June 13, 2024

The Return Of Religion Through Demographics, Part 1 (Joshua Ramos)

The following is the first of a three-part series.

Demography, the return of religion and secularization are linked together within the paradigm of globalization. Is there a return of religion within Western societies through the high fertility rates of religious cohorts versus the low fertility of secular cohorts?

Certain demographers and political scientists have argued in favor for the scenario of the reversal of secularization through the abundant fecundity of the religious. The religious shall inherit the earth, as argued by Eric Kaufmann, through the sheer force of reproduction, because high religiosity correlates strongly with high fertility. The religious tend on average to have more children than the non-religious.

However, Olivier Roy’s thesis of deculturation contradicts this possibility of the religious inheriting the earth through the overabundance of child bearing, because deculturated religion lacks the inherit ability to transmit religion and religious identity to the next generation. Deculturated religion is one that consists of personal conversion and is fundamentally a ‘born-again’ experience that requires an individual faith commitment towards the norms and codes of that religion. Such an individuated faith cannot be passed down within a smooth transition within secularized societies, as this kind of born-again faith requires each individual to decide for himself. Deculturated religion is the loss of nominal religion, which means the loss of religion as a cultural identity.

The demographic thesis of the reversal of religion through fertility rates is thereby contested, as the children of religious parents will be thrown into pluralized western societies where the tendency is to disaffiliate or liberalize within the secular milieu. Secularization, which correlates with low fertility rates, creates the reaction of the religious who attempt a re- sacralization through high fertility rates. Such a reaction is a characteristic of deculturated fundamentalist religion.

Furthermore, both attitudes of the secular and the religious towards child bearing are centered around choice, which is a byproduct of individualized autonomy. As globalization is the driving force that transforms religion into a reaction against the secularized immanent frame, this plays out in the will to reproduce and in the choice of retaining the faith. Deculturated religion ensures that each generational cohort must make that choice of whether or not to retain the faith of his or her parents. For Olivier Roy, this is not likely.

Globalization and Religious Demography

The resurgence of religion can be understood within the dynamics of human population, which if we follow Manfred Steger’s definition of globalization as principally “shifting forms of human contact”1, central to any theory of religion and globalization would necessitate a demographic dimension. Demography is destiny”—a phrase coined in the 1970’s by Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammons in The Real Majority, suggests the capable dynamic of changes in human population to powerfully and persuasively shape the political and cultural landscape of any given nation or state.2 One can criticize this by saying that to understand demography in terms of destiny is yet another reductionism.

But this is to largely miss the point, for as American political scientist Jack Goldstone points out, “to admit that demography is not destiny is not to deny its power.”3 Goldstone likens the force of demography to the weight of gravity: inasmuch as gravity is capable of being defied through human ingenuity, this feat has not been accomplished through ignoring or dismissing its force, but has occurred rather through our own measures of gravity’s interactions and understanding of its nature; this similarly applies to demography. The transformative force of social and cultural processes that reside at the core of globalization—collaboration within global civil society, conflict between religious and political identities, and the current vast increase in migration that is challenging the identity and boundaries of the nation-state—can be relatively elucidated through an investigation of the magnitude, composition and distribution of human population.

As British sociologist David Voas has written, “People enter, exit, and move within religion, just as they are born, will die, and migrate, in life.”4 Whether for war or peace, the demographic factor “must be considered as a major factor of politics alongside classic materialist, idealist and institutional perspectives”, and should be placed within the core of any investigation of globalization and the resurgence of religion. Within this context of globalization, demographics and the resurgence of religion, there are possible challenges to secularism within one of the basic parameters of demography, that of birthrates. In short, in every major world religion there is a strong pronatalist trend, and it is demographically projected that the religious are set to outbirth the non-religious at such a prodigious rate, that it is argued that there will occur a stalling and possible modest reversal of secularization within the United States and Europe around 2050.5

For there is a strong connection between religiosity and fertility, and this is largely due to the force that religion plays within the social cohesion and moral tradition of these communities that are oriented towards transcendent goals. The fact is that on average “conservative religious values tend to be associated with higher fertility, while liberal secular values predict lower birthrates”.6 Values stand above socioeconomics when it comes to determining the rate and amount of fertility. While most modern, secularized developed countries and many developing countries are well under the total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.1—the ‘magic’ or ‘golden’ number for a society to reproductively replace itself—those of conservative, religious communities resist this general direction in fertility rates, choosing to remain at or above the golden number.

In 2011, political scientist Eric Kaufmann along with Austrian demographers Anne Goujon and Vegard Skirbekk released the article “The End of Secularization in Europe? A Socio- Demographic Perspective” in which they argue that “a combination of higher religious fertility, immigration, and slowing rates of religious apostasy will eventually produce areversal in the decline of the religious population in Western Europe”.7 Religiosity, migration and fertility play a strong role in the United States as well, where secular Americans have an average total fertility rate of 1.66, as opposed to Catholics who average at 2.3, Protestants at 2.21, and Muslims at 2.84, and where the birthrate of those with religious conservative views in regard to abortion is two-thirds higher on average than those who hold to “pro-choice” views. 8

In 2010, Kaufmann, Goujon and Vegard released the first cohort-component based projection of the main religions of the United States in Secularism, Fundamentalism or Catholicism? The Religious Composition of the United States to 2043, whose results showed that “the low fertility of secular Americans and the religiosity of immigrants provide a countervailing force to secularization…”.9 The largest immigrant cohort, Hispanic Catholics, will experience the strongest growth of any ethno-religious group, expanding to 18 percent of the American population by 2043.10

With this sort of differential fertility gap between the religious and the nonreligious, and between those with conservative and liberal values and beliefs, Kaufmann and Skirbekk project the possibility that “American religious conservatism will most likely strengthen in years to come unless liberals close the fertility gap.”11 And if religious conservatism rises through an increase of its stock and an expansion of its culture, what challenges will this bring to the values and identities within the quarters of liberalism?12 This shift stands to offset the effect of liberalism within the United States and Europe, however modest or however grand. Yet, a further question to be raised is: does modern, secular, political/cultural liberalism contain the necessary resources of tradition, social cohesion and civitas—“the spontaneous willingness to make sacrifices for some public good”13 —necessary to close this fertility gap between those conservative religious communities who value high fertility in their doctrine (to be fruitful and multiply) and ethos (eschatological sacrifice for the world to come).

