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Preparing to inherit the earth

Does slow and steady growth have Christianity primed to take over the West?


First published in the November 2013 issue.

Current events make it appear that Christianity is on a downward slide in North America, as well as all the other Western countries.

But are appearances deceiving?

This is the surprising conclusion of a book by University of London politics professor Eric Kaufmann in his book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? His answer to that question is “yes.”

He’s come to this conclusion despite being a liberal who doesn’t like what he sees. Kaufmann has carefully studied demographic trends and thinks the coming increase in the influence of Christianity in North America (and other religions in different regions) basically amounts to a return to the Dark Ages. He wrote this book to warn fellow liberals that the sky is falling. Despite the dramatic gains for secularization over the last four or five decades, those gains are about to be lost. Kaufmann summarizes his thesis thusly: “this book argues that religious fundamentalists are on course to take over the world through demography.”

Demographic direction

What’s going on here? Well, to make a long story short, secular people don’t like having large families. Many don’t have any children at all. As a result, for many years, most Western countries have had below-replacement birth rates. That is, the average number of children born to each child-bearing-age woman is below 2.1, the number necessary to keep the population stable. This is the result of what demographers are calling the “second demographic transition” (SDT).

(The first demographic transition occurred decades earlier when urbanization and the improvement in medical care decreased infant mortality and led to a decline in the fertility rate.)

The SDT is a result of the 1960s sexual revolution and the rise of feminism, when the values of many people in the Western countries changed. Individualism became much more important and the ideal of getting married and raising children was severely diminished. As a result, the desire for many people to have a traditional family has declined dramatically. There are fewer marriages, more divorces; fewer children, more abortions – you get the picture. The bottom line is that most women are having fewer (if any) children.

Relatively robust

This trend is affecting conservative Christian families to a certain degree as well. The average Christian family is having fewer children than in previous generations. However – and this is a big “however” – the fertility rate of secularist women fell much further than the fertility rate of conservative Christian women.

Christian women still have a relatively robust fertility rate. For example, one 2002 study placed the fertility rate of evangelical Protestant women at 2.5 compared to 1.5 for women without religion. Thus the proportion of conservative Christians in the United States relative to the secularists is growing through the natural increase of child-bearing. There is no reason to believe that this trend will stop, and the long-term consequences are enormous. According to Kaufmann, the influence of conservative Christians will increase:

“After 2020, their demographic weight will begin to tip the balance in the culture wars towards the conservative side, ramping up pressure on hot-button issues such as abortion.”

Kaufmann refers to the population growth of conservative religious people as “demographically turbo-charged piety.”

Demographic change, then and now

Interestingly, there’s a precursor in history to a rise in Christian influence through demographic growth. Some scholars believe that the success of Christianity during its first two to three hundred years was partially the result of demographic factors. Christianity had a more family-centered ethos than paganism and therefore attracted a disproportionate number of female converts. Thus the Christians likely had a higher fertility rate than the pagans. Christians also cared for their sick during plagues, so they had a lower morality rate. “Higher fertility, lower mortality and a female skew in the childbearing age ranges endowed Christians with a significant demographic advantage over pagans.” In addition to evangelism, this contributed to the rapid growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire before Emperor Constantine became a Christian himself.

Demographic change takes time, so the results don’t become evident immediately. Nevertheless, it will ultimately have a large impact. For example, the so-called “mainline” Protestant churches which abandoned the Bible decades ago are part of the secularist trend. This contrasts sharply with the conservative Protestants who still uphold the Bible as the Word of God. Kaufmann notes the effect on demography:

“Between 1960 and 2000, liberal Protestant denominations saw their share of the American religious market cut in half from 16 to 8 per cent, while conservative Protestants doubled in size from 7 to 16 per cent.”

Although not as pronounced as in North America, the higher fertility of conservative Protestants in two European countries is notable. According to Kaufmann,

“In Europe, the roughly 100,000 Conservative Laestadian Lutherans of Finland and more than 1 million Dutch Orthodox Calvinists have both bucked secularizing trends. These high fertility endogenous growth sects are starting to make an impact: there are now more Orthodox Calvinist church attenders than those of its liberal parent, the Dutch Reformed Church, whose parishioners once outnumbered them six to one.”

