By / Aug 17

There has been much written lately about the declining rates of childbearing. Some argue that it is a good choice in light of economic and climate concerns, while others worry about the fact that men and women are delaying marriage and childbirth until later in life, leading to a population decline. Nowhere is this more acute than in Japan where a city of some two dozen adults have resorted to lifelike dolls as stand-ins for people because the last child born in the city was over 20 years ago. The recent COVID-19 epidemic has even contributed to what has been called a “baby bust” in the United States. This decline in births has serious implications for all areas of life, including religion.

In his new book, Faith and Fertility: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions, Baylor historian Philip Jenkins looks at the close connections between rates of fertility and religious adherence across the globe. His book explores the relationship between childbearing and secularization and the current ways that the religious landscape of the world is being reshaped, especially in Western Europe and North America where fertility rates have fallen precipitously in recent decades. 

In your introduction, you say that there is a direct relationship between the fertility rates of a society and its religiosity. Countries with high fertility rates also (typically) enjoy higher rates of religiosity, and vice versa. Is one feeding the other, or are these just predictors of the future?

Anyone who ever took a college course on sociology knows about debates over causation and correlation. If two things happen at the same time, does one cause the other, or are they both caused by something else altogether? Or, are they simply unconnected? What I am saying is that if you look at particular countries, or regions, that linkage between fertility rates and religiosity is very strong indeed. Moreover, sudden changes in the one trend correspond really neatly to changes in the other. In fact, as I argue, you can actually use fertility changes as a predictor of what will happen in the religiosity of a particular society, and those predictions are very likely to hold good. So is this causation or correlation? 

One problem is that the two trends happen in such short time periods — maybe five or 10 years — that it is close to impossible to decide which is cause and which effect. I think for instance of a country like Italy in the 1970s, which quite suddenly in just a few years experienced a very sharp fertility drop, and where in those same years, religious practice and commitment plunged. I can actually make a good case either way, for which trend is causing which. But in a sense, that does not really matter, because the basic linkage is so solid, and attested so widely. What we can say with high confidence is that high fertility societies are also high faith, and vice versa. When a high fertility society suddenly moves to a low fertility model — and those changes do tend to be sudden — then watch closely for the religious effects.

How do the changes in fertility and focus on child-centered families change other attitudes in the society? What are some areas of rapid shifts in public attitude that have coincided with the shift in fertility and religiosity? 

I use the example of Europe from the 1960s onward, although the changes that happened there have subsequently moved over much of the globe. When family size declines, and children are less on the scene, several things happen. Quite rapidly, people lose many of the ties that previously bound them to churches or other religious institutions. They are no longer sending children to church schools or first communion classes or bar mitzvah classes. But also, society becomes more open to arguments that separate sexuality from reproduction. In the older world, families might have listened closely to what religious institutions said about enforcing sexual morality through law, but that changes quickly. In Europe, so many of these changes have happened through referenda and public votes, rather than, as in the U.S., through judicial decisions. So, you can actually map quite revolutionary changes in public attitudes, with a new openness to contraception, divorce, abortion, and gay rights issues. 

As a result, countries that in 1960 were some of the world’s most morally conservative became some of the most liberal. At every stage, you can also link these developments to changes in fertility. As society becomes more liberal or even radical on these issues, so the churches lose ever more support as they are repeatedly depicted as the bad guys seeking to staunch progress. They face a kind of vicious circle. People are prepared to accept or tolerate the churches and clergy but only as long as they keep out of private lives. In terms of how religion has always been seen as a force in public life, that is a revolutionary development.

It is not, you argue, necessarily Marx or Freud whose work has reduced the appeal of religion, but possibly the work of Louis Pasteur and advances in medicine. Why has something like germ theory shifted our understanding of the family? 

