declining birth rates population religion secularization america
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declining birth rates population religion secularization america
A packed crowd of Chinese tourists negotiates China’s iconic Great Wall in 2017. Although still the world’s most populace country, with 1.4 billion citizens, China had to institute a one-child policy to keep its population from exploding out of control. (Sino-German Urbanization Partnership, Flikr, Public Domain)

Fertility rates are plummeting around the world, apparently even in such unexpected places as Iran.

The question is why, and the answer appears to somehow involve how religious particular nations are, or are not.

YouTube video

While emphasizing that he’s not implying direct causation between faith and fertility, Philip Jenkins, Baylor University history professor and co-director of his department’s historical study of religion program, asserts that the data shows a striking correlation between them.

“We measure change in a society through fertility. There is a close correlation between a fertility rate of a particular society or nation and the level of religious involvement or participation in that society,” Jenkins said in a recent Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia) live-stream titled ‘Fertility and Faith: A Conversation with Philip Jenkins.’”

Jenkins is the author of Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions, released in July by Baylor University Press.

Fertility and political leanings also appear to strongly coincide, he said.

Because the United States, for example, is so culturally divided at the moment, Jenkins says it’s “easily predictable,” according to a Christian Post article this week, that American “states with high fertility rates and high faith practice vote Republican and low-fertility and low faith states vote Democrat. Fertility is an extremely good predictor of religious behavior and the political behavior that grows out of it, particularly in an age of culture wars.”

The Post article pointed out, referencing Jenkins work, that,

“In the 1960s, the fertility rate in Denmark began to drop below replacement level as the country became more secular. Meanwhile, in the sub-Saharan African country of Uganda, the average woman had five children and religious belief was strong. This pattern holds true across the world with a notable few that seem to buck the trend.”

declining birth rates population religion secularization america
The world’s population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, but that’s about 2 billion fewer than anticipated due to broad drops in birth rates globally. The regions expected to experience the largest population growth — Africa and the Mideast — are also the earth’s driest. (Lauren Manning, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

Jenkins also says data trendlines show that as countries become more secular their birth rates fall, and low-birth-rate societies are also “more likely to be hostile” to faith institutions and religious coercion.

“Once you separate the idea of family, once you separate sexuality and reproduction, people become a lot less willing to have churches or religious institutions tell them what to do with their personal lives,” he said.

Jenkins says it could be argued that with fewer children there are “fewer links connecting families to [religious] institutions,” or that “as people become more secular in their thinking they forego the charge to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’” the Post article explains.

Whatever the cause, he stresses, the relationship between faith and fertility appears to remain. Nonetheless, whereas researchers in the 1970s projected a global population of about 11 billion by 2050, but sagging fertility worldwide means the population then will be closer to 9 billion.

Jenkins warns that “concern is rising now about ‘population contraction’ and the military, commercial, and economic implications that come with it.”

Growing secularization and dropping fertility rates are having significant effects on America in particular, Jenkins points out:

“The United States has been somewhat of an anomaly in that it’s a developed nation but remains highly religious and had a relatively high fertility rate. In the last decade, however, it has secularized significantly and the fertility rate has also plummeted. Those who are known as ‘nones’ — people who no longer affiliate with any particular faith tradition — have grown sharply.

“The proportion of nones in the U.S. has risen very dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years in exactly the same period that the fertility rate has dropped. And the three largest religious communities in the U.S. right now are evangelicals, Catholics, and nones. And within just a year or two, the nones are going to be the largest of those three groups. That is a stunning change in a very short time.”

Of course, secularization and a drop in fertility could both be simply the result of a more educated, knowledgeable population overall, which sees religion as irrational and large families as impractically expensive. Indeed, in the Nov. 3 election, undereducated and religious Americans, voted for, Donald Trump, the Republican — and losing — presidential candidate. The generally better educated, less religious citizens voted in record numbers for Joe Biden, the winner.

Ironically, the losing side voted in all-time record numbers, too, but with the country trending less religious and with smaller families, the traditionalists seem to shedding electoral power.

So I don’t see declining birth rates as a demographic bogeyman. In America, for instance, birth rates can be increased if secular, rational citizens see the benefit and with reasonable government encouragement.

Scandinavian countries, for example, are doing better than almost everyone, and studies show their citizens to be exceptionally happy people, despite their societies’ low birth rates and expansive religious disinterest.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...