a good start on their careers (early 30’s as opposed to early 20’s.)

Keep in mind that higher birth rates do not necessarily translate into higher long term demographics. It was assumed, for example, that, since peasants tended to have more children, and that there were more peasants in the first place, England was populated mainly by peasant stock. A recent study suggests that in fact, 3/4 of England’s population are descendants of the merchant class or higher. It turns out that attrition rates amongst the descendants of peasants more than cancelled out all of their advantages in numbers. The very factors which encourage high birth rates can also lead to high attrition rates. Demography is not necessarily destiny.