One great force driving high fertility in past centuries was the very high death rate for babies and small children. Infant mortality rates were inconceivably dreadful, so people had to have lots of children to compensate for losses. That in turn severely constrained women’s lives. New insights about germs and infections meant that infant mortality rates fell incredibly fast, and that was the essential precondition for smaller family size. At the same time, knowing the causes of disease has massively reduced the role of clergy and churches in seeking to offer healing and protection against bodily ills. Whole areas of life have been transferred to the medical profession, which now can have a real and positive impact, which was certainly not true until the mid-19th century.

Also, higher standards of health mean that death has become a less familiar and visible part of our everyday lives, and that in turn has limited what was once one of the critical functions of clergy, namely in being present at deathbeds and funerals. Today, death is more medicalized, and is regarded as something for the very old, rather than something that can strike anyone at any time. We have had a revolution in death.

Your book deals a lot with secularization theory and the idea that religion will just generally decline and eventually disappear. However, you say that secularization is a self-limiting process. What do you mean by this?

Imagine a society that is low faith and low fertility, and as I say, the two trends go together. Societies age and become more stable. They also become more secular, and more liberal in their cultural and sexual attitudes. If those are your views, you might think that is a wonderful prospect, and we are all joining together singing John Lennon’s Imagine. But a society with a median age in the 40s — and that is much of Europe today — simply cannot survive economically. It needs people to do the working class jobs, to provide the human services, and to pay the taxes. That means drawing in immigrants, who come from young and high fertility lands in the Global South. In Western Europe, that means turning to North Africa or the Middle East, or South Asia. 

But high fertility societies are also high faith societies, and those new immigrants are likely to be strongly religious, not to mention very traditional in their morality. Many immigrants are Muslim, but plenty of others are passionately Christian. So, in that sense, a secular society will inevitably be transformed by those strictly non-secular immigrants. Over time, the immigrants will often come close to outnumbering the old-stock populations. The less religious a society is today, the more religious it will become in a generation or so.

While the secularization that you note about Europe is true, America has traditionally been a sort of outlier to the conversation because it resembles European nations in many respects but has also retained high levels of religious behavior and identity. Will that trend continue or will American begin to look more like Europe in the near future? 

The U.S. was long a problem for scholars of religion, because it was high faith and (relatively) high fertility. Some of us — including myself! — spent lots of time trying to account for this paradox. For better or worse, we no longer have to explain such things because the U.S. has now moved decisively to European levels of fertility. The big change was the economic crisis of 2007-8, which increasingly looks like a social revolution in people’s ways of life and expectations. 

Today, U.S. fertility rates track closely with those of famously low-fertility Denmark, and they may well go lower: it will be very interesting to see the long-term impact of the pandemic. And as we might have expected, low fertility rapidly implies low faith. The best evidence for this is the dramatic growth of the Nones, those who reject any religious affiliation. They already outnumber Catholics, and by 2025 should be the largest component of the U.S. population, above evangelicals.

Ronald Inglehart wrote recently that “Since 2007, the United States has showed the largest shift of any country away from religion and now ranks among the world’s least religious publics.” For anyone who recalls conditions even a decade ago, that’s amazing. So yes, I do think that “Europe awaits.”

This decline in religion though is not a complete rejection of faith. There is an increase as you note in pilgrimages to holy sites and even many of the Nones (as Ryan Burge has argued in his book on the growing religious group) display some continued adherence to religious belief. So, is this part of the larger conversation about a declining trust in institutions across culture, not just the church specifically? 

And that is an excellent point. When people talk about secularization, they often see it as the same as atheism, which it is not. When people cut loose from institutions, they often maintain the underlying codes and belief system, as in the case of the Nones. But here is the problem. If you cast off moorings from any and all churches, and live what you see as a religious life free of institutions, how long can you keep that up? Decades? A generation? And more important, is that something that can be passed on to the next generation. In Europe, it took a few decades, but those Nones gradually did turn into actual atheists, who see no reason at all for the survival of religion. I am not saying that trajectory is inevitable, but it seems like one we should be aware of.

