December 1, 2022

The Return Of Religion Through Demographics, Part 2 (Joshua Ramos)

The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here.

Globalization of Fertility Decline

Political theologies of pronatalism must be set within the greater global context of our present demographic situation. The world is on the cusp of a demographic transition that can reasonably be described in the terms of an upheaval or revolution. The 21st century will be the age of ‘greying’ or hyperaging cohorts within the world’s developed countries, which will shrink their labor forces and direct economic strength to the world’s developing countries.1 In conjunction with the age of the ‘greying’ cohorts there will also come the global plummet of fertility rates. The world’s population as a whole has initialized a reversal in its momentum towards growth and is set on a trajectory towards decline. There is a common perception, due in part to the effects of human overcrowding taking place in urbanization and the all too apparent wastefulness in our age of hyper consumption, that we are overpopulating and possibly headed towards an ecological disaster of cataclysmic proportions.

This is a hangover from the force of mortality decline that took place with the onset of industrialization and modern advancements in technologies and medicine. This first demographic transition, which took place roughly around the onset of the 19th century, initiated a mixed condition of high fertility in conjunction with low mortality, and thus created a watershed population boom. This vast increase in population drew attention and speculation from people such as the English cleric Thomas Malthus, whose famous An Essay on the Principle of Population set the demographic trend for the next two centuries by essentially arguing that prodigious population growth makes possible the condition for national poverty. Malthus reasoned that human population should be understood in terms of total population vs. total resources, and that the overwhelming demands of population through proliferation of human fertility without any set limitations would inevitably outweigh the supply of resources.

Over a century later the Malthusian thesis developed into its most sensational expression, when during the mid 1960’s Paul Ehrlich’s released The Population Bomb, a best seller that predicted mass starvations and other forms of cataclysm due to overpopulation. This landmark work fueled the common public perception of an imminent population disaster to come. Ehrlich’s cautionary tales along with others of its ilk influenced opinions to limit the growth of human population, advocating that considerable change and policy measures in the area of reproductive rights should begin to take place in order to allay the consequences and fears of wide spread famine, global ecological catastrophe and wide scale energy resource depletion.

The alarmist overpopulation thesis is now largely if not entirely discredited. First, consider that the United Nations Population Division projects that the terminus to our global population growth is around 2050, which all thing being equal, will balance at around 9.15 billion people.2 This terminus to global population growth must also take into account coextensive global fertility recession. The world’s total fertility rate was at 6.0 when Ehrlich released his sensational book, yet since then, within the course of three to four decades the global TFR sunk to an average of 2.52. 3

Ben Wattenberg was in the 1980’s pointing out in his The Birth Dearth that fertility rates all over the nations of the developed world had already dipped well below the TFR magic number of 2.1 children. Then around 2004, Wattenberg was still able to maintain his earlier depopulation thesis, writing bluntly in his book Fewer that “never have birth and fertility rates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, in so many places, so surprisingly”.4 This precipitous drop in fertility rates that he saw in the late 80’s had not yet abated—as predicted or hoped for by some pundits—and simply continued in its unprecedented global free fall. Wolfgang Lutz and his associates in the World Population Program at IIASA in Austria maintain that:

Over the last three decades birth rates have been on the decline in virtually all countries of the world, and it is estimated that already more than half of the world’s population has below replacement level fertility…An increasing number of countries have birth rates that are not just somewhat below replacement fertility, but far below that level.5

Additionally, this fertility decline, insofar as is known, has no prominent reason for a probable reversal without the implementation of pronatalist policy measures. The presumption of a naturally occurring permanent equilibrium within human fertility rates is at best hopeful, and at worst naïve. In other words, there is a threshold of human fertility decline that is able be traversed, a supposed bottom line ‘safety net’ that is possible to collapse under the burden of the will to not reproduce. What now characterizes modernity is the force of fertility’s uninterrupted descent.

There is at current offered a vast constellation of reasons and interdependent connections for the global decline in fertility: those that are institutional, issues of gender equality, our present economic crisis, our present economic growth, increasing access towards education, the population density of urbanization, and matters as mundane as infant car seats or the ongoing battle between the so-called Bohemian bourgeois dog owners and Bohemian bourgeois parents over claims to common territory in city parks. The most prominent reason offered, however, is a feature of Second Demographic Transition Theory, which argues that there was an ideational shift from a concern for the well being of the family to the concern for the well being of the individual.

Developed by the Belgian demographer Ron Lesthaeghe and Dutch demographer Dirk van de Kaa, Second Demographic Transition theorizes that individual preference determines fertility rate, disputing the common and classical notion that socioeconomic development is the all-encompassing framework for fertility decline. In observing the population trends of fertility decline that took place in the mid 1960’s, which according to demographer John Caldwell was the historical moment when the world experienced “almost certainly the first major global decline in history,”6 Lesthaeghe and van de Kaa perceived that when it comes to conceiving children, the individual’s concern exceeds a simple bottom line of economic well being, income and available resources. What is preoccupying the popular imagination is a sense of self-fulfillment, which can be described as personal ambitions of a post-materialist nature that regards individual freedom towards self-expression and self-realization as the penultimate consummation of livelihood. These European demographers borrowed their definition of ‘post-materialism’ from the American political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who defines post-materialists as those who “place more emphasis on self-fulfillment through careers, rather than through ensuring the survival of the species”, and whose telos of life is aimed “out of the family toward broader social and leisure activities” which foster cultural individualism.7

The shift towards the invested wellbeing and happiness of the individual has its origins with the invested wellbeing and happiness of the family. This was first theorized by the French historian Philippe Aries, who when noticing the onset of childlessness that was becoming increasingly endemic to his native France and surrounding Europe in the mid 1960’s, theorized that a transition was taking place within the organization of family life.

