I have made the case that fertility and faith are intimately linked. Very generally, falling fertility rates correlate with declining support for organized religion, and growing secularization. (This is the total fertility rate, TFR). The key marker is the “replacement” rate, when a typical woman bears 2.1 children during the course of her life. When the rate falls below that, say to 1.5, it is highly likely that organized religion is moving into dangerous and uncharted waters. We can debate which way round the causation runs, but the connection seems very strong. Europe is the prototype example, but as we have seen, the trend is now spreading much further afield.
If you want to see the world in a while new light, take a long look at the Wikipedia page on List of sovereign states and dependent territories by fertility rate. (Make all due allowances for the slightly different estimates from variant sources)
First, look at the enormous range of such rates, from Niger and South Sudan (7 children per woman, or higher) to around 1.2 for Portugal, Greece or South Korea. Remember that stability or replacement rate is 2.1. And think through the significance of those figures for women’s role, for expectations of family life, and for the power of religious and traditional codes and mores over individuals. If a typical woman in a society is having 1.2 children during her lifetime, while her grandmother might have had five or six kids, what does that tell us about transformed attitudes to family, to careers, to posterity, to the future – and to the power of organized religion.
Also think of the impact on the number of rootless young adults who are available to be drawn into mass movements or militias. Very easy in South Sudan, close to impossible in Portugal. Such a chart also says much about the sheer viability of a society. If the fertility rate is 1.3, say, it will be an aging and shrinking community without the people necessary to perform many essential services, unless it draws on immigrants in large numbers.
But also, pay attention to what such a table tells us about popular stereotypes – actually, stereotypes that are often held by otherwise knowledgeable people. Many of us have a broad image of low-fertility Europe confronting a highly fertile “Third World” or Global South. Of course, Spain is on the unsupportably low side, at 1.38, while most European nations are in the sub-replacement zone of between 1.3 and 1.9. Naturally, Europe is aging, and secularizing.
And then see the other nations that are in this sub-replacement category already, or heading there at breakneck speed. Look at the world’s rock-bottom TFRs, in East and South East Asia (South Korea, Singapore, Japan, China) and in Latin America (Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, with Mexico and Argentina due to enter this zone within three years or so).
India’s rate is 2.34, which is anything but a “Third World” profile. India’s rate in 1960 was around 6.0, falling to 4.7 in 1980, so the country has made substantial progress in the direction of “Europeanization.” Thailand’s rate in the 1970s was 7.0, today it is 1.6.
Japan’s birth rate is legendarily low, and that has had exactly the effect I suggested on religious behavior. As I argued recently in a piece in Christian Century, Buddhist temples stand in as much danger of closure and desertion as do Christian churches in much of Europe.
And here’s another problem. Suppose we look at the TFR for a given country, such as India’s 2.34. But that is an average for the whole nation, and might conceal enormous internal differences, by region and ethnic group. Depending on the society in question, those internal variations may actually be the key to understanding the country’s politics and internal rivalries, and especially its religious politics.
Let’s take India again, and the mind-boggling Wikipedia page that ranks the country’s states by their TFR. As I said, many people might think of the country in terms of teeming impoverished millions and huge families, and an image like that might find some substance in Bihar (3.74) or Uttar Pradesh (3.55). But then look at the large states where the TFR is comparable to European countries like Denmark, Russia or Austria. Look at Punjab, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, all with TFRs below 1.8, and all thus very “Scandinavian” in their demography.
Many countries in the world have very comparable differentials between high and low fertility regions and populations. Usually, the high fertility groups tend also to be more religious. If you are the president of such a country, or a party leader, is it not natural to align with growing numbers, and thus to religious conservatism or even fundamentalism? That is equally true of Turkey and Israel as it is in India itself. I argued this at greater length in an article I published last year on “Fertility and the Fate of Nations.”
As I wrote of one specific nation:
Overall, Turkey’s fertility rate is a little below replacement, but that simple fact obscures enormous regional variations. The country can be divided into four zones, stretching from west to east. The Western quarter is thoroughly European in demographic terms, with stunningly low sub-Danish fertility rates of around 1.5. The rates rise steadily as we turn east, until the upland east has very high rates resembling those of neighboring Iraq or Syria. “Europe” and the Third World thus jostle each other within one nation. High-fertility eastern Turkey is of course much more religious than the secular west, and this is where we find the Qur’an Belt that so regularly supports Islamic and even fundamentalist causes. It simply makes electoral sense for the government to respond to the interests of that populous growing area, and to drift ever more steadily in Islamist directions.
My overall conclusion: It’s the fertility, stupid.
I just published an article on these matters as they affect Africa in the Pew Foundation’s magazine Trend.