How does the question of mass migration and immigrations contribute to this discussion? What effect does an influx of immigrants have on the religious behavior and fertility rates of a country? How do immigrants change over time in terms of childbirth and religious behavior? 

Right, I mentioned this earlier. Immigrants do tend to be younger than the historic population, because they are the sort of people who are likely to make such a dramatic move, and early on at least, they are very religious. As to what happens over two or three generations, that is a different matter. Certainly, people of migrant stock tend to move toward the norms of the host society, and their fertility rates do drop. Religion is a more complex matter. Christian migrants are a major part of church life in Europe, especially in countries like Britain, and we see a very similar pattern here in the U.S.

Muslims might tend to keep their religion even longer because it is so intimately bound up with every aspect of their lives, and their social realities. It is actually a very major and difficult step to move to be a real “ex-Muslim,” even if you abandon many aspects of the belief system.

In looking at Africa, you note that soon it will demographically lay claim to the title of the most populous Christian continent. What changes can expect to arise from this shift from Western Europe and North America to the Global South, and particularly Africa? 

Some areas of the world resist the drift to low fertility: Africa, and large portions of the Middle East and South Asia. These will increasingly dominate their respective faiths. By 2050 or so, around a third of all Christians will live on the African continent, and that does not include people of African stock living elsewhere in the world. The impact on Islam will be a bit less, because Muslim numbers are holding up very well in South Asia, but the African share will certainly grow for them too.

Common wisdom has often held that individuals go through stages of religiosity over the course of their lifetimes where they may leave in their young adult years but return when they have children. How does the shift in fertility affect that concept of the faith life cycle of individuals and their possibility of returning? How does it change the way that churches need to approach ministry and outreach in the future? 

I think about all the effort that churches put into studying and catering for children and young people, and I wonder if we are asking the wrong questions. The demographic revolution sweeping the world right now has its greatest impact on the numbers of the old and very old. Those numbers are soaring, both in absolute and relative terms. How do churches cope with them, apart from just holding helpful seminars on dying, death, and estate planning? That aging, that “graying,” poses questions that most churches have scarcely begun to contemplate. Those are some of the greatest challenges to ministry and outreach, and we scarcely have the vocabulary as yet with which to approach the problem. 

By / May 7

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss a big dip in U.S. fertility rates, Biden’s July 4th vaccination goal, COVID-19 in children, mask mandates on planes, Trump Facebook ban, Amy Bockerstette’s college title, and the Malian woman who gave birth to nine babies. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Alex Ward with “Why reading classics can help us answer age-old questions: An interview with Karen Swallow Prior,” Jared Kennedy with “Conversations about gender should begin with humility: Helping parents navigate hard topics with their children,” and Rachel Lonas with “Why it’s important to value neurodiversity in the Church: And three ways you can help.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Elizabeth Graham for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Graham serves as Vice President of Operations and Life Initiatives for the ERLC. She provides leadership, guidance and strategy for life and women’s initiatives and provides oversight to other strategic projects as needed. Additionally, she directs the leadership, management and operations for all ERLC events. Elizabeth is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Richmond, and they have a son and a daughter. You can connect with her on Twitter: @elizabethgraham 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. U.S. fertility dips to its lowest rate since the 1970s
  2. Biden sets goal of fully vaccinating 160 million Americans by July 4
  3. Children Now Account For 22% Of New U.S. COVID Cases. Why Is That?
  4. Pfizer vaccine expected to be approved for children ages 12-15 by next week
  5. TSA Extends Mask Mandate Aboard Flights Through Summer As Travel Increases
  6. Trump Facebook Ban Upheld by Oversight Board
  7. Amy Bockerstette to Be 1st Athlete With Down Syndrome to Compete for Collegiate Title
  8. Malian woman gives birth to nine babies

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  • Every person has dignity and potential. But did you know that nearly 1 in 3 American adults has a criminal record? To learn more and sign up for the virtual Second Chance month visit prisonfellowship.org/secondchances.
By / May 7

Mother’s Day can be bittersweet for many. One in 10 couples struggle with infertility, and approximately 10 to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriages. For many women who long to have a child, Mother’s Day can serve as a difficult reminder of what they desire, but do not have. The potential pain of Mother’s Day extends further still — for women have chosen an adoption plan for their child, single women who desire to be married and have a family, or women who have had an abortion. And others might be grieving the loss of or navigating a difficult relationship with their mother.

