Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present, as if they were taking something away from our lives. Children are seen as a liability rather than as a source of hope.
—Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
One well-worn critique of Christianity is that it dwells in the realm of the abstract, concerned with ephemeral spirituality and the salvation of the incorporeal soul rather than the material necessities and vicissitudes of our earthly existence. Christians, with their beliefs in God, are up in the clouds and can’t come down whereas sober, lucid, earthly minded individuals clearly see and appreciate life for what it really is—these humanists, or however they classify themselves, are alone capable of joie de vivre because only they truly understand the material and, therefore, the human body. Although Christians have at times created literature that has slanted too far in favor of spirit over body, what partially resists this critique is the material and bodily notion of childbearing, which Christianity manifestly demonstrates through raw demography. Namely, Christians whose imaginations are formed by that which is to come are sexually fruitful for today, whereas those sensible ones whose vision is solidly anchored within the hic et nunc fail at sexual fruitfulness for tomorrow.
On Narratives of Population
Within the popular literary imagination, two fears haunt the future of humanity, the superabundance of population through unmanageable growth and a dearth of population through unceasing decline. These two trajectories lead to a dystopia, portrayed either in an overwhelmingly crowded city, for instance the one in Soylent Green, or in a childless famine, such as the one in The Children of Men. Yet one of these narrated dystopias—the terror of overpopulation—is quite new in the theater of world history.
A human population is a reproductive system, and historically, the task of civilization was to keep population headed upward. Mortality rates were high, life expectancies were short, and the crises of epidemics and wars threatened the material and existential security of premodern society. Religious fertility cults, civic laws, family norms, and the injunctions of ancient writers encouraged high birth rates, as larger populations meant greater power. One might say that the popular anxiety of this almost ageless era could be described within the narrative of The Children of Men, whereby the dramatic collapse of fertility would bring the onset of cultural decay and eventual destruction.
It was not until the onset of the eighteenth century that the Protestant English cleric Thomas Malthus inverted the classical population principle, casting a long shadow on population doctrine for the next two centuries. To Malthus, smaller population meant greater power. His was the time of the Industrial Revolution and the upstart of a demographic transition in which mortality rates dropped and fertility rates remained high, causing population to soar at an unprecedented rate. This great population explosion caused Malthus to argue that population growth, if unchecked by government, would inevitably deplete the resources of creation and thus leave poverty, famine, and disease in its wake. Malthusian population theory, which influenced economic and social policy henceforward and which intellectually inspired the likes of John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer, was routinely invoked to justify projects of imperialist colonization and market liberalism and to serve as ideological resistance to social welfare programs that encouraged childbearing.1 The culmination of Malthusian sentiment in recent history can be found in the sensational work The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in the late 1960s, which caused a popular uproar with its cataclysmic prophecies of impending doom due to the apparent overpopulation outpacing global food supply. One might say that from Malthus to our age, the popular anxiety is that of the newcomer narrative of Soylent Green, where fertility surplus overburdens our capacity for human flourishing.
Ehrlich rightly noticed the population explosion that had been occurring since the Industrial Revolution until its peaking in the 1960s, but what he overlooked was the precipitous drop that fertility rates took at the moment he released his jeremiad best seller. A population or generation requires a bottom-line average of 2.1 children per woman to achieve replacement level and avoid decline. During the midsixties, the average global total fertility rate (TFR) was around 6.0, now it sits at 2.4, and it is unclear whether TFR will continue in its descent.2 Indeed, the world population as a whole is still growing and is above a replacement level TFR, but we are approaching a global population recession by the middle of the century; this scenario is particularly acute in the developed Western world, where we have seen several decades of consistent subreplacement fertility.
This drop in TFR has been labeled lowest-low fertility, a contested term coined by European demographers to describe the extreme nature and rapid spread of fertility loss that fell below 1.3 throughout Europe in the ’90s.3 It was around this time that Jean-Claude Chesnais, a senior fellow researcher at France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies, suggested that “We are living in a totally new world . . . . Nobody I know, no demographer, no social thinker could have imagined that societies could have come below, much below replacement level fertility, and that so many couples would remain childless.”4 The turn from the Scylla of Soylent Green brings us again toward the Charybdis of the Children of Men.
