Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fascinating Insight into Comparative Birth Rates Between the Religious and the Irreligious

Does strong religious belief provide an evolutionary advantage?

Phillip Longman/11/11/1o/ Boston Review

“Is God Dead?” I was 11 years old I when spotted that
still-notorious 1966 Time magazine cover story on my uncle’s coffee table. The news that God was, if not dead, then at least missing, I absorbed with the literalness of a not-yet-quite adolescent. It certainly seemed possible, since I had never seen him, despite much time in church. Nor did God seem involved in world events as I was coming to understand them. No one I knew evoked God’s handiwork to explain the world they saw coming for my generation. As Time quoted Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, “The great American proposition is ‘religion is good for the kids, though I'm not religious myself.’” At the end of childhood in a secular age, that seemed about right. God was in the same category as Santa Claus.

Today, of course, God is very much back, in the news at least. Indeed, God is so much back that the so-called New Atheists — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and others — are furiously writing books denouncing the growing role of religious fundamentalism in world affairs, from inspiring Islamic terrorists to mobilizing “value voters” in the United States. How did this happen?

For secularists, the least upsetting explanation depends on the familiar “forces of reaction” excuse. Too much change, too much freedom, too much bright-light-of-reason affects some people like a virus, causing them to regress into “magical thinking” and or to “cling” to other forms of primitivism. In the Middle East, this narrative insists, rapid urbanization, modernization, alienation created a resurgence of religious fundamentalism. For the growing ranks of the Christian Right, so goes the thought, the “values revolution” set off in the 1960s — feminism, gay rights, self-actualization, multiculturalism — was just too much to bear. They will get over it in time, secularists reassure themselves, and if not, then most of their children will.

Here’s a serious problem with that theory: today’s strongly religious people tend to have a relatively large number of children, whereas secularists increasingly have few, if they have them at all. If you believe in evolution (and what secularist doesn’t?), then you have to take this thoroughly naturalistic explanation for God’s comeback into account.

To be sure, in countries rich and poor, under all forms of government, birth rates are declining across the globe. But they are declining least among those adhering to strict religious codes and literal belief in the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran. Indeed, the pattern of human fertility now fits this pattern: the least likely to procreate are those who profess no believe in God; those who describe themselves as agnostic or simply spiritual are only somewhat slightly less likely to be childless.

Moving up the spectrum, family size increases among practicing Unitarians, Reform Jews, mainline Protestants and “cafeteria” Catholics, but the birthrates found in these populations are still far below replacement levels. Only as we approach the realm of religious belief and practice marked by an intensity we might call, for lack of a better word, “fundamentalism,” do we find pockets of high fertility and consequent rapid population growth.

According to a study published in the American Journal of Sociology, three quarters of the growth of conservative Protestantism in the United States is explained by the compounding effect of this population’s higher birth rates over the last century as compared with mainline Protestants. Moreover, the correlation between fundamentalist faith and high fertility continues as we travel still further along the spectrum of religious belief and practice. So, for example, the “Andy Weaver” Amish, who are perhaps the strictest of all in their rejection of modernity, have higher fertility (average 6.2 children per family) than the do the New Order Amish, (4.8 children) who starting in the 1960s made such concessions to progress as allowing electricity into their homes.

Similarly within Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, with an average of nearly seven children per family, are far outbreeding merely Orthodox Jews, to say nothing of more secular Israelis. Accordingly, we now find a profound generational difference in Israeli society that reverses the pattern of history that even many religious people once supposed would inevitably lead to the decline of ancient beliefs and customs.

Today, just 2.3 percent of Israelis over age 80 are Haredi. But such is the demographic momentum of this sect that 16 percent of all Israeli children under 10 are within its fold.

When confronted with the fact that they are being outbred, secularists often respond that many if not most children born into highly religious families will grow up to reject the faith of their fathers — such is the assumed allure of freedom and individuality. This thought comports with the life experience of the many members of the Baby Boom generation, who shook off the bonds of traditional authority in the 1960s and 1970s, and who cannot imagine why the rest of humanity will not eventually catch on and catch up.

Arguing against this proposition, however, are some stubborn demographic facts. Among fundamentalist families, it turns out, the apple does not fall far from the tree. And the more demanding the faith, the more this rule applies.

Only five percent of children born to the most conservative Amish, for example, move on to other faiths or lifestyles. The defection rate is higher among New Order Amish, Mormons and other comparatively less demanding fundamentalist communities, yet they still hold on to the majority of their children. Moreover, what defections they may experience are more than offset by converts, with the net flow favoring conservative faiths, according to poll data gathered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Thus we see 21 percent of converts leaving liberal and moderate denominations for more fundamentalist ones, and only 15 percent going the other way. There are many swirls and currents that affect us all as individuals, but between higher fertility and more successful indoctrination, the main demographic tide of history is clearly flowing in favor of fundamentalism.

These and other relevant findings from the sociology of religion come from a powerful new book by Eric Kaufmann entitled Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. The book has been released in the United Kingdom, and will be published in the United States next spring. A graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who currently teaches at the University of London, Kaufmann provides no faith-based arguments, and doesn’t need them to make his point. Good old-fashioned Darwinism applied empirically to modern conditions will do.

In a world in which childbearing is rarely accidental and almost never rewarding economically, birthrates increasingly reflect values choices. And so, by Darwinian process, those who adhere to traditions that preserve and celebrate the ancient injunction to “go forth and multiply” wind up putting more of their genes and ideas into the future than those who don’t.

As Kaufmann shows, fertility, over time, plays out like compound interest. That is, even if religiously fundamentalist families only have a few more children than secular or religiously moderate counterparts, and they can keep those children holding on to fundamentalist faith and values (especially related to child-bearing), the passage of generations will greatly magnify their numbers and influence. Similarly, secularists and others who choose to have only one or two children, and who pass those values on to their children, will, over time, see their population decline precipitously.
Ironically, the structure and sensibility of secular society is bringing about its own demise.

By the 1960s, expanding secularism may have set back religion severely as a force in history, but in doing do so, it strengthened the remaining strongholds of faith and set in motion patterns of reproduction and acculturation that would allow its most fundamentalist forms to reclaim the future. Though there may of course be a deeper reason, one need believe no more than this to understand why the God who was missing in my childhood has returned.

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