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.”
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.
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.