On Religiosity and Fertility
The world is not overpopulating.5 The word overpopulation itself and the grand story it evokes is not helpful in understanding the complexity of population growth, and far too often, it broadly generalizes multivariable demographic patterns that have to be put within regional and historical perspective. It is perhaps better to say that although a few regions are currently experiencing great growth or population explosion, the fact is that increasingly more regions, particularly Western and developed societies, are experiencing population decline, and in many cases, that decline is serious enough to plausibly warrant the term implosion.6 The appearance of an all too-crowded and congested world is due more to the population density that occurs with the hyperurbanization of cities. We are not anytime soon, at least certainly within this century, going to be globally crawling and stepping over each other due to lack of space, gasping for air, or grasping for limited resources for the simple reason that people everywhere are having too many children and thus are making the world teem with too many people.
Ours is an age of falling fertility rates. People are choosing more often to have fewer children, and some choose none at all.7 This continued pattern of low fertility and smaller families is creating what some demographic theorists call a low-fertility trap, in which smaller families normalize the idea and desire of what constitutes the size of a family, and in turn, the next generation’s desired family size is thus lowered and so on and so forth. In other words, low fertility lowers further desired fertility.
Explanations for falling fertility rates are numerous: increases in cohabitation, the delay of marriage, increases in education, economic recessions, increases in the costs of raising children, careerism, contraception, and postmaterial values are among the many offered by theorists.8 However, decisive within this nexus of correspondences is the overarching canopy of freedom of choice: at present, people have historically unprecedented freedom in the amount of children they may choose to have. One’s values and cultural preferences are increasingly determining a couple’s choice in how many children to have. And when fertility largely becomes a matter of one’s values and cultural preference, religion seemingly has an advantage, for the tendency of religious people is to choose having children and often to choose lots of children. Religious individuals are generally withstanding the global trend toward low fertility, whereas those with no religious beliefs at all are typically the trendsetters.9 This increase of a population cohort through births is not a benign point to be overlooked or a trifling fact to be dismissed, for births play a crucial role in religion and social change, as the beliefs of children echo as ripples or waves into the future.
Take America, for example. In a 2010 demographic analysis of the religious composition of the United States in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, estimates show that individuals who claim no religious beliefs, or the nones in demographic parlance, are among the lowest in TFR, averaging at 1.66, alongside liberal or mainline Protestants who have an average TFR of 1.84. This stands in contrast to Muslims, who are at 2.84, Hispanic Catholics, who are at 2.75, and black Protestants, who are at 2.35.10 The conclusion of their demographic analysis of the American religious landscape demonstrated that “The relatively low fertility of secular Americans and the religiosity of the immigrant inflow provide a countervailing force that will cause the secularization process within the total population to plateau before 2043.” This contrast between groups characterized by different values is known as the “demographic imperative,” which maintains that “in a population made up of two groups, the one with the higher rate of natural increase will increase its share of the total at the expense of the group with the lower rate of natural increase, all else being equal.”11 In other words, having children—a “natural increase”—is crucial to the future development and flourishing of a people, whatever their value system may be. Demography may or may not be destiny, but whatever it is, it is certainly not a negligible force in the fundamental shaping of a society, especially in our modern governmental form of democracy, where the majority voice is a form of power.
Creating a future to come is creating children today. Such a glaringly obvious notion, however, must at times be reiterated. The sociologist Phil Zuckerman, a card-carrying secularist who has demonstrated the greater glories and exuberant joys of secular Scandinavia in his book Society without God, relates the importance of having children for carrying on cherished cultural values. He writes in the Huffington Post that one of the top mistakes atheists make is not having children: “The demographic data is unambiguous: religious people have far more kids than secular people, with religious fundamentalists having the most kids of all. And the highly religious societies on earth tend to have the highest birthrates, and the most secular nations have among the lowest. So if you really want a godless world, better get busy” (February 14, 2011, emphasis mine). All very true, but secular nations are already hypersexualized as it is, so I imagine that the injunction to “get busy” is not what is necessary for the ears of those who desire a “godless” future—rather they must get fruitful. The natural consequence of getting busy, which is children for those believers in storks, is the bodily impediment over which Zuckerman’s audience stumbles.
