April 17, 2024

The Return Of Religion Through Demographics, Part 3 (Joshua Ramos)

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

The Resulting Global Wombfare

Political regimes subsequently follow demographic regimes. Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, writing of the cultural wars that are antagonizing the United States, considered how might those with conservative tendencies may truly resist and rebel against the widespread libertine culture that has become in his estimation dissolute. After considering a range of options, Hart playfully yet provocatively concludes that:

Probably the most subversive and effective strategy we might undertake would be one of militant fecundity: abundant, relentless, exuberant and defiant childbearing. Given the reluctance of modern men and women to be fruitful and multiply, it would not be difficult, surely, for the devout to accomplish—in no more than a generation or two—a demographic revolution.1

Though Hart, as he later made clear in another article to his outraged detractors, was writing more to amuse than actually obliging the faithful towards ‘militant fecundity’, his kind of rhetoric is authentically mobilized in other religious communities, such as in the protestant ‘Quiverfull’ movement in the United States, or in Yaser Arafat’s notion of a ‘biological time bomb’ of Palestinian high fertility set to explode and disrupt Israel within several generations. This language and assertive ideology of active and militant and childbearing is what Harvard Professor of Public Policy Monica Duffy Toft labels ‘wombfare’, a tactic that is employed in the long term battle between the cultures of the left and right.

The political theology of wombfare is particularly acute in Israel, providing the starkest contrast of a fertility gap between the religious and nonreligious. In a society founded by secular Zionists, the demographic rise of the Haredim through pronatalism will have a significant influence on the future of the political and economic security of Israel. Just between 1980-1996, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews or Haredim fertility rates grew from 6.49 to 7.61, while other Israeli Jews, seculars among them, saw a drop from 2.61 to

2.27. 2

Israeli economist Dan ben David, who poses this fertility gap as an ‘existential problem’, writes in the Haaretz,

It is difficult to overstate the pace at which Israeli society is changing…If we don’t find a way to integrate these populations into a shared Israeli narrative, and immediately, then in another generation or two—at most—the demographic balance within Israel will change the country beyond recognition.3

The high fertility within the communities of the Haredim is supported by a religious ethos that also reinforces the allegiance of the Haredim towards their religious community, and at the same time fortifies their resistance towards any possible conversion to secular beliefs. In his Meditteranean Identity, Professor David Ohana of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev states that “The outstanding contemporary characteristic of Israeli society is the fragmentation of the Israeli identity into secondary elements that overshadow the specific quality of Israeliness.”4 For Ohana, ‘Israeliness’ represents a region of religious cross-fertilization that bridges the various cultures of the Meditarrenean basin of Greece, Italy, Egypt and Turkey into a cultural theory of Levantism, which is a humanism with a distinctive Israeli cosmopolitanism. However, the continuous growth of what Ohana calls fragmentary ‘secondary elements’ will within decades demographically eclipse the primary political and cultural whole, and through a political theology of revelation and pronatalism the values of the Haredim stand to challenge that definitive quality of ‘Israeliness’ or secular humanism to which Ohana is allied to.

And as for Europe, dread was the popular symptom of the alarmist reactions towards the viral YouTube video “Muslim Demographics”, which gained more than 10 million hits within a space of two months since its inception in 2009. This sensational phenomenon set the high fertility rates of Muslim immigrants in opposition to the low fertility rates of native Western Europeans, claiming the French Muslim TFR at 8.1 in contrast to the native French TFR at 1.8. 5 Though the below replacement level of the French native TFR was correct, the French Muslim TFR of the video was excessively exaggerated. Despite the inflated projections of the “Muslim Demographics” TFR, the anxiety and unease in which the video was received by the general public lays out the problem clearly: Europe’s conscience suffers disquiet from its own sense of demographic decline, its own sense of loss of identity through a challenge to the core of its culture through religious immigrants and high fertility.

This problem is exacerbated in that Europe has trouble in defining just what constitutes and unifies the cultural identity of ‘Europe’. In its pursuit of multiculturalism through the framework of secularism it seems to forget that all dialogue requires a presupposed identity, and an assertive secularism largely fails when it comes to cultural unity and social cohesion. Europe cannot be simply identified by geographical boundaries, as it requires a social bond that is necessarily civilizational and developed from within a particular moral and cultural tradition. Yet Europe has in effect become constituted by what French sociologist Danielle Hervieu- Leger calls “amnesic societies”, which are incapable of “maintaining the memory which lies at the heart of their religious existence.”6

