Peaking secularity

I’ve run into a paper by Eric Kaufmann, “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century,” that gives an interesting twist to the debate about secularization.

Social scientists have been butting heads for quite some time about secularization, counter-trends of religious revival, and so forth. Kaufmann thinks there’s a new element that affects the picture. Many religious movements today emphasize a pro-natalist morality, and outreproduce more secular populations. They are more resistant to secularizing and population-limiting pressures than traditional believers in more premodern societies, since they put more emphasis on choosing a faith-based way of life, rather than just taking faith for granted because that is the social norm. And their growth rates more than offset defections to secular surrounding cultures. So Kaufmann speaks of a “second demographic transition”; he expects secularizing trends will plateau and be reversed even in Europe, over the long term.

The basic point is sound enough. Cultures have to reproduce themselves, and this correlates closely with biological reproduction. Secular moral orientations predictably lead to less than replacement level reproduction. (A damn good thing, if you’re worried about the environment.) So if secularization is to represent a growing trend in the human population as a whole, it must depend on large-scale defections from previously religious populations. But it’s perfectly conceivable that there can arise new, modern variants of religiosity that both biologically and culturally reproduces at a high rate. These variants would then come to represent a dominant form of religiosity at the expense of more traditional or lukewarmly religious populations. Eventually, by sheer force of demography, they can become dominant in the human population at large.

Mind you, since we’re already well over the carrying capacity of the planet, this scenario is unsustainable. So if I wanted to make a really long-term prediction, I’d expect civilization to collapse, which would totally wipe out secularists and leave the field, such as it is, to the most committed kind of supernatural believers.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Teleprompter

    Well, that is depressing.


  • bahamut

    Unless this happens in the relitivly near future (less than two generations)it’s worth considering the effect that advancing technology would have on this scenerio.

    If post singularity entities (hyper AIs, post humans and transhumans etc) end up existing in industrialized societies like Europe, Japan and to a lesser degree America then it could easily be imagined that these entities would choose a non human, non religous existence as the way to organize the world. They may create little wolds to themselfs and decide to reproduce their own desired (secular) citizenry and view religous political entities and populations as undesirable threats.

    If the gulf of existance bewteen the two is too great and the earth is clearly suffering from overpopulation and the inability to support the new cultural paramiters they may decide to eliminate them.

    Actually it’s hard to imagine that a self aware and hyper intelligent machine with self evolving traits could be kept from making descisions along these lines. Regardless of where they were created.

    Of course thats not to say that they would never have relgious beleifs of their own but they would be very different from what religous beleivers of today would want them to be programed to appreciate. Hyper intelligent machines may end up making simular moral conclusions as modern liberal socities, even simular tastes but applied to a non human world. It’s not hard to see the temptation they would have to set up the worlds ecosystems in a highly managed way rather than with out of control reproduction, and in the process they “happen” to not reproduce conservitive societies.

  • bahamut

    Oops. Sorry I didn’t mean to say that post human enities were inevitably going to wipe out whole groups of people. The thing I described as “decisions along those lines”.

    I meant to refer to the “non human, non religous (or at least human religous concerns) existence” statement in the paragraph above that.

    We can be pretty much garanteed that if they are allowed to self evolve and think for themselfs to any degree it will have a run away effect that causes them to differentiate from how they were first programed. Obviously that only applies to ones that are desighned to actually think, not just hyper programed but not self aware programs and machines.

    But considering how biological evolution has resulted in the same set of perceptions of morality in various animals (even belonging to different classes of species) I suspect that they will share some of those perceptions with us, but they still wont be able to be programed to care about how we perceive morality in certain ways, and religion would be the first to go. It’s obvious to most people with high IQs see what conservitive religion is and to most people with very special mental gifts it is an intellectual hinderence. It’s justifiable to say that this is not exclusively the result of coincidence or self selection either, but rather a result of how higher intelligence “including moral intelligence and imagination” effect perceptions. By human standards hyper intelligences would have both of those characteristics and beyond as well as being divested from the physical concerns that most relgions use as their primary means of influence in society, ie procreation, death, food, sex etc. Even if they were to have an interst in these things from an artistic perspective “if we could call it that” they still wouldn’t allow themselfs to actually be governed by our moral views about them.

    So unless we somehow avoid the technological singularity or have it happen far enough in
    the future that the worlds religous attitudes have drastically changed from what they are now then the singularity will likely change the outcome of demographics tremendously.

  • El Profe

    Gee, people. You put the Christian Apocalyptic anxiety to shame. Have some Prozac. It’s on me.