Children and the American Mainline
The death knell of the American mainline church has been sounded ever since Dean Kelley released his book Why Conservative Churches Are Growing in the 1970s. Observers from both the left and the right have heretofore continued this tale of decline, though perhaps not as blunt as Stanley Hauerwas once put it: “God is killing mainline protestantism in America, and we goddam well deserve it.”12 In 2012, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat took a turn in the great lineage of tolling the bell with his July 14 article “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?” Douthat mentions that within the last decade the Episcopal Church’s attendance witnessed a 23% decline, with thousands exiting and not “a single diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase.” Douthat argues that this decline is a matter of culture, in that “the leaders of the Episcopal Church and other similar religious bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.” On the one hand, when religious bodies mimic the values and beliefs of the surrounding secular culture, many religious seekers or adherents within that body may wonder why they are bothering with religion at all. One can live a virtuous life as a secular humanist; the theistic factor simply becomes a crude and fantastical ontological excess waiting to be shaved off for the sake of moral simplicity and epistemological cleanliness. On the other hand, Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa Wilde argue in the Christian Century that the culture of “excessive liberalism” is in fact not the central driver of the decline of mainline Protestantism. They provide a more provocative analysis in what they call the “raw power of demography,” that is, the choice to have or not have children. The result of this freedom of choice is that “the so-called decline of the mainline may ultimately be attributable to its earlier approval of contraception.”13
Douthat refers to a November 19, 2006, New York Times interview with the presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori on the state of affairs within the Episcopal Church. In that interview by Deborah Solomon, Bishop Schori responds to a series of questions on church membership and having children:
Interviewer: How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?
Schori: About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.
Interviewer: Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?
Schori: No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more of their portion.
A religion can only grow in two ways, through converts and births, and this is what Bishop Schori fails to notice. From a historical perspective, Rodney Stark shows in The Rise of Christianity how networks of conversion and the superior fertility rates of Christians in opposition to low Greco-Roman pagan fertility played a predominant role in the church’s growth from a population of about 1,000 in 40 CE to 35 million by 350 CE, a remarkable growth that supports the idea that religion is largely an inherited, familial matter.
Yet Bishop Schori uses the classic biblical injunction of “stewardship of the earth” to ethically support low fertility. This is particularly interesting considering that stewardship has its first theological basis in Genesis 1:28, that same verse that also calls us to “be fruitful and multiply” (NRSV). Bishop Schori’s invocation of stewardship to her particular North American audience is based on her concern that through high fertility the Episcopal Church may potentially use “more of their portion.” But at a TFR of 1.84 to maybe 2.01—which, at best, is benign, or at worst, in decline—one wonders what reproductive threat is looming to which stewardship must be invoked. Instead, it seems that American hyperconsumption, not TFR, should be the church’s focus. Indeed the fact that the ecological damage left throughout the lifetime of one American child is thirteen times greater than what a single Brazilian child could ever muster14 suggests that the classic Christian virtue of temperance within our consumption habits should be the emphasis of our religious education when we speak of stewardship, not some false fear of global overpopulation and the dystopia of Soylent Green.
Children: The Materialization of our Imagination
The erosion of religious beliefs, or the reconfiguration of what it means to be Christian, as we see with Bishop Schori, is mirrored in the withering of fertility and the vanishing material capital of children, who are to populations little transmitters and embodied mediums of culture. The hic et nunc cultural values of expressive individualism and self-realization are calibrating the fertility trends of liberal societies toward the freedoms of the childfree life exhibited by the nones and those with liberalized religious beliefs. As low fertility decreases further desired fertility, creating a low-fertility trap, the future of such societies is fragile, particularly when we consider the great cultural divide between the secular and the religious that is expressed within the ever-widening fertility gap.
Despite the fact that “rich nations are becoming more secular,” the demographic engine of copious religious fertility ensures that “the world as a whole is becoming more religious.”15 But what motivates the religious toward the great demands and sacrifice of childbearing in an age where we have the freedom to choose the childfree life is a contested matter. Many claim that the higher fertility of the religious is simply a symptom of the restrictions of marital fidelity, the restraints of patriarchy, the pressures of earlier marriage, and the prohibitions against abortion and contraceptive practice. Yet to entirely chalk it up to prohibitions, pressures, restrictions, and restraints seems too stifle the joy, faith, and hope that characterizes the creative spirit of having children. Does proscription alone account for the joy that takes place in the stirring sights of sonograms and first steps? Or does faith cultivate the courage to procreate in a world colored bleak with prognostications of ill fortune and disaster? As David Bentley Hart points out, “It is fairly obvious that there is some direct, indissoluble bond between faith and the will to a future, or between the desire for a future and the imagination of eternity.”16 There is something about having children that makes visible what is invisible, that spurs us in faith and hope to touch the future with the flesh of our progeny.
Christian faith and the will to a future as signified by the Christian’s embrace of the material gift of children are, furthermore, embodied within the integral locus of the family. Family, faith, and fertility are constituted in a reciprocal relation, operating as a feedback loop, so that growth or decline within one sector is mutually reinforced in the other sectors. This reflexive feedback is what Mary Eberstadt calls the “double helix” of faith and family in which “family decline is not merely a consequence of religious decline . . . [but] that family decline in turn helps to power religious decline.”17 Eberstadt offers her account of the downward spiral of the “double helix” as a theory of Western secularization, yet inasmuch as faith and family can be weakened, faith and family can surely be strengthened toward renewal.
