Why Are the Religious More Fertile?

Why Are the Religious More Fertile? June 25, 2018

I have two fine boys. And we have another one in two weeks. I love my boys. They have brightened my life. But may I confess something to you? I am not a kid person. Before having kids the idea of spending time alone with kids would give me hives.

So if I did not find joy in kids, then why do I have them? Good question. Before I was married, I thought about whether I wanted to have kids. I thought about all of the costs of having them. The money. Quality time with my spouse. My own private time. The extra worry having kids would bring. I considered all of these costs and decided that despite them, I wanted to have kids. I decided that it was part of my Christian responsibility to have and raise kids. How are we going to transmit our Christian values to the next generation if we do not have children? Be fruitful and multiply, you know.

This got me thinking about childrearing. Research has shown that religious individuals have more children than nonreligious individuals. Could it be that religious individual have more kids because unlike nonreligious individuals, they feel an extra obligation to have children? Perhaps their sense of obligation to God and their community drives them towards childbearing. I was curious about this research question.

So a colleague and I decided to research this question. We sent out questionnaire with open-ended question to find out why religious and nonreligious individuals have children and why they decide how many to have. We asked them about the costs and benefits of children as well as if their religious ideas impacted their desire to have children. A brief description of the results of this research can be found here.

So my theory was that religious individuals would have more children out of a sense of obligation. Thus the demands of the faith may provide religious individuals an advantage over more secular individuals in their ability to reproduce their culture. But I was wrong. We did not find that religious individuals were more likely to feel a sense of community obligation which led to increase childbearing. Rather it was more simple than that. Religious individuals wanted more kids because they were more likely to like children than nonreligious individuals.

My first thought is, “What!!!” That certainly does not explain my desire for children. My desire for children is out of a desire to obey what I think God wants. It certainly was not because babies are cute or kids are fun. Kids are work and I was merely doing my duty.

But this explanation does explain my wife. She loves babies. She is the type who sees a baby and wants to hold the baby. (True confession. The first time I ever held a baby was my own kid. When asked before that, my response would be, “That’s okay. I am good.”) Her face would light up at the sight of a kid no matter how ugly the kid was. Oh yeah. For her there are no ugly children (Ah, yeah there are.). I love her but as it concerns children we are as different as night and day.

And she is more in line with religious individuals in their desire for children. They want children simply because they like kids. It is not out of a sense of obligation that convinces them to have children. Instead it is a love for kids that makes them want to have kids. It was the nonreligious individuals who were more likely to talk about obligations when discussing why they wanted children. The nonreligious sounded more like me and the religious sounded more like my wife (Is she more spiritual than I?).

So how do we make sense of this finding? It makes no sense that religious people just simply like children more than nonreligious individuals. As a sociologist I have to believe that there is some structural or institution factor at play here. To get at this my co-author and I did a second survey. We not only asked our respondents about their desired fertility, but we also asked them if they liked kids. If they did, we asked them why they liked kids. Our hope was to find out if there was something in the reasoning for religious individuals gave for liking kids that would provide clues to what is occurring in this religious/nonreligious difference.

What we saw was the religious individuals were more likely to see the children as part of their family. They saw children as people to train but also as people who gave to the family with their childlike spirit. More children also meant a bigger family which would be a source of joy for them. Essentially religious individual had a sense of a local family where children were a vital part of it. The need for children to be a vital part of their family tended to be missing in the attitudes of the nonreligious. This lack of a need generally led them to appreciate children less and to want children less.

We also included questions about whether the respondents valued the local community. We found that religious individuals were more likely to have high value for their local community. By local community we are talking about one’s local neighborhood and city as opposed to a national or global community. There are reasons to believe that nonreligious individuals are more likely to be committed to values of a larger nonlocal community. In fact this commitment to the larger community can provide some reasons for their decreased willingness to have children. A few respondents indicated that having too many children is bad due to the effect our population can have on the global community and particularly on our environment.

Thus this look at childbearing differences appears to have stumbled onto an important distinction between the religious and the nonreligious. The notion of community is different for both groups. For the religious the community is more likely to revolve around local institutions. One’s own family, one’s church and one’s neighborhood can be seen as part of one’s community. For the nonreligious community is more national and global in nature. Indeed, with the use of the internet, it becomes possible to have virtual community with individuals halfway around the world.

As it concerns childrearing, it becomes clear why these different understandings of community matter. If your community is something that is local, then having more children simply builds upon the community that is important to you. They can add more joy to your life by giving you more individuals to share your community with. But if your community is global, then you have to calculate the costs to the global community when more children are brought into existence. Now it is not clear whether children add value to your community, and there is dramatically less incentive to have children.

But this difference goes beyond childrearing. Notions of community help to dictate what actions are important and how we should conduct our lives. They help to determine what the religious and nonreligious may value. For the religious, building the local community and taking care of those in that community takes priority. Individualistic helping out one’s neighbor becomes highly valued. On the other hand, a national and/or global community requires that we go beyond local kindness. It may also require us to engage in political and social activism.

I have become an advocate of rebuilding the Christian community. I have argued that this is important in a post-Christian society. These findings give me hope for that rebuilding since they suggest that Christians also see the need to strengthen our local communities. Taking care of our local neighbor and working in local institutions are important parts of that community. There is also great emphasis in raising our children and thus the value of having children would be part of that community as well. We do not need to neglect political activism but far too often Christians have relied on that activism rather than caring for their neighbors. My results give me some hope that we have some community values to build upon.

So I will agree to be the outlier in a religious person who is not thrilled to be around children. I do admit that I love being around my own boys and that there is a joy being with them that I did not anticipate when considering whether to have children. Yes all of the costs that I feared about having children are there and I am paying them. But if having kids can soften a stone heart like mine, then those costs cannot be that high, can they?


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