Waiting

Personally, Mother’s Day can be filled with conflicting emotions. I was born with a somewhat rare medical condition that prevents me from bearing biological children. The loss of that dream feels especially poignant this time of year. But I also have a desire to honor my own mother and mother-in-law and celebrate the women in my life who are mothers. Romans 12:15 is often on my lips as I navigate these tensions and seek to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

My husband and I are in the process of an international adoption from India. This Mother’s Day, I feel the strange tension of pursuing motherhood but not yet stepping into the role of “mother.” I’m waiting for paperwork to be approved, for a social worker to deem us eligible to be parents, and to be matched with a child. But I know that waiting is not in vain. 

As an adoptee myself, I’m aware that my children’s stories will contain trauma. Even if our children are adopted young, there is trauma involved any time there’s a break in the natural family. The issue of adoption and child welfare is deeply important to me. I’ve spent time and energy navigating the complexities of these issues in order to advocate on behalf of vulnerable children. While we wait, we are reading books on trauma-informed parenting, listening to seminars, and gleaning wisdom from other adoptive parents so that we can love our children well. Our waiting is not in vain.

Watching 

We’re also watching the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in India with broken hearts. According to the BBC, “India has seen more than 300,000 new cases a day for nearly two weeks straight while deaths stand at 220,000. Experts say total Covid cases and deaths in India are likely to be much higher, citing lack of testing and patients dying at home without being seen by doctors.” The images and stories we’re witnessing have caused global alarm and attention. I can’t help but wonder how many children will be orphaned because of the thousands of COVID-19 deaths. 

Praying 

As we watch and wait, we do the best thing we know how to do: We pray. We lift up our future children in prayer almost daily. They might not be known to us, but they are known to our Father, and in that, we take great comfort. We pray for their safety and protection. We pray for their biological parents and the challenging circumstances that led them to making an adoption plan for their children. We pray for the leaders in India to make good and wise decisions for their citizens. We pray for the souls of our children, that they might come to know the Lord as their Savior at a young age.

In my waiting, I often echo the words of David, “O my Strength, I will watch for you, for you, O God, are my fortress.” Waiting can often feel helpless, but Psalm 27:14 reminds us to “be strong, and let your heart take courage” as we “wait for the Lord.” I fix my eyes upon the Lord and ask him to fill me with his strength when I feel weak. 

If you find yourself in a season of waiting right now, allow me to remind you that you are never alone in your struggle. Psalm 38:9 reminds us that “all our longing is before God; our sighing is not hidden from Him.” The Lord promises never to leave or forsake his children. He promises to be good and to set his steadfast love upon us. When you feel overwhelmed and discouraged, on Mother’s Day or any time, press into the promises of the Lord. 

By / May 7

A new provisional report from the Centers for Disease Control finds that the United States had the lowest number of births since 1979 and the lowest fertility rate in our nation’s history.

According to the report, the number of births for the United States in 2020 was 3,605,201, down 4% from 2019. This is the sixth consecutive year that the number of births has declined after an increase in 2014.

The general fertility rate reached another record low for the United States. The general fertility rate was 55.8 births per 1,000 women aged 15–44, down 4% from 2019. The total fertility rate was 1,637.5 births per 1,000 women in 2020, down 4% from 2019 to also reach another record low. This puts the total fertility rate at below the replacement rate.

In 2020, birth rates declined for women in all age groups 15–44 and were unchanged for adolescents aged 10–14 and women aged 45–49. The birth rate for teenagers aged 15–19 declined by 8% in 2020 to 15.3 births per 1,000 females; rates declined for both younger (aged 15–17) and older (aged 18–19) teenagers. 

