Are Secularized Societies Stable?

Those who study religion are very familiar with a theory known as secularization theory. This is the theory that as our societies become more modern that they will become more secular. The basic idea is that as we become more aware of science and learn about other groups, we will not be tied to our own religion quite so much. Europe is a great example of this theory. At one point of our history, Europe was as religious as the rest of the world. Today Europe is quite famous for being secular.

We can also see some of this in the United States. Often scholars of religion talk about the rise of the “nones.” This refers to people who answer questions about which religion they belong to with the answer “none of the above.” This does not mean that they are necessarily atheists or agnostic, but it is an indicator that they are not heavily invested in a traditional religious faith. Research has indicated that we have seen an increase of those “nones” and that the younger cohorts are more likely to be nones than older folks. This means that if nothing dramatically changes, then we are going to see an even larger group of nones in the future.

When I was in graduate school, there was a fair amount of debate about secularization theory. Some of this debate is tied to whether are talking about merely a lack of supernaturalistic beliefs or whether we are talking about how influential religion will be in our society. But either way today I am seeing less debate and more acceptance of this theory. We are observing lower levels of overall religiosity and less religious impact on our organizations. Basically if a society begins to modernize, then it seems that religion will become less important. Whether we will reach the low levels of religiosity in Europe or not, for the foreseeable future, we will see lower levels of religiosity and religious influence on our institutions in the United States.

So why am I more hesitant to accept secularization theory than my colleagues? One word. Children. Secular individuals have fewer children than religious individuals. For example, the total fertility rate (TFR) is the average number of children each woman has. It is estimated that for a society to reproduce itself that it needs a TFR of 2.1. That replaces the father, mother and a little extra for those children who do not survive and/or reproduce. In 2015 the European Union had a TFR of 1.58. The highest is France at 2.01, which is not high enough to sustain their population long term. The lowest is Portugal at 1.23. They also had a negative population group of -3.2. You get the picture.

Of course some of the European countries did have some population growth. But their population growth was due to migration into the country. And who migrated into Europe? A lot of these immigrants were religious Muslims. So secular Europe can only maintain any semblance of population by bringing in religious individuals because secular individuals do not have enough children. If that continues, then one has to wonder how long secular Europe will remain secular Europe. I am not make a statement of the Islamization of Europe. I am making a statement of the religionization of Europe.

Why is it that secular individuals are less willing to have children? Good question. I actually have some research coming out that addressed that very question and will probably blog on it relatively soon. However, for the purposes of this current discussion, it is not really relevant. Research has shown time, and time, and time again that secular individuals are less willing to have children than religious groups. Even among the religious groups, those that tend to have higher church attendance also tend to have higher TFRs. So clearly religion and childbearing tend to go together. We can argue about why secular individuals are less willing to have children, but what we cannot argue is that they are not as willing to have kids as religious groups.

A caveat. I know that some individuals are ecstatic about the fact that as cultures modernize and become more secular, they produce fewer children. For some individuals the source of many of our global problems is due to overpopulation. I am agnostic on that issue. But even if they are right, it is undoubtedly true that for a culture to survive, it must pass its values to a sufficient number of future members of that society. Not having a high enough TFR is cultural suicide unless one is ready to go out and conquer other societies. So those who are proud that secular societies are not having kids may be taking a short-sighted approach to this since that very secular society they like so much may soon disappear.

Is there any way that those in secular societies can try to get more native born kids? France is the country that has made the most consistent effort at this, and we can see this in the fact that they have the highest TFR in Europe. However, even France is not yet at a level where they can sustain their population without an influx of migrants. So when I think of secular societies that have sufficient TFR to replicate themselves, it is usually because there is an oppressive regime forcing childbearing. The old Soviet Union comes to mind. So it seems that the only way to get secular individuals to have kids is to take away their autonomy as individuals. But does that not defeat the whole point of moving away from religion?

For these reasons, I question the long-term stability of secularization. I know that we will see the United States become more secular in the short term. But is that sustainable when secular individuals do not have children at the same rate as the religious? If the only way for secular societies to avoid shrinking is by importing religious individuals and assimilating into the same secular ideology that created the propensity to avoid childrearing then can any of us have confidence that secular societies are sustainable. Secular societies will forever be vulnerable to religious groups that resists such assimilation long enough to out reproduce their secular neighbors.

At this point, and until I see further evidence to the contrary, I do not believe that secular societies are sustainable. Secularization theory appears to be a good theory at addressing short term movements towards secularism. But it may not be predictive of a long-term trend towards secularism as an entire world system. For that reason, I remain a skeptic and critic of secularization theory.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

2 responses to “Are Secularized Societies Stable?”