This amnesia of Europe’s Christian religious memory and erosion of its Christian moral tradition is in part due to Europe’s own will to forget its universalizing past of violence. Europe’s recollection of its expansionist history has brought a sense of shame towards its civilizational heritage, and this shame has brought along with it a loss of self-confidence in Europe’s own Christian spiritual and religious traditions. French philosopher Remi Brague writes that Europe “no longer believes that what it has to offer is likely to interest those who chanced to be born outside its frontiers.”7 Because of this loss of memory through the violent trauma of its past, Europe has adopted an attitude of what former president of the European Commission Jacque Delors called the ‘motor’ of ‘Never Again’, which was “translated into a movement of reconciliation…[that]…was now a matter of uniting peoples and bringing nations together, without however making the nation state disappear.”8

Delors believed that the ‘will towards reconciliation’ steadily marching under the banner of ‘Never Again’ needed a necessary cultural or spiritual bond that was absent in the discourse of constructing a European Union. Delors had attempted to bring Christian churches into the discussion of constructing a European identity, arguing that in order for Europe to achieve its goal towards unity, it must first recognize that “‘the EC lacks a heart and soul’.”9 Delors understood that identifying a center or ‘heart and soul’ of Europe that unites its cultural and spiritual identity is a necessary condition towards justice, reconciliation, and unity. Yet if Europe continues to deny this and refuse to recognize its own particular Christian heritage and moral tradition out of an unfounded fear of a return to a theocratic Medieval past or out of its debilitating remorse over its history of violent, universal expansion, will it continue to suffer from a loss of cultural, social cohesion that will leave the identity of Europe naked and “open to the expansion of newer peoples who still care for bonds of family and religion,” as Phillip Jenkins points out in God’s Continent?10 The problem lies with deculturation that breaks the bond of religion as chain of memory. Europe has entered the age of Holy Ignorance

The Criticism of Religious Transmission

An analysis of the discussion from the perspective of Olivier Roy would raise certain issues and several critiques. The first is to point out that the thesis of post-material individualization that is driving the decline of the secular birth rate is a case in point of what Roy calls “formatting” or the standardization of religiosity, in that the secularizing conditions that are determining the decline of the birth rates of secular cohorts is at the same time engendering the strict religiosity that creates an uptick in the religious cohorts birth rates. Modernity is the wheel that spins culture both ways, either towards liberalization or towards fundamentalism, thus the post-material values of post-industrial societies determine the behavior of not just secular cohorts but also religious cohorts. As Roy writes, “the achievements of the Sixties have become mainstream”, and we see the Sex and the City ethos that contributes to the bourgeois bohemian lifestyle of low fertility rates diffused through the globalized technology of the media.11

It is a case in point of Rene Girard’s notion of mimesis. On the other hand, we also see the religious use the media as well to encourage higher fertility rate and mobilize the faithful towards the choice to reproduce, such as seen with James Dobson Focus on the Family, or the Quiverfull Movement. Roy writes that, “The family is no longer sacrosanct; opting for a family life is presented as an individual choice, a desire for self-realization and not as a compliance with some natural law.”12 Globalization is the secularizing force that drives both the decline of the TFR of the secular cohorts as well as the increase of the TFR for religious cohorts.

The fact that the religious see themselves as embattled against the surrounding, hostile secular culture, and are using birth rates or “wombfare” as a form of combat, supports Roy’s thesis of religion and culture parting ways. The encroaching secular culture forces the religious to reconstruct child bearing as a sacred duty to re-sacralize the godless societies through the force of re-population. The liberalized sexual mores of post 1960’s secular culture puts the religious on the defensive, and therefore they stand as reactionary, which according to Martin Marty is the defining sole characteristic of religious fundamentalism.

The next issue is that of transmission, or the passing of religious identity towards the children. Roy writes that,

But they all face the question: how does on transmit the faith? Particularly when the parents are converts or born-again, since transmission is no longer guaranteed by the social or cultural visibility of religion….How is the experience of a breakaway to be transmitted? How can one be born from a born-again?”13

Deculturation ensures that transmission of religious identity is disrupted, and deculturation creates the potential for religious identity to be hybridized. There is therefore no longer a seamless transition from parent to child when it comes to religious affiliation. A ‘breakaway’, that is a ‘born-again’ Christian or Muslim, one who is affected with an interior religious renewal towards a strict form of religiosity, cannot construct a stable transmission of identity towards his or her children, since the faith that is experienced is one of individual commitment and decision. To be born-again from a born again is an impossibility for Olivier Roy, or as is often heard in Christian revivalist circles: “God has children, but no grand-children.” The children must come to his or her personal conviction and experience of the faith, and can no longer solely rely on ties of family, or ethnic/cultural identity. Born-again faith disrupts all nominalist religion, which is the religion of culture, and of therefore civilization, and of therefore empire.