In various regions of the world conservative religious believers have a higher fertility rate than secular-minded people. Thus Kaufmann discusses the high fertility rates of Muslims in the Arab world and parts of Europe, as well as the high fertility rate of Orthodox Jews in Israel. So the complete picture offered in his book is not all good news for Christianity. But for North America, certain regions of Europe (and hopefully places like Australia and New Zealand), conservative Christianity has the upper hand demographically.

Ideas have consequences

In obedience to God, Biblical Christianity strengthens the family, encourages married couples to have children, forbids abortion and frowns on divorce. This leads to high fertility and the growth of the church over time.

In contrast, the modern secularist mindset emphasizes individualism: focus on yourself, not others. Having children will tie you down, especially if you are a woman, and prevent you from reaching your potential. You could be the president of a corporation or a high-flying lawyer – but only if you don’t have children.

People who believe this way will not leave many descendants – they and their ideology have a barren future.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the proportion of conservative Christians in North America will grow relative to secularists. Ideas have consequences, and since the secularists (generally speaking) emphasize their own personal and individual ease and happiness, having children won’t be an important part of their lives. Thus they are beginning to lose the demographic race with conservative Christianity. Because of these demographic trends Kaufmann laments, “In effect, secularism must run to stand still and sprint in order to succeed. In America, as in the world, it looks destined to fail in the long term.”

Even more to the point, due to its emphasis on individualism at the expense of having children, “Secular liberalism lies hoist on its own petard.”


The pervasiveness of pornography, the legalization of abortion, the invention of no-fault divorce and gay marriage, and the spread of euthanasia, are just a few of the events that might make it seem as if Christianity is on the wane in the West. But the day-to-day faithfulness of conservative Christians in their families, bearing and raising children, is the tortoise that will win the race against the child-avoiding secularist hare.

There’s a common saying that “demography is destiny.” That might be somewhat overstated, but the basic point is sound: significant change in the size and structure of populations determines the future of nations. With this in mind, current fertility rates give conservative Christians in North America a reason to be optimistic for the long-term future.

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Overpopulation is a myth, and we should have known

While overpopulation fears aren't causing the same panic they once did, this bogeyman hasn't disappeared entirely. The United Nations still has their Population Fund, advising nations on how to handle, as their mandate puts it, "population problems." While China has moved away from a One-Child-Policy – couples were fined, or even forced to have abortion if they had a second child – the government still has a Two-Child Policy. And while India's Supreme Court shut down that country's mass sterilization camps just this past year, the country is still committed to population control. So why does the myth persist? Two reasons: Most aren't familiar with the current state of the world. We don't hear about how things are improving, and how poverty is decreasing even as population is growing. Many still trust these doom and gloom prophets because they aren't familiar with the predictions that were made back in the 60's and 70s. The younger generation, especially, doesn't understand just how outrageously and how disastrously wrong these experts were. The world today Last year Japan’s birthrate fell below 1 million for the first time, while 1.3 million deaths were recorded. Since 2010 Japan’s population has shrunk by approximately 1.2 million (or roughly 1%). And they aren’t the only country shrinking; Russia has roughly 4 million less citizens than it had in 1995. We can see in Europe that population has leveled off, with deaths exceeding births for the first time in 2015, so growth is due only to immigration, not procreation. In Canada, too, we are not having children at replacement levels – whereas we would need 2.1 children born per woman to maintain a stable population (this number is slightly over 2, to account for children who don’t survive childhood), our birthrate is only 1.6. The United States, Australia, and the Western world in general are all under 2. There are problems that come with this, as an aging population doesn't have enough young people to care for it. The overall world population does continue to grow, with the growth focussed primarily in the developing world. For example, Africa's population has just passed 1.2 billion, up from roughly half that in 1990. But even as world’s population increases, we’ve seen not a shortage of food, but an increase in our ability to feed the planet. And poverty continues to decline worldwide – by one measure, extreme poverty has been more than halved over the last 30 years, even as the population has grown from 5 billion to more than 7 billion. Starvation does still occur, but that is due more to government corruption and war than to an inability to produce enough. The predictions of the past But how can things be getting better even as the world population increases? As one of the best-known population alarmists, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, noted, a finite planet cannot sustain infinite growth – at some point the Earth is going to run out of food, room, and resources. That seems to be a matter of basic math. And it's this basic math that had Ehrlich make this prediction in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate..." People under 40 may not understand the scope of the disaster population alarmists were predicting. Ehrlich said England wouldn't exist by the year 2,000 – this was end-of-the-world-type rhetoric, and people were taking it seriously. This New York Times video does a good job of capturing just how scared people were. Clearly Ehrlrich was wrong. But to many it is less than clear as to why. One reason is a revolution in agriculture that was deemed "the Green Revolution." Even as Ehrlich was making his doom and gloom predictions, an American innovator, Dr. Norman Borlaug, was developing new strains of wheat and new farming techniques that dramatically increased crop yield. As Henry Miller wrote in Forbes: "How successful were Borlaug’s efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland." Ehrlich was about as wrong as wrong can be. The world has not ended; things have dramatically improved. And lest we attribute it simply to luck – Norman Borlaug just happening to come around just when we needed him to save us from disaster – we need to view this from a Christian perspective. Ehrlich, and population alarmists viewed each new baby as being a drain on the planet. They didn't see them as human beings given a task to develop the planet. They didn't recognize that while each human being does come with a mouth that needs to be fed, we are also gifted by our Creator with a brain, and with two hands, with which we can produce. We not only consume, we create (and in doing so reflect our Creator God). That's how more people can mean more, not less, resources - that's why food production has gone up, and poverty down, even as population continues to rise. Not just wrong but dangerous Overpopulation alarmism isn't just wrong, it's dangerous. This end-of-the-world rhetoric had a role in the Roe vs. Wade decision which legalized abortion in America. It has been used to justify government-funded abortion, forced sterilizations, and actions like China’s One-Child Policy, and now Two-Child Policy, under which tens of millions of Chinese babies have been aborted, many against their parents' wishes. Meanwhile, in Africa, where the population is growing, the first annual Africa-China Conference on Population and Development was just held in Kenya and hosted by the Chinese government and the United Nations Population Fund.’s Shannon Roberts shared how some of the speakers pointed to China’s coercive population controls as worthy of imitation. And at least one Kenyan media outlet thought that wasn’t such a bad idea. The Daily Nation commented: “With a controlled population, the Chinese economy boomed, benefiting from cheap labour from its many people and rising to be the second largest after the United States. Should Kenyans do the same?” Population controls are not just a problem of the past – they exist and are still being advocated for today. That's why we need to bury the overpopulation bogeyman once and for all, before it kills millions more. Christians falling short The Bible doesn't speak to all issues with the same degree of clarity. But when it comes to the population alarmism, God couldn’t be clearer: children are not a curse to be avoided but a blessing to be received (Gen. 1:28; 9:1, 9:7, Prov. 17:6, Ps. 127:3-5, Ps. 113:9, etc.). Back already in the 1960s Christians could have spoken out against overpopulation alarmism, based on the clarity of these texts. And some did. But the Church is so often impacted by what we hear from the world around us. We let ourselves be muted, we let ourselves become uncertain. We start to ask, "Did God really say?" And then, like the watchman on the wall who failed to give warning (Ez. 33:6) we become responsible for the deaths we might have been able to prevent, if we'd only spoken out. It's back? While the overpopulation hysteria has died down in recent years, this bogeyman is primed for a resurrection. Global warming and concerns about CO2 emissions have some questioning "Should we be having kids in the age of climate change?" The argument, so it goes, is that people can't help but have some sort of carbon footprint, so the only sure way of reducing carbon emissions is to have less people on the planet. Once again we are being urged to have "one and be done." Once again children are being portrayed as a problem rather than as a blessing. The Bible doesn't address climate change as clearly as it does overpopulation alarmism, but what we can be certain of is this: obedience to God is not going to destroy our planet. While obeying God doesn't always lead to a smooth life for Christians here on Earth – following God can lead to a loss of friends, or business opportunities, or result in persecution – when we as a society turn to God then prosperity follows. Then we end slavery, open hospitals, develop Science, create industry. This obedience doesn't even need to be of the heart-felt sort to still reap benefits – even unbelievers, when they follow God's commands for marriage, sex, and parenting will have better results (for a book-length treatment of this thought, see Vishal Mangalwadi's The Book That Made Your World). Our disobedience can be destructive – our self-centeredness, greed, jealousy, and hatred can cause real harm. But not our obedience. That's why the begetting of many children is not something we need feel guilty about, or refrain from, out of concern for the climate. We can be certain that the world’s doom will not be caused by us, in obedience, listening to God and having children. God has spoken out against overpopulation alarmism, so we need to. The next time you hear someone talking about overpopulation, point them to the Bible and share how spectacularly incorrect all the doom and gloom predictions have been. We need to bury this bogeyman....