A theology of the body thus ought to recognize the central importance of the family, seeing it as both an eschatological witness and a holy icon, because the family images the eschatological act of the incarnation—God uniting with human nature and flesh through the birth of Jesus into the Jewish family of Joseph and Mary. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, “God wished to reveal Himself by being born in a human family, and hence the human family has become an icon of God. . . . The human family is, in a certain sense, the icon of the Trinity because of the love between its members and the fruitfulness of that love.”18 The family is a visible material icon to the invisible self-giving love between the persons of the Trinity, and it signifies this love through procreation. This embodied act of reproduction creates the family into an eschatological witness of the enfleshed God revealed to humanity through his nativity. Children embody our faith and future because our faith and future was at first embodied through a Child.
1. See Neil Howe and Richard Jackson, “Demography and Geopolitics: Understanding Today’s Debate in Its Historical and Intellectual Context,” in Political Demography, ed. Jack Goldstone, Eric Kaufmann, and Monica Duffy Toft (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2012).
2. Total fertility rate is “the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age.” CIA World Fact Book fertility rates are taken from the United Nations Population Division, “World Populations Prospect, 2012 Revision,” http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/index.htm. The TFR of less developed regions during the midsixties was 6.0.
3. See Kohler, Hans-Peter, Franscesco Billari, and Jose Antonio Ortega, “The Emergence of Lowest-Low Fertility in Europe During the 1990’s,” Population and Development Review 28, no. 4 (2002): 641–80. The implication of a 1.3 TFR is that, without the influence of migration, a society will halve its own size within forty-five years.
4. Ben Wattenberg, Fewer (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, 2004), 33. Other demographers have since argued that a reversal in lowest-low fertility will bring fertility rates to 1.5 and perhaps higher in the decades ahead. See Joshua Goldstein, Tomas Sobotaka, and Aiva Jasilioniene, “The End of Lowest-Low Fertility?,” MPIDR Working Paper WP 2009-029, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany, and Vienna Institute of Demography, Vienna, Austria, November 2009, http://www.demogr.mpg.de/papers/working/wp-2009-029.pdf.
5. World population will peak around 9 to 10 billion by midcentury; then it will begin to decline below replacement level, with some scenarios projecting world population to reach as low as 3 billion by 2150. See Wolfgang Lutz and Sergei Scherbov, Exploratory Extension of IIASA’s World Population Projections: Scenarios to 2300, Interim Report 08-022, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria, http://webarchive.iiasa.ac.at/Admin/PUB/Documents/IR-08-022.pdf.
6. Although many experts theorize about the negative aspect of fertility decline, there are those who argue that below replacement fertility can be beneficial to certain societies in the long run given their particular historical and economic conditions. See Erich Striessnig and Wolfgang Lutz, “Can Below Replacement Fertility Be Desirable?,” Empirica 40, no. 3 (2013): 409–25.
7. See Madelyn Cain, Childless Revolution (Cambridge, MA: De Capo, 2001); Corinne Maier, No Kids: Forty Good Reasons Not to Have Children (Toronto, Ontario: Emblem Editions, 2009); and other related works.
8. See Jonathan V. Last, What to Expect When No One Is Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (New York, NY: Encounter Books).
9. See Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? (London, UK: Profile Books, 2010).
10. Vegard Skirbekk, Eric Kaufmann, and Anne Goujon, “Secularism, Fundamentalism or Catholicism? The Religious Composition of the United States to 2043,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49, no. 2 (2010): 293–310. The United States has a TFR of 2.06 (United Nations Population Division, “World Populations Prospect,” 2012 Revision).
11. Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa J. Wilde, “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States,” The American Journal of Sociology 107, no. 2 (September 2001): 468–500.
12. Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa J. Wilde, “Demographics of Mainline Decline Birth Dearth,” Christian Century 122, no. 20 (October 2005): 24.
13. Ibid., 26.
14. Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss, “Use It or Lose It: The Outsize Effect of US consumption on the Environment,” Scientific American, September 14, 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=american-consumption-habits.
15. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 22–23.
16. Hart, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 45.
17. Eberstadt, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton University Press, 2013), 5–6.
18. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Angelus, “Pope Benedict on Feast of the Holy Family,” St. Peter’s Square, December 27, 2009, http://www.santegidio.org/pageID/64/langID/en/itemID/7123/Pope_Benedict_on_Feast_of_Holy_Family.html.