Faith Equals Fertility?

Possibly the most annoying explanation for Western Europe’s ‘birth dearth’ is the claim that it is the product of some sort of profound spiritual malaise. Allegedly doomed by their secularism to an endless arid despair, Europeans are, it is sometimes suggested, too consumed with ennui, misery and themselves to bother with reproduction. To describe this argument as nonsense is to insult nonsense.

In fact the decision to have fewer children is simply a by-product of modernity, although ‘simply’ is not really the word to use: A fascinating piece by Anthony Gottlieb in the Economist magazine’s Intelligent Life shows us just how complex this topic can be. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is one idea that he cites, the notion that “having families can incline one to religion”. I’m not sure that I buy that (and, wisely, Mr. Gottlieb doesn’t come down on one side of the fence or the other), but, not for the first time, it got me to wondering what (if any) evolutionary function religion might fulfill. That’ll be food for thought for me amid the turkey and mince pies, but in the meantime, merry Christmas, one and all.

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10 Responses to Faith Equals Fertility?

  1. David Hume says:

    it got me to wondering what (if any) evolutionary function religion might fulfill.

    You might find Darwin’s Cathedral of interest, it posits a functionalist interpretation of religious institutions and beliefs. My own general inclination is to accept functionalist for religious institutions, but hold that the generality of beliefs (which are actually far more invariant than you might think, see Theological Incorrectness) is a cognitive byproduct of mental modularity (see In Gods We Trust).

  2. I don’t think a lack of children should be considered a malaise. Unless you are a panda.

    As for the evolutionary function of religion, I think it is very simple. A combination of unity and a directive to breed creates strength in numbers and perpetuates the religious bloodline. While this may good for outcompeting the secular, it runs into the inevitable resource problems once it attains a certain size.

    The question of how many people is optimal is a hugely important question in the modern world, and unfortunately clouded by the the very ideology that brought the ideologues into power in the first place. There are only three solutions to this overpopulation caused by religion and longevity: space travel, death, or birth control. I don’t see the church giving much support to any of these.

  3. David Hume says:

    There are few errors and confusing conceptual problems in the linked article (e.g., Mormon growth rates have leveled off and they’re fertility is dropping fast, it’s also wrong I think to emphasize the decline of liberal denominations vs. conservative ones, many liberal denominations used to be split between liberal and conservatives, but in many of them liberals just won all the fights). Also, one should be cautious about linearly extrapolating fertility. Using this logic in 1830 France, where observant Catholic immigrants were coming in from Poland and Southern Europe, you would predict that France would be thoroughly re-Catholicized and the secular population would disappear. That hasn’t happened. Why not?

  4. David Hume says:

    Here is the shorter version of my main critique of these sorts of projections: history teaches us that cycles are the norm when it comes to ideas. Ages of reason and faith often alternate. I see no reason why this shouldn’t continue into the future. The unidirectional nature of technological change has confused us I think, insofar as we view human social dynamics in the same way. But our “wetware” is the same as it was in 1700, more or less.

  5. Jeff Singer says:


    I think someone in a previous comment already linked to this article, but in case you haven’t seen it, you really should check out Mary Eberstadt’s piece for “Policy Review” on the topic of fertility and religion (she argues that it is fertility that drives relgious belief, not the other way around):

    I’d love to know what Hume thinks of her thesis.

    Merry Christmas!

  6. David Hume says:

    I’d love to know what Hume thinks of her thesis.

    More plausible to me than the inverse (mostly because of the r-squared of religious belief with other personality traits is often rather low). But it’s an empirical question, I’ll do the digging.

  7. David Hume says:

    Jeff, I read the whole thing

    1) There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but….

    2) The engagement with Nietzsche and Wittgenstein I could have done without. There’s plenty of cognitive psychology which can explain why women are more religious, on average, than men (short: the mental modules such as “theory of mind” which are presumed to load the die in terms of the plausibility of supernatural agents have a non-trivial between group difference; e.g., many more men are social retards).

    3) There is a difference between religious belief and religious institutions. I don’t see Eberstadt’s arguments adding much to the former; no quasi-Freudian theorizing is needed when there’s plenty of off the shelf science on this topic. On the other hand, the latter I think is what Eberstadt’s model is really getting at.

    4) A few minor quibbles I might have with the idea of the “natural family,” with mortality rates being the way they were in pre-modern times many families would be “broken” due to their very nature. Additionally, Eberstadt engages in the “nurture assumption” fallacy. Would be nice if she familiarized herself with the latest behavioral genetic research instead of within-ideological CW (seeing as she herself is offering an interesting and counter-intuitive model).

    5) Would be nice to see some quantitative analysis. And how does the model hold up in say South Korea, where religious belief has been rising simultaneously with a cratering of birthrate? A social science theory is not bound to explain all cases, but if I could get a number (i.e., a beta) it would be nice to get a handle on the power of her predictor.

  8. David Hume says:

    And to be clear, I’m impressed by Eberstadt’s model. I just don’t see the value in engaging Nietzsche or Wittgenstein when there’s so much recent social science on this topic.

  9. David Hume says:

    Oh, one last point: there needed to be some inquiry into the fact that the proportion within nuclear families probably increased in the 19th and 20th century across Europe. Remember that in pre-modern societies many could not afford to get married and children.

  10. Heather Mac Donald says:

    “Possibly the most annoying explanation for Western Europe’s ‘birth dearth’ is the claim that it is the product of some sort of profound spiritual malaise.”
    Equally annoying is the related claim that it is morally superior to have large families. I do not see the same neo-con theo-cons who promote the “religious war-making America is superior to secular pacifist Europe” argument celebrating 8-member Palestinian broods.

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