This column is being written (and read) in New England, the least religious area of the United States, as per various recent studies. And Vermont is usually tied with Massachusetts or New Hampshire for first place. Not necessarily unrelated to this distinction is the fact that Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts rank almost dead last in their total fertility rates, with an average of about 1.5 births per childbearing-age woman — which is almost 30 percent below the rate needed for replacement, 2.1 births per woman.
Is this just a mildly interesting random statistic of interest mainly to dry, withered, stuffy old academics such as myself? I don’t think so. Since the turn of the new millennium, many demographers have been noticing (and validating) the observation that worldwide, there is a close relationship between lack of religion and lack of births.
For example, the only country in (secularized) Europe that is just barely maintaining a replacement level of births (2.1) is France. In all the rest of Western and Eastern Europe, the populations are declining. This is related to the contradictory attitudes one sees in the European Union concerning immigration, particularly toward Muslim immigrants: The cold, hard fact is Europe must have immigrants to prop up its birth rate so there is enough of a working-age population paying taxes to support Europe’s social welfare programs.
Ever since the publication of Professor Paul Ehrlich’s (shrill) bestseller “The Population Bomb” in 1968, the Western intelligentsia has been fixated on Ehrlich’s main argument: namely, that the growth of the world’s population will continue to climb and climb, and this will lead to endless disasters in the U.S. and everywhere. The fact is, however, none of his wild projections has come to pass, and virtually every demographer working in the field knows the world’s population growth will stop and stabilize by 2050 at a population way below the earth’s carrying capacity. This is now a well-known fact.
The world’s total fertility rate is now down to 2.4 births per woman, getting closer to the zero-growth number of 2.1 with each passing year. We are not going to breed ourselves into an overpopulated hell on earth. That is clearly not going to happen, and anyone who tries to tell you differently is just plain old wrong. One’s worry time is much better spent pondering a whole bunch of other things such as climate change, income/wealth inequities, access to clean water and health care, revolution and religious extremism.
Aha, that last one has directly to do with this series called “On Faith.” When populations’ growth rates change, interestingly, those rates do not change uniformly across regions, countries and ethnic-religious groups. Within a general slowing down of growth, there can be (and are) large differences between differing sub-groups of people. This means even though an entire population group — say, whites in America — may be slowing down or declining, one sub-group of white Americans can obtain a larger and larger percentage of the totality of “White Americans.” And this is exactly what is happening: Religious white women have a fertility rate that is almost twice as high as non-religious white women in the U.S.
Another striking example is found in the microcosm that is Israel: Israel is now bucking the global trend for developed countries and has a fertility rate of 3.1 births as opposed to 1.7 in the rest of the developed world. Part of this is due to the religiously conservative orthodox population’s rate of 4.2 births per woman and the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) rate with women often having up to seven children. But even non-orthodox and secular Jewish women in Israel have a rate of at least 2.1. Of course, Israel is a state where the religion of Judaism is widely practiced. There is a strong ethnic-religious motivation to have children.
This also holds true for the Arab-Muslim population of Israel and the Occupied Territories. In the area of “Historic Palestine” (Israel, Gaza and the Occupied Territories), there are now slightly more Arab-Muslims than Israeli Jews. And here’s the rub: Most of both populations are rather seriously religious. In the microcosm of the Israeli Knesset, this means any government has to “team up with” the ultra-conservative orthodox right in order to rule — not good for compromise and peace.
We are seeing the same thing in the U.S. with the election and chaotic rule of Donald Trump: The one single constant characteristic of his style is he plays to the ultra-conservative Christian right (and their unwavering love for Israel) over and over again. But even more troubling than this, at the present moment, is the demographic fact the American Christian right has a much higher fertility rate than the rest of the country. So, over the next decades, the sway of this voting block is bound to grow.
So, what are we secular or religious-but-not-extremist folks to do? Not only in the U.S., but everywhere? Well, to get back to basics: Have some more kids. If Darwin has taught us anything at all, he has taught us that those life forms that adapt best and also reproduce best are the ones that survive. The writing is on the wall: The “nones” (no religious affiliation) are declining as a share of the worldwide population (Pew Research Center, 7 April 2017). The “secularists” have lost this race. The world is not going to become a less religious place. In fact, the opposite is very clearly happening. (See for example “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?” by Eric Kaufman, London: Profile Books, 2010.)
We have to decide what sort of religions we want to encourage to have the most influence — not waste our time trying to stamp religions out. They won’t be stamped out, period. But they can be adapted, swayed and transformed. By walking away from this religious debate (in politics and in life), victory is being handed over by default to those who are simply the loudest and most prolific, rather than those who are the kindest, most productive and most peaceful.
Make no mistake: The religious shall inherit the earth; the demographics are plain to see. It is incumbent on all of us to play our parts and not just walk off the stage. In any case, there’s nowhere to go. We cannot walk off this earthly stage — we can only be upstaged, if we allow it. For the good of the human race and peace on earth, that must not be allowed to happen.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part-time in Mexico.