  1. “But even if they are right, it is undoubtedly true that for a culture to survive, it must pass its values to a sufficient number of future members of that society. ”

    Here’s the rub: a culture — including not only its values but its language, customs, norms, and everything else — can be passed on to anybody. Adults can enculturate into new societies and meld seamlessly into the population, and can do so at any time in their life. This appears to be acknowledged by the notion that low reproduction societies could try to rely on immigration to sustain themselves; if immigrants never became genuine members of the society’s culture, their presence in the society would hardly help sustain that culture.

    So the only reason it would be necessary to have lots of children in order to ensure the reproduction your culture is if your culture is unappealing to adults and cannot entice enough converts; worse yet if you have to out reproduce your culture’s attrition rate of members leaving in adulthood. I was born into a Christian family, was baptized and went through confirmation (Methodist), but I now consider myself to be an atheist. I genuinely believed in God an all that entails, right up until I discovered something that was better for me; then I converted. I suspect that many (if not most) people who consider themselves to be “nones” got there the same way that I did. “Secularization” isn’t going to be threatened by low birth rates so long as people born into non-secular childhoods continue to conclude that the secular world is a better choice than the religious one.

    I’ve said it before: if the only way to ensure the continuation of your beliefs is to indoctrinate them into people before they are old enough to think for themselves, then your beliefs aren’t worthy of continuing.

  2. Former Christian here. Current atheist. I have family that do missionary work. I am related to several pastors. I’ve experienced that “born again” experience. And yet, in the end, I became an atheist.

    I then look at the children of immigrants. How many of them speak their mother tongue? How many of their children will speak their grandmothers’ tongue? In fact, the most common phrase that those children say to their parents is “Speak in English.”

    Culture is pervasive. We don’t even understand that we exist in a specific culture until we encounter people who were raised in other cultures.

    There are three points on religion –
    Religion is not the whole of American culture. In fact, despite all the Christian caterwauling, it is the apple pie and the baseball and the fourth of july fireworks that thrill my soul. That is home to me. To assume that religion is the whole of US culture is remarkably arrogant. Sure, you had influences. So did the Italians with their spaghetti and their pizza. So did the chinese who gave us the chinese take out that I turn to when I have nothing in the fridge. (And lets not get into morals. I have yet to encounter a religion that condones murder. probably because humans everywhere have the basic moral programming to figure out “Murder is not good for society”)

    When I look around the societies around the world, I look particularly at the poor and the downtrodden. Why? Because it will always be good for the rich. But the poor show you what a society truly is like. And the fact is that religious societies are not kind to the poor and the downtrodden. The level of human misery in non-secular societies is higher than the level of human misery in secular societies.

    And the final point – I might argue that religion isn’t a cultural phenomenon. Why? Because culture isn’t transmitted via indoctrination. it’s that pervasive. (And it changes as the different generations grow up.) In contrast – Christians and other religious groups have a very narrow window where they can impose their religious beliefs on an unformed and uncritical mind. After that window has closed, it is very very difficult to get a convert. (As anyone can see by adult conversion rates.)

    (And think about this. We don’t let children get married or engage in legal contracts. So why do we force them to accept a particular set of beliefs that have long lasting implications when they are too young to understand the long term ramifications? Wouldn’t a person consider that predatory? I know that I was very very bitter and angry when I realized that I had been lied to for years. That, but for the misguided parental indoctrination into religion, I might have not lost so much of my life to that religion.)

    There is one more point – religion abuses women. It is not healthy for women to live in a religious culture. It denies them their humanity. It denies them their rights. Too often, women are relegated to “breeder” rather than person. So I have to say this – I don’t care if we need immigration. I will never reduce a woman to “breeder of the next generation”. What I might do is look at incentives to make a woman and man more likely to have children.. for example, paid maternal income, prestige of having children (as in special rights and privileges), abundant options for childcare. Because right not, many societies aren’t doing enough to make children that attractive a proposition except for those who have nothing in their lives. Make it easier and cheaper to have children. That’s the way to up the birth rate.

    And this is going to be my cheap shot. I believe that secular people care more about the quality of life their potential offspring will have than religious people. Perhaps because certain religious people look at their children as slaves and servants. (hence the indoctrination and the emphasis on “honor thy mother and father” with no mention of how the parents are obligated to care for their offspring.) I feel pity for the Duggar children. The oldest children have never experienced a childhood because they were raising their younger siblings. The younger children have never bonded with their parents because their parents are their older siblings. I don’t see a family when I see the duggar family. I see the equivalent of a puppy breeding mill.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *