Declining fertility rates have a significant correlation with increased secularization, according to Baylor University professor Philip Jenkins.
In a Regent College (Vancouver, British Columbia) live-stream titled “Fertility and Faith: A Conversation with Philip Jenkins,” the Baylor University professor of history and co-director of the program on historical studies of religion, explained Thursday that demography derives from changes in religious belief.
Much of modern Africa tends to be devoutly religious and they also happen to have high fertility rates, Jenkins said. By contrast, the lower a population’s fertility rate the greater the likelihood it is for people to separate from faith communities and religious institutions. The fertility rate, then, serves as an insightful window into how societies around the world become more secularized.
“We measure change in a society through fertility,” Jenkins said.
“There is a close correlation between a fertility rate of a particular society or nation and the level of religious involvement or participation in that society.”
Amid the relatively recent collapse in fertility rates around the world, especially in Europe, secularization is rising. Jenkins noted that if you told him the fertility rate of any given country it would be fairly easy to say whether that nation allows legal same-sex unions, surmise its attitudes toward faith and religion, and how strong its religious institutions are.
While this correlation is not brought about by simple causation, the link is nevertheless demonstrably present, he stressed.
In the 1960s, the fertility rate in Denmark began to drop below replacement level as the country became more secular. Meanwhile, in the sub-Saharan African country of Uganda, the average woman had five children and religious belief was strong. This pattern holds true across the world with a notable few that seem to buck the trend.
“You might argue that as you take children out of the picture there are far fewer links connecting families and people to institutions. … Take children out of the religious picture and see what happens,” he said.
Or, he posited, it could be the reverse. That as people become more secular in their thinking they forego the charge to “be fruitful and multiply.”
Whichever comes first, these changes are happening rapidly. In Italy, the collapse of the fertility rate and the slide toward rampant secularization has happened within a decade, he noted.
Low-fertility societies are more likely to be hostile to religion, Jenkins added. The key factor in this phenomenon is the institutions.
“Once you separate the idea of family, once you separate sexuality and reproduction, people become a lot less willing to have churches or religious institutions tell them what to do with their personal lives,” he said.
When these religiously-informed ethics break down, political campaigns subsequently arise to legalize or permit by referendums such things as abortion or euthanasia. A low-fertility, secularized society is more inhospitable to efforts of churches and religious institutions to push back, and are often prone to believing the worst charges about faith-based organizations and institutions, he explained.
Jenkins went on to describe how one of the largest shifts in consciousness in his lifetime was from the belief that there was going to be a population explosion. What happened was the reverse.
“To put it crudely, we have lost 2 billion people since then [the 1970s] from what was projected versus what we’ve actually got,” he said. “This is happening because so many people in Latin American and Asia gave up having traditional ‘third world’ population growth rates and suddenly became Danish.”
Population rates that many considered Scandinavian have spread around the world. Half of the states in India now have half the replacement level fertility rates, Jenkins continued. Whereas originally, the projection for 2050 was going to be that the global population would number 11 billion. It’s more likely that the figure will be approximately 9 billion. Concern is rising now about “population contraction” and the military, commercial, and economic implications that come with it.
In the 1980s, a typical Iranian woman had seven children in her lifetime, he said. Presently, the rate hovers at 1.5-1.6, about the same level as Canada. Though viewed as a religious country because of their ardent Islamic government, the Iranian people have secularized. The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard complained that of the 60,000 mosques in the nation, only around 3,000 are actively attended.
Surveys of what average Iranians think show that many consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” and plenty more are atheists, he said, whereas mainline orthodox Islam is a “minority pursuit.”
The United States has been somewhat of an anomaly in that it’s a developed nation but remains highly religious and had a relatively high fertility rate. In the last decade, however, it has secularized significantly and the fertility rate has also plummeted. Those who are known as “nones” — people who no longer affiliate with any particular faith tradition — have grown sharply.
“The proportion of nones in the U.S. has risen very dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years in exactly the same period that the fertility rate has dropped. And the three largest religious communities in the U.S. right now are evangelicals, Catholics, and nones. And within just a year or two, the nones are going to be the largest of those three groups. That is a stunning change in a very short time,” Jenkins said.
The U.S. is also culturally divided and it’s easily predictable that states with high fertility rates and high faith practice vote Republican and low-fertility and low faith states vote Democrat, he explained.
“Fertility is an extremely good predictor of religious behavior and the political behavior that grows out of it, particularly in an age of culture wars,” Jenkins said.
Secularization can occur very rapidly, he emphasized, highlighting how the Netherlands was once known for its strong religious practice in the 1940s and 19050s, but that changed by the 1980s. The Dutch have since become one of the most secular people in history.
“Is that the fate of the United States? I don’t know,” he added, noting that it’s possible that the COVID-19 pandemic might accelerate that secularization process.
Jenkins is the author of Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions, released in July.