Political scientist Eric Kaufman is skeptical of liberalism’s pronatalist capability, for as social theorist Daniel Bell has pointed out in his Contradiction of Capitalism, there is located within modern, liberal society a fundamental contradiction, which is “the relation between self- interest and the public interest, between personal impulses and community requirements.”14 The present cultural condition is characterized by a sense of individual entitlements, an argot that often masks under the pretensions of human flourishing, which at its core resembles more ‘unrestrained appetite’ and unfettered individualistic impulse than the realization of the public good. In the modern realm of human reproduction and childbearing—where self-interest and individualistic aesthetic impulse, to say the least, is not necessarily a virtue towards achieving high fertility—we may perhaps find here the vulnerability of liberalism and secularization. As Kaufmann put it, “liberalism’s demographic contradiction—individualism leading to the choice not to reproduce—may well be the agent that destroys it.”15 In short, religious growth via high fertility rates, in direct opposition to the low fertility rates of the nonreligious, will become a major impetus of social, cultural and political change within the context of globalization and the resurgence of religion in the ensuing decades.

The triumph of religious fertility has its precedence in Western history. Just take American sociologist Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity for example, who argues that, “superior fertility played a significant role in the rise of Christianity.” 16 Christian fertility had far surpassed that of the Greco-Roman empire—which was already well below 2.1 replacement levels at the inception of Christianity—through its refusal of “the attitudes and practices that caused pagans to have low fertility”17 Christianity rejected the common Greco-Roman pagan cultural patterns of fertility: abortion, infanticide of females and deformed males, birth control devices, divorce, cohabitation, and any other social factors which lead to a natural decrease in fertility rates.

The ethos and habits of fertility within Christianity, which was a result from Judaism’s scriptural injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, encouraged pronatalism through the cultural pattern of marital fidelity and the moral reinforcement of the marital conjugal act as bearing a natural connection to reproduction. These values and practices of pronatalism that characterized the spirit of Christianity crucially aided its growth within the Greco-Roman empire, and among other important social factors, Christianity saw its rise from a population of about 1,000 Christians from the year 40 C.E. to a robust estimate of around 33 million by 350 C.E. This pattern of growth, which Rodney Stark averages to about 40 percent per decade, mimics the growth of 20th century Mormonism, which averaged at 43 percent per decade.18

Monica Duffy Toft traces this growth to Mormonism’s “strongly pronatalist theology, history and subculture…”19 that presently continues to have a strong influence on Mormon fertility. And Mormonism has grown into a more visible contender in the public square. In 2004, the GOP received 97 percent of the Mormon vote, which is “the most partisan voting record of any ethnic or religious group in the United States.”20 They have recently pervaded the television, Internet and billboards with the cultural campaign “I am a Mormon”, and were also instrumental in placing one of their own as the 2012 Republican Party presidential nominee. This influential growth of a religious group that solidly identifies with a particular set of values is the visible effect of a pronatalist theology and an ethos of high fertility. Much like the rise of Christianity in the Greco- Roman era, what happens in the private sphere of reproductive choice does not remain silent in the public square.

Joshua Ramos is Senior Projects Editor for The New Polis.


1 Manfred Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: 2009), 8.

2 Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammons, The Real Majority: An Extraordinary Examination of the American Electorate, (Coward, McCann, and Geogohan, 1971).

3 Jack Goldstone, “Politics and Demographyin Goldstone, Jack, Eric P. Kaufmann and Monica Duffy Toft, eds, Political Demography (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), 276.

4 Skirbekk, Vegard, Eric Kaufmann and Anne Goujon, “Secularism, Fundamentalism or Catholicism? The religious composition of the United States to 2043”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(2): 293-310 (June 2010), 293.

5 Eric Kaufmann and Vegard Skirbekk “Go Forth and Multiply”, Political Demography, 209.

6 Eric Kaufmann and Vegard Skirbekk “Go Forth and Mulitpy”, Political Demography, 200.

7 Kaufmann, Eric, Anne Goujon and Vegard Skirbekk, “The End of Secularization in Europe? A Socio-Demographic Perspective” Sociology of Religion, 73 (1): 69-91 (Spring 2012). emphasis theirs.

8 Eric Kaufmann and Vegard Skirbekk “Go Forth and Mulitpy”, Polical Demography, 204.

9 Skirbekk, Vegard, Eric Kaufmann and Anne Goujon, “Secularism, Fundamentalism or Catholicism? The religious composition of the United States to 2043 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(2): 293-310 (June 2010), 293.

11 Ibid., 304.

10 Eric Kaufmann and Vegard Skirbekk, “Go Forth and Multiply”, Political Demography, 202.

12 By liberalism I mean the continuous development of individual rights and civil liberties that favor and procure behaviors and progressive social conditions that figure away from traditional norms.

13 Daniel Bell, Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1976), 25.

14 Ibid., 250.

15 Eric Kaufman, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? (London: Profile Books, 2010), xx.

16 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1997), 112.

17 Ibid., 122.

18 Ibid., 7.

19 Monica Duffy Toft, “Wombfare”, Political Demography, 221-223.

20 Ibid., 223.

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