I come from a deeply religious family with strong Christian commitments and a trans-generational routine of participating in church activities at least twice a week. My parents have seen their offspring continue in their evangelical Christian faith, as well as virtually all of their 24 grandchildren and great grandchildren (who are of age to make this decision).
There’s another characteristic of our religious family: high birth rates. I am the third of four children and my generation—my three sisters and I–have produced an average of 3.75 children (the U.S. average is 2.01).
Evidently, we are perfectly normal. Researchers are now finding a strong correlation between strong religious faith and involvement and higher-than-average fertility rates. Some believe the impact of religion could be one remaining bulwark against troubling contraction of the world’s population.
In a fascinating article in The Weekly Standard, Jonathan V. Last describes a worldwide decline in fertility rates that is putting aging populations in danger and national economies on a perilous trajectory.
Last describes the dangerous trend:
When we talk about the “fertility rate,” we mean the “total fertility rate” (TFR): the number of children born to the average woman over the course of her lifetime. In order for a country to maintain a steady population, it needs a fertility rate of 2.1. If the rate is higher, the country’s population grows; lower and it shrinks.
During the last 50 years, fertility rates have fallen all over the world. From Africa to Asia, South America to Eastern Europe, from Third World jungles to the wealthy desert petro-kingdoms, every country in every region is experiencing declines in fertility. In 1979, the world’s fertility rate was 6.0; today it’s 2.6. Industrialized nations have been the hardest hit. America’s 2.06 is one of the highest fertility rates in the First World. Only Israel (2.75) and New Zealand (2.10) are more fertile.
China and America have yet to witness the effects of falling fertility because of demographic momentum. Populations increase even as fertility rates collapse, until the last above-replacement generation dies, after which the population begins contracting. The rate of contraction speeds up as each generation passes. No society has ever experienced prosperity in the wake of contracting population.
Just as interesting is his description of how religious faith effects the equation:
There are two Americas today: a secular population that wants small families (or no family at all) and a religious population that wants larger families. Religious affiliation is part of the story, but the real difference comes with church attendance. Among people who seldom or never go to church, 66 percent say that zero, one, or two children is the ideal family size, and only 25 percent view three-or-more children as ideal. Among those who go to church monthly, the three-or-more number edges up to 29 percent. But among those who attend church every week, 41 percent say three or more children is ideal, while only 47 percent think that a smaller family is preferable. When you meet couples with more than three children today, chances are they’re making a cultural and theological statement.
And the truth is, America needs more of such statements. The United Nations Population Division’s projection of our demographic future makes for stark reading. Native fertility rates are so low that without a continual influx of immigrants to stave off population decline, our population will shrink from 308 million to 290 million by 2050.
Why would religious and secular worldviews impact the desire to have babies? In First Things, R.R. Reno writes:
In The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel offers an explanation for the demographic suicide. “There are,” he writes, “economic, sociological, psychological, and even ideological reasons why Europe’s birthrates have fallen below replacement level for decades. But the failure to create a human future in the most elemental sense—by creating a successor generation—is surely an expression of a broader failure: a failure of self-confidence.” And by Weigel’s reckoning, this failure is “tied to a collapse of faith in the God of the Bible.”
The faith-saturated Americans make babies, and the God-abandoning Europeans don’t. Well, yes, but why? Maybe not because Americans are more religious. Correlation does not causality make. And even if there is a causal relation, the arrow might point the other way. Maybe babies make for faith rather than the other way around. After all, it’s common knowledge that young people tend to drift away from church and then return when they marry and have children.
Others concur that the correlation between religion and fertility is not crystal clear; demographic studies are complicated. One analyst writes in More Intelligent Life magazine:
Nobody knows exactly why religion and fertility tend to go together. Conventional wisdom says that female education, urbanization, falling infant mortality, and the switch from agriculture to industry and services all tend to cause declines in both religiosity and birth rates. In other words, secularization and smaller families are caused by the same things. Also, many religions enjoin believers to marry early, abjure abortion and sometimes even contraception, all of which leads to larger families. But there may be a quite different factor at work as well. Having a large family might itself sometimes make people more religious, or make them less likely to lose their religion. Perhaps religion and fertility are linked in several ways at the same time.
Many large environmental organizations continue to promote the outdated presumption that population growth is a danger (and some preach the immoral message that we need to abort children and limit propagation in order to make the earth safer for other people). The Sierra Club blog criticizes people of faith for opposing abortion and makes a false assumption that religious commitment to creation care will translate into a desire to limit population growth.
When any religious group attempts to obstruct family planning through legislation or lawsuits, it deserves to be challenged head on. But it’s also important to avoid being oppositional because religion can be a strong ally for environmentalists, as you can see from the many ways in which spirituality is being integrated with environmental thought and action. For insight into this, check out the multi-faith National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Though these environmentalists aren’t singing “Kumbaya” with the Duggars, they do represent a broad group of religions with a common goal of stewardship of Creation that is grounded in their faith.
In fact, at least half of the four NRPE member groups, the evangelicals and the Roman Catholics, are strongly pro-life.