Philippe Aries writes:

The ways people look at life usually are determined by more mysterious, more indirect causes, I feel that a profound, hidden, but intense relationship exists between the long term pattern of the birth rate and attitudes toward the child. The decline in the birth rate that began at the end of the eighteenth century and continued until the 1930’s was unleashed by an enormous sentimental and financial investment in the child. I see the current decrease in the birth rate as being, on the contrary, provoked by exactly the same attitude. The days of the child-king are over. The under-forty generation is leading us into a new epoch, one in which the child, to say the least, occupies a smaller place.8

Aries argues that during the days of the ‘child-king’ there was a ‘bourgeois model’ of the family characterized by ‘altruistic ends’ in the reproduction and rearing of children. This ‘altruism’ entailed investing in the quality of the children’s education and future, which thereby required limiting the quantity of children that the parents would conceive in order to procure the social and economic resources necessary for their progeny’s success and security. However, this same ‘sentimental and financial investment’ shifted to what Aries calls the ‘individualistic model’, in which the emphasis was no longer placed on the flourishing of the children but rather on the flourishing and self-interests of the parents.

The parents were to then interpret children in terms of how they would possibly benefit the happiness and self-fulfillment of the parents themselves. This model of cultural individualism and self-realization of the parents became the new reasoning behind their desire in conceiving children, and affected the parent’s decision when choosing how many children to bear, which became fewer and fewer.

An additional social factor to consider that was crucial in achieving low fertility was the widespread use of efficient, modern contraception since the mid twentieth century. Dirk van de Kaa notes that, “the availability of new, highly effective means of contraception had created a sort of ‘second contraceptive revolution’ as it was later called”.9 This revolution that made contraception convenient and morally acceptable to the general public weakened the male’s total control of fertility by the traditional contraceptive methods of coitus interuptus and condoms, and empowered the female in her control over sexual activity and fertility with the efficiency encapsulated in the pill and other modern methods. Wolfgang Lutz lays out the problem clearly:

…through the introduction of modern contraception, the evolutionary link between the drive for sex and procreation has been broken and now reproduction is merely a function of individual preferences and culturally determined norms. Post-materialist cultural individualism coupled with modern contraception proved a wrecking ball to maintaining replacement level fertility.10

Further, this ideational shift towards low fertility was a “marginal behavior” that developed unto the “potentially universal,” as put by French demographer Jean-Claude Chesnais, fellow of the Institute for Demographic Studies in Paris.11 What was once the practice of the bourgeois middle and upper class within developed countries became the endemic practice of the mass culture. This globalized expansion of cultural liberalism took place through the mediascape, initiating imitation of these particular cultural representations of human fertility and reproductive behavior. Daniel Bell theorized in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society that “the life style once practiced by a small cenacle, is now copied by many…. [and] this change of scale gave the culture of the 1960’s its special surge, coupled with the fact that a bohemian life-style once limited to a tiny elite is now acted out on the giant screen of the mass media.”12

Needless to say, mass media since the 60’s has come a long way, and what is ‘acted out on the giant screen’ is directed through the global system of the Internet and the marketing of Hollywood culture to widen its scale and scope of reach. This engineering of human desire through the globalized mediascape produces what Vegard Skirbekk calls a ‘low-fertility trap’, where “low fertility begets lower desired fertility, which in turn drives fertility even lower, and so on….”.13 As the ‘golden’ or ‘magic’ replacement number of 2.1 children begins to seem as one too many, family size increasingly diminishes to smaller amounts, and each successive generation becomes acclimated and accustomed to further small families. This sub-par amount becomes a cultural pattern, normalizing just how many children one may desire to conceive. This downward spiral in which modern, secularized culture hastens, a cultural lifestyle of unfettered enjoyment and self-interest that removes the impediments to is own realization—which is in this case turns out to be children—is resisted, however, by the fecund communities of the religious.

Joshua Ramos is Senior Projects Editor for The New Polis.


1 See Jack A. Goldstone “The New Population Bomb”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2010.

2 Jack Goldstone, “The New Population Bomb”, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2010, 31.

3 Jonathan V. Last, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2013), 27. See also United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision, 2011. Data/fertility.htm.

4 Ben Wattenberg, Fewer (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004), 5. Emphasis his.

5 Wolfgang Lutz, Vegard Skirbekk and Maria Rita Testa, The Low Fertility Trap Hypothesis: Forces that may lead to further postponement and fewer births in Europe, 3.

6 John C. Caldwell, “The Globalization of Fertility Behavior” in Bulatao, Rudolfo and John B. Casterline ed. Global Fertility Transition (New York, NY: The Population Council, 2001), 93.

7 Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, 55.

8 Dirk van der Kaa, The Idea of Second-Demographic Transition in Industrialized Countries, 4-5. Paper presented by van de Kaa at the Sixth Welfare Policy Seminar of the National Institute of Population and Social Security, Tokyo, Japan, 29 January 2002

9 Ibid., 6.

10 Eric Kaufman, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, 51.

11 Jean-Claude Chesnais, “Comment: A March Towards Population Recession”, in Bulatao, Rudolfo and John B. Casterline, Global Fertility Transition, 255.

12 Erick Kaufman, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, 53.

13 Ibid., 50.

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