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Religion’s built-in baby boom?

17 December 2010

Grace Davie doubts whether the pious will outbreed the others


KAUFMANN’s book raises crucially important questions — those that link the understanding of modern religion to the science of demo­graphy. The central thesis is easily summarised: religious people have more children than those of little or no faith — a tendency that is even more marked among “funda­mentalists”. The long-term con­sequence will be a steady, and not always wel­come, process of de-secularisa­tion.

In itself this idea is not new. Earlier publications from the World Values Study (WVS), for example, claimed that as the world modern­ised it would necessarily secularise. At the same time, how­ever, secular individuals are less inclined to re­produce themselves than their reli­gious counterparts, meaning that the secularisation process is self-limiting (P. Norris and R. Ingelhard, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics World­wide, Cambridge Uni­versity Press, 2004).

Kaufmann develops what was largely a side issue in the WVS work as his main thesis. He begins with two conceptual chapters: one on the crisis of secularism and one on the hidden hand of history — demo­graphic change. Four case studies follow: on the United States, on the Muslim world, on Europe, and on the State of Israel. In each, Kaufmann demonstrates how the tendency for the religious, and more especially the conservatively reli-gious, to have more children than their secular compat­riots will have far-reaching con­sequences for the societies in question.

These are important questions that deserve our close attention. I have, however, serious reservations about some of Kaufmann’s con­clusions. It is one thing to establish a relationship between religious predilections and family size, but quite another to use this to make projections — rather alarmist ones — for centuries to come. Such pro­jections rest inevitably on “all other things being equal”, which is very unlikely to be the case. Indeed, in the field of religion, life is full of surprises.

In the 1960s, for example, it was commonplace to argue that liberal Protestantism was the form of Christianity most suited to the modern world — in that liberal Protestants were intellectually at­tuned to modern developments and were able to make connections be­tween their faith and the sur­round­ing society. Conservative forms of religion, conversely, were destined to decline. Some 40 years later, precisely the reverse has happened: it is the more rigorous (often emo­tional) types of religion which flourish at the expense of the purely cerebral. Why, then, should the predictions made today be any more stable than those made by previous genera­tions?

Kaufmann recognises the shift that I have just described, explaining this as the reaction of “fundamental-­ism” to what seemed (indeed, to many still seems) the inexorable march of secularism. It is here that my second reservation is located. Under the rubric “fundamentalism” (itself a loaded term), Kaufmann brings together a very wide range of religions — including, among others, the Amish, the Mormons, and the new religious Right in North America, the Laestadian Lutherans of Finland, Pentecostals from different parts of the global South, various forms of Islamism, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

Most certainly, it is possible to be too fastidious about the definition of fundamentalism and to render the term almost useless, but Kauf­mann goes to the other extreme — he includes too much. Not all those listed above are fundamentalists in the general understanding of the term: they are simply distinctive in their religious views and choose, in some cases, to keep them­selves to themselves.

Specifically, the elision of Pentecostals and funda­mentalists is a serious category error.

This brings me to my final comment. The book raises an interesting theme, but is too often written for effect. The style, as well as the content, fails to convince — not least the misuse of terms, un­necessary repetitions, and the name-dropping. This is a pity, given that the topics exposed by Kaufmann deserve very careful consideration. Is there a connection between reli­giousness and fertility? What are the reasons for this, and is this connec­tion likely to endure for the fore­seeable future?

Dr Grace Davie is Professor of Sociology at the Univer­sity of Exeter.

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