Population Shrinkage and Christian Community

Population Shrinkage and Christian Community January 17, 2019

Okay so some form of this article has passed along my facebook page this past week. Basically we are not replacing ourselves. For a population to replace itself there needs to be a total fertility rate (TFR) of about 2.1. When I looked at this a few years ago the total fertility rate in the U.S. was about 2.08. Barely missing replacement level but not too bad. Especially not too bad when countries in Europe had TFR ranging from 1.7 to as low as 1.3. According to this article our TFR now is 1.76. Yikes!! We are becoming Europe and not in a good way.

Now I know that some think that it is not a bad thing to have slow population growth. Overpopulation and all that. But I see such an idea as short-sighted. First, one needs to realize that if you want to be able to take care of older, retired individuals, then you need a workforce that is sufficiently large composed of younger workers. If you think we are going to have problems with a social security crunch now, just wait until we start dramatically decreasing in overall population. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

And then there are the problems of immigration. Part of the immigration conflict today is that Americans fear a loss of their culture due to incoming immigrants. Have you checked out the increase of xenophobia and anti-immigrant hostility in Europe? Part of that is driven by the reality that Europeans have to bring in so many workers from highly Muslim countries into secular Europe. The cultural difference between those of us in the United States and those from Central and Latin American is less than between secular white European and darker Muslims. But those differences are there and real. And if we have to start bringing in more individuals from those countries, then I predict you will see even more conflict over issues of immigration in our society.

As a side note, at one point it seemed that one of the solutions to a potential shrinking population was the birth rate of immigrants. But it seems that within a generation or two, those immigrants start adopting the fertility patterns of the host nation. So it seems that we will have to keep bringing in immigrants if we do not want to shrink.

Also there are perilous economic effects to a shrinking population. Less individuals mean less innovation and less entrepreneurship. The chances of the next great inventor or scientist will be born decreases when you have less children. Some may argue that we can better serve the lower number of children who are born. But it is a false dilemma to talk about quality or quantity. To maximize your opportunities for innovation, you need both quality and quantity.
So this is a real problem, and in the articles I have seen there is an effort to figure out what has occurred to create this problem. And I do not dispute any of the issues brought out by some of the authors of these articles. But to date, I have not seen any of them address what I think is a key to the decrease of population. That issue is the secularization of our population.

Note that this dramatic decrease has occurred as we have seen a dramatic increase of religions “nones” and other forms of secularism. In the past I have blogged about how I do not think that secular societies are sustainable. There are forces in secularism that depress fertility to the point where secular societies have to keep bringing in religious individuals (Muslims in Europe and Catholics in the United States) to replenish themselves. If religious beliefs and practice continue to decrease in the United States, then I would predict that we are going to keep seeing this population collapse.

There is a lot of research showing that religiosity is correlated to higher fertility (Here is just one example). I have also experienced the increased fertility of the religious in my life. In my academic sphere, where almost everyone is secular, there is not much in the way of fertility. In my church it is quite different. I remember when my wife was about six months pregnant with our third child (that gives us two replacements and an extra so we are done!) looking around at the women at our church and noticing so many who were visibly pregnant. It seems that about a fourth of the women had a baby bump. My church may be younger than most but still having children is still prioritized in many Christian circles.

This population drought brings with it challenges and opportunities for those of us who have prioritized Christian community. It is a challenge because we live in a society whereby child rearing is not seen as essential, or perhaps even important. How we see purpose of families has changed in our culture from one that is about the raising of children to one that is about self-fulfillment. If we are going to reverse this type of mentality within our Christian communities, then we have to work against mainstream cultural values.

But it is an opportunity. As there is a need for trying to maintain at least a steady state population, we as Christians can be part of the solution to that issue. If we retain pro-natal values then in time I believe we will be seen as providing a valuable resource to the rest of society. In a post-Christian world, it is not small thing to be seen as providing a valuable resource.

Of course there is also the potential benefit of growing as a relative portion of the population over time. This would depend on how well we socialize our children in the faith. Christians clearly have not done a good job of doing so. I am in the middle of working with my three boys. Perhaps if I am successful, I will have something more to say about how we can do a better job with the socialization of our children. But at the very least we need to be deliberate in our efforts and stop taking for granted that our children will grow up to become Christians.

So as we consider what it means to be a Christian community, it has become clearer that we must prioritize our families and child-rearing. To the extent they can, we need our churches and parachurches to provide parents with resources. It is also important that we, as a community, utilize positive fertility messages and encourage procreation. This is a countercultural approach to the current societal norms. Families have to be seen for more than mere self-fulfillment. A community approach means that families do not merely bring individuals satisfaction but also come with obligations to the larger community. Part of that obligation brings with it the responsibility of raising children.

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not saying that we should expect every Christian to have children. Some Christians will never meet someone with whom they can have children. Or if they meet them, then they may not until they are past childbearing age (of course this is much more of a problem for women than men). Sometimes Christian couples are not able to have children naturally. They may not feel called to adopt either. So this is not an absolute action that we would expect of all Christians. However, this still does not stop us from prioritizing the raising of children for Christians who are able to have children and marry at an age early enough to have those children.

For those who for one reason or another do not have children, there is nothing that stops them from supporting those of us who do have children. This may be simply helping us out if we need someone to come over and play with them. It also may mean befriending our children and helping us to guide them. Of course not every Christian will feel called to pour their lives into the lives of a lot of children, but most of us have Christian friends who are parents that can use help every now and again. As a community we need to help each other in the seemingly mundane business of supporting each other in the incredibly important dimension of child-rearing.

Now with my third kid I know what I ask about child-rearing is not easy. This is especially so for those of us, like me, who are not naturally “kids people.” Child-rearing is not always the most exciting part of living a Christian lifestyle. I have had my share of 2 AM feedings, and battles of the will around bedtime, to know that childrearing is hard work. But if we do this hard work, then we will gain eventually long term dividends in terms of service to the larger society and maintenance of our own Christian community.

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  • AHH

    Any discussion of this topic that does not engage the issue of stewardship of God’s creation, and the related issue of sustainably having enough food, water, etc. for the world’s population, is missing a hugely important aspect. More people means more stress on the creation and on the various resource systems (and, all else being equal, more hardship for the poor). That is far from the only factor in discussions about what population trends are desirable, but from the standpoint of Christian stewardship it is a pretty darned important one.