Demography and the Future of Religion: Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

Demography and the Future of Religion: Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? August 3, 2011

I have always been curious about the role of demography in the spread of religion.  As a religious person who already has more children than the Canadian national average (not that that is saying much!) and who plans on having more, I have always found the idea that religion is dying out to be a little hard to believe.  In my own experience, religious people have larger families than non-religious people.  That, it seemed to me, was a significant point that is not generally taken into account.

Eric Kaufmann

The problem was, however, that I really had no idea how the numbers actually work themselves out.  What kind of fertility advantage do religious people actually have?  And how does that advantage relate to conversion and/or apostasy?  How successful are religious people in raising their kids in the faith?

With these questions never far from my mind, I was delighted when I walked into the library the other day to find Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?  I took it out immediately.

The first thing that stood out for me was the book’s sometimes strident secularism.  Sometimes the book seems more like a straightforward reporting of the facts, but at other points one gets the sense that religion is a disease that, unfortunately, we can’t eradicate.  It was fascinating to read a book by someone who thinks that my family and I are a major problem for the future of the planet.

Secondly, like so many secular authors that write about religion, Kaufmann’s grasp of things religious was often quite tenuous.  When he talked about various Muslim groups or the lives and culture of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, about whom I know almost nothing, it was hard for me to trust him completely given how badly he botched what I do know.  Take this, for example:

Catholicism held out against modernist values somewhat longer, but in 1943, Pope Pius XII gave his assent to the new biblical scholarship.  Later, after turbulent debate, the second Vatican Encyclical (1968) was issued by Pope Paul VI and the new liturgy went into effect on 18 October 1969.  This muddied the previously hard distinction between sacred and profane, reduced the hierarchical nature of rituals and helped bring Church policy on contraception and birth control into line with the liberal practice of many modern Catholics. (pp. 22-23)

There is almost too much wrong here to enumerate.  It will suffice to note that a book about how many babies religious people have seems to have no idea that the largest religious group in the world rejects contraception!  (Though at one point he notes that the Vatican works with various other religious groups against certain UN family planning initiatives.)

This probably accounts for something else I found disappointing, from a personal point of view.  As a Catholic, I wanted to know about Catholic demographics and Catholic rates of retention of children in the faith.  Kaufmann seems blandly disinterested in Catholics outside of occasional references to the fact that Protestants used to fear renowned Catholic fertility.  It is hard to imagine how one could write a book about religion and demography and not include the Catholic Church.  One gets the impression that Kaufmann didn’t find us nearly as troubling as Mormons, Hutterites, the Amish, Laestadian Lutherans, Quiverfull Evangelicals, various Islamist groups or the Haredi Jews.  I must confess to feeling slighted.

Now, the reader might note an ambiguity here.  I have said that it was weird to read a book that considers me a problem and also that I feel slighted for not being considered enough of a problem.  It is true.  My feelings are ambiguous.  As a religious person with too many children, I am a problem for Kaufmann, but as a Catholic, I am not.  I did not get the sense from Kaufmann that he thought Catholics were good, just that they were moderate enough not to be a real threat.  But I want to be a threat to Kaufmann’s secularism.  His concern that religious people want to curtail the right to abortion (this was an overriding concern) should apply just as much to me as to the Mormons.

Another ambiguity I found was that Kaufmann seemed mostly concerned with “fundamentalists,” but I couldn’t tell if I was a fundamentalist or not.  Sometimes he defines a fundamentalist as someone whose religion is explicitly and intentionally articulated against secularism because it arose precisely as a response to secularism.  I like this definition of fundamentalism and, according to it, I am not a fundamentalist.

On the other hand, Kaufmann sometimes uses the term in a way that seems to indicate, “Anyone who is naive enough to think that their truth claims have universal value.”  On such a reading I am a fundamentalist, but so is Kaufmann!  This is really clear when, at the end of the book, he says some nice things about religion making people happy and notes that that is OK according to his (fundamentalist!) utilitarianism.

But, despite all these awkward bits that come from reading a work by someone who operates in an entirely different world than I do, the book was fascinating.  Kaufmann has useful things to say about what kinds of religious communities spread themselves effectively by reproduction (e.g., those that rarely marry outside the group) and what kinds of effects this has on the broader culture.  Furthermore, he is quite happy to admit that secularism has its warts and that secular ideologies can have consequences as dire as religious ones.

For those interested, his conclusion is that the religious will indeed inherit the earth.  The earth’s population is already contracting in several areas and that contraction is spreading.  By around 2085, the world’s population will be in decline.  It is possible that it won’t take long for it to be in free fall given the vicious cycle nature of demography.  In such a context, those groups that have more children (and manage to keep most of them in the group) will come to represent more and more of the earth’s population.

Those interested can watch a one-hour talk that Kaufmann gave on the topic here:

http://fora.tv/2010/09/05/Eric_Kaufmann_Shall_the_Religious_Inherit_the_Earth

I think it is all very fascinating.  It is also ambiguous.  I suspect that everyone who is honest about it is heartened to hear that there will be more people like them in the future.  I am also keenly aware that many of these groups are not at all like me, even if I can’t fully trust Kaufmann’s description of them.

Finally, though Kaufmann’s dismissal of Catholicism irked me, I found myself happy to belong to a Church that is pro-natalist because it values children, not because it values empire.  In the end, I wonder if we are not more of a threat to secularism because we don’t take it quite so seriously.  Or, maybe better, because we refuse to fight it on its own turf.


Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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