To ensure the transmission of religious identity requires the strict commitment of an exclusive and closed faith community. These kinds of faith communities that are of the fundamentalist bent are, according to Roy, too difficult to maintain by the individual in the long run, especially in light of the enticements of the surrounding materialistic and indulgent character of the secular ethos. Roy points out that, “Dogmatism finds it hard to hold out in the long term if it is not upheld within a closed community. Many pass through Tablighism, Salafism, or Pentecostalism, but eventually leave.”14 The problem is, as Roy points out, is that “one of the characteristics of modern fundamentalisms is to replace spirituality with a system of norms and codes. Sin is no longer a part of the system: when it occurs, it breaks it.”15

The problem of modern fundamentalism is that it is intolerant towards any ambiguity or grey area within the realm of morality and ethics, which exacerbates its tendency towards exclusivism against its opponents or within its own adherents. The issue of exclusivity within fundamentalist religious bodies is further highlighted within the secular culture of western societies, in which the dominant sentiment is that towards the ethos of inclusivity, and thereby creates a visibility of religion that does not line up with the dominant secularization that is in fact taking place. Religion is made strange, as it is situated on the rational stage of Weber’s ‘iron cage’.

The attempt of the parents to stop the secularization of their children is a generational problem that each set of parents must attempt to overcome. When religion and culture were embedded within a civilizational whole, the transmission of religious identity was not a real problem. Because of deculturation, each successive generation must reconstitute itself as a ‘born-again’ generation. Roy discusses evangelical leader Thomas Rainer’s book The Bridger Generation, which is an attempt to analyze the cultural issues of the generation into which the author’s son was born into, in order to effectively evangelize them and offer an appropriate Christian response.16 The children of the religious are born into a secularized, pluralized climate that contributes towards a prone tendency towards disaffiliation. Yet for Roy, this attempt to re-evangelize the next generation only “highlights the exteriority of religion in relation to cultural markers”, whereby there is no integral or organic link between religion and culture because of secularization.17

This process of deculturation then puts a burden on the older generation to “pick from the floating cultural markers and pin them to religious markers: Christian rock, eco-kosher, halal fast –food”, and they “put on Christian rock parties, use ‘youth’ language, adopting the codes of the ‘tribe’ to preach to its members”.18 The further problem lies in that as each generation attempts to adopt the cultural markers of the successive generation in order to retain their affiliation, the cultural markers are in a state of rapid flux, suspect to the rapid changes of the free-market inherent within the process of globalization. Roy points out that, “the cultures they are targeting are in fact sub- cultures, made up of codes and modes of consumption, they are transient…sub-cultures have always existed, but they can flourish today because it is possible to exist in a virtual space.”19

The memes and the technology of the virtual spaces of the internet maintains and fashions sub-cultures of the religious and the secular—such as seen with ISIS, the Alt- Right, and or the atheistic community of the Ex-Muslims—and thereby reproduces the semiotics of deterritorialisation and the secularization of deculturation. What we end up with is the dromology and flux of endless reproduction and repetition of virtual sub- cultures that construct religious and non-religious identities within the over-arching immanent frame. Deculturation ensures that the sacred canopy becomes and remains pluralized and individuated sacred canopies within the various markets of the globalized secular and religious economies. The transmission of religious identity within Western society is therefore rendered interminably problematic because of the deculturation process of globalization.

Joshua Ramos is Senior Projects Editor for The New Polis.


1 David Bentley Hart, “Freedom and Decency,” First Things, June/July 2004.

2 Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, 226.

3 Dan ben David, “The Moment of Truth”, Haaretz, Feb. 6, 2007.

4 David Ohana, Israel and it’s Mediterranean Identity (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 150.

5 “Muslim Demographics”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-3X5hIFXYU

6 Grace Davie, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates (Oxford University Press: 2000), 30.

7Remi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2002), 185.

8 Lucian N. Leustan. “Does God matter in the European Union” in Leustan, Leustan, ed., Representing Religion in the European Union, (New York, NY, Routledge, 2013), 1.

9 Ibid, 2.

10  Phillip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007), 10.

11 Roy, Holy Ignorance, 217.

12 Roy, Holy Ignorance, 217.

13 Roy, Holy Ignorance, 215-216.

14 Roy, Holy Ignorance, 216.

15 Roy, Holy Ignorance, 216.

16 Thomas Rainer, The Bridger Generation, (Broadman and Holman, 1997).

17 Roy, Holy Ignorance, 217.

18 Ibid, 217.

19 Ibid, 217.

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