A while back the chattering class got its knickers in a knot about demography. Secularists noted that secularists were not having many babies, while the religious nuts were. The demographic future, it would seem, belonged to the Jesus-freaks. Of course, many of these folks consoled themselves with the hope that the forces of reason and science were secularize the next generation. However, while this story might be an ideological warm blanket for the left, the daunting problems of childlessness remained. Who pays for the social security benefits of all of those folks with point-something children?
Interestingly, the key assumption behind this debate is that religion causes large families. In an interesting article in last summer’s issue of Policy Review, however, Mary Eberstadt offers the reverse story: families, she argues, cause religion. Her prime bit of supporting evidence is the demographic history of western Europe, where she notes that in virtually every cases decreases in family size proceeded declines in religiosity rather than vice versa. In other words, people stopped having kids and then they stopped believing in God, rather than the other way around. According to Eberstadt it is the experience of parenthood itself that drives religiosity (or at least drives a lot of it). She writes:
First, there is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some, even the first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experiences by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps not other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree.
Fine, you say, but to paraphrase the mythical Jewish uncle, “How does this effect the Mormons?” The secularization thesis — much under attack by sociologists of late and fervently defended by Sam Harris et al — sees the decline in religiosity as the pre-ordained result of modernism. Science, wealth, education, and liberal democracy combine to make people less religious and the progress is all one way. Western Europe has gone secular and it isn’t going back. We’re waiting on America. Our global missionary efforts seem to implicitly rest on something like this idea: There is a denominational land grab in the developing world and Mormons need to grab as much of the religious market share as possible before prosperity and secularization set in and the converts dry up
If Eberstadt is correct, however, then modernity isn’t driving religious decline; family size is driving religious decline. (Note, this is how she explains the religiosity of America, a manifestly modern country. Americans, for whatever reason, have larger families and this causes American religiosity.) Now it may be that modernism drives family size down which drives religion out, but Eberstadt thinks not. She writes, “[T]here is nothing fixed or inevitable about today’s low birth rates or (bearing in mind that fertility is just one of several measures for the vitality of the family) low marriage rates or, for that matter, notions about the desirability of the natural family itself — in Europe or anywhere else.” Indeed, if the decline in family size really does lead to demographically driven fiscal collapse, to say nothing of the negative effects of everything from single motherhood to childless old age, then there may be a feed back loop in favor of families.
Consider the example of smoking and how many decades it took to change the global consensus from benign encouragement to widespread opprobrium. That example is a powerful confirmation of the truth that social norms do change in unexpected ways. All kinds of things might affect any individual’s calculation about whether to marry or any couple’s calculation about whether another child or two might be desirable — from sublime considerations like what that might add to their extended family’s happiness to prosaic factors like how many children can fit legally into most cars.
Ironically, if the prophets are right about the dire effects of the decline of the family, that fact itself may be good news for families. After all, people learn, adapt, and change. Who knows, maybe policy and social problems will drive an increase in family size in western Europe, and missionaries will once more find more converts on the edges of Benbow Pond than they can cope with.