The cesarean delivery rate rose to 31.8% in 2020; the low-risk cesarean delivery rate increased to 25.9%. The preterm birth rate declined to 10.09% in 2020, the first decline in the rate since 2014.

What is “fertility rate”?

Several different metrics are used to measure the “fertility rate.” The most common uses of the term refer to:

  • General fertility rate (GFR): This metric is the number of births per 1,000 women of childbearing age (i.e., aged 15–44). It measures the number of live births in a particular year.
  • Total fertility rate (TFR): This metric refers to the total number of children who have been born or are likely to be born to a woman in her lifetime if she were subject to the prevailing rate of age-specific fertility in the population. 
  • Age-Specific Fertility Rate (ASFR): This metric is the number of live births per 1,000 women in a specific age group for a specified geographic area and for a specific point in time, usually a calendar year. For example, all the births to women age 20 to 24 in the United States in 2015.
  • Completed fertility rate (CFR): This metric is the number of children actually born per woman in a cohort of women (typically those born in a country around the same time) up to the end of their childbearing years.

These distinctions are why reporting on fertility rates often give different dates for significant events, such as “record lows.” Recent news headlines reporting that “fertility rates in 2020 dropped to another record low” are referring to the GFR and TFR, both of which hit a record low last year. The CFR reached its record low in 2006. Because some women are having children after age 44, the general fertility rate might be at a record low and yet the total number of mothers might still be relatively high.  

What is the replacement rate?

The replacement rate is the total fertility rate necessary to replace both the mother and the father, and accounts for the number of children who won’t live to childbearing age.

There are several factors—such as migration, war, and disease—that can affect how many people in a country needed to be replaced each year. But assuming such factors aren’t having a major and unexpected impact on population, the total fertility rate that equals the replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman. This is the number of children generally needed per woman to ensure a broadly stable population, though it can vary slightly in countries where children are more likely to live to adulthood. In the United States the replacement rate is closer to 2.08. 

If the replacement rate is 2.1 over an extended period of time, the population in a country will remain about the same. If it increases or decreases, the population of the next generation will also increase or decrease. 

Why does it matter if the fertility rate declines?

In a population where the replacement rate is around 2.1, the number of people moving through each cycle of human development (e.g, childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, midline, late adulthood) is roughly the same at each stage. But if a generation is larger or smaller than other generations, it can have an effect on society that lasts numerous decades. For example, if there is a “baby boom”—an unexpected increase in the number of children born in a generation—a nation may need to build more schools, from the elementary to the collegiate level. But the next generation, if it is not equal in size, will be left with educational infrastructure that is not needed. 

In most developed countries, such as the U.S., the social safety net is structured in a way that makes young people a form of “old-age insurance.” Societies create a pay-as-you-go system that is dependent on there being a greater number of younger people of working age relative to those of retirement age. For instance, Social Security uses the payroll taxes of current workers to directly pay the monthly benefits of older, retired workers. This pay-as-you-go approach works best when there is a high ratio of workers to beneficiaries, such as in 1945, when there were 41.9 workers for every retiree receiving Social Security. But the system becomes more difficult to maintain when the ratio is reversed. In 2018 the ratio was 2.8 workers for every retiree, and it’s expected to drop to 2.2 by 2049. Because of a falling fertility rate, that number could drop close to 1:1 by the time younger millennials and Gen-Z reaches retirement age. 

Long-term declines in fertility can also have effects that ripple throughout society. For instance, as more resources are needed for the elderly relative to the young, they could be viewed as a “burden on society.” This could lead, as it has in Europe, to an acceptance of voluntary euthanasia. Population declines also cause hardship for rural areas. Because fewer children are born, fewer stay in the area to take care of the elderly population. This can require significant shifts in numerous areas, ranging from public health to church planting.