Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Population & Ideology

I originally wrote this article right after the imposition of same sex marriage and Massachusetts. The introduction is a bit dated, but the body of the argument remains a good jumping off point for a deeper discussion.

Ah, spring! when the judiciary’s thoughts turn to love. There must be something in the air this year. While mayors seemed to feel that the groundhog called it wrong this year and launched spring love in the rainy days of February, the old romantics on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court believe nothing could be more beautiful than a May wedding.

To the chagrin of politicians and the delight of partisans on both sides of the political spectrum, the next eight months look like being another drawn out battle in the Culture War that – depending on the length of your perspective – has been going on ever since the some australopithecine pulled himself to a semi-erect posture on the plains of the Serengeti and pronounced that things were going to the dogs with the younger generation.

With thirty years of experience in fighting politically imposed moral relativism in the form of Roe vs. Wade, the conservative movement is as ready as it can be to join battle, and I believe our chances for success are good. However, as editorial broadsides are exchanged, both sides have too often portrayed the current situation as a final crossroads at which either “progress” or “traditional values” will score a lasting victory.

While this may serve well as a rallying cry, it belies the historical record on family structure, in which the “traditional family” forms a steady baseline (even in pre- and non-Christian cultures) with the range of deviation weaving gently above and below like a sine curve, but not striking off suddenly in new directions. This is the point that liberals miss when they write off heterosexual marriage as a strictly “religious” definition. Certain elements of the traditional view of marriage in the United States are definitely drawn from Christian doctrine: no sex before marriage, no adultery, disapproval of divorce. These moral guidelines are not without analogues in other cultures, but in Western Culture they are primarily the result of Christianity and Judaism’s influence.

However, the more basic definition of marriage – a stable heterosexual social unit for the purpose of bearing and rearing children – can be found with startlingly little variation in the vast majority of world cultures. This is not to say that other forms of sexual activity did not exist. However, even in cultures such as Classical Greece (where some of Socrates’ associates in Symposium argue that true love can only be between two men – since women aren’t capable of such lofty emotions) the traditional married family was a major social institution, whatever else its practitioners may have done in their spare time. The reason is not hard to fathom. The heterosexual, monogamous family unit is simply the most stable (and thus the best) environment for rearing children, an activity which is essential to the species’ survival.

Cultural movements that reject or ignore the necessity of raising and educating children in their belief system at rates above the replacement level (2.1 children per woman) risk becoming increasingly marginalized within the population as a whole unless they possess a significant conversion rate. Throughout much of the 20th century liberal secular materialism had the conversion rate on its side. What was at the start of the century a small, though comparatively elite, group became by the seventies a seemingly unstoppable cultural force. While the growth of the middle class and of affordable luxuries served to bolster the appeal of focusing on temporal self-actualization rather than eternal justification, an unprecedented breakdown in religious and cultural education since the 1960s funneled an equally unprecedented number of children from religious families into the secular world. Parents who had grown up in the 30s, 40s and 50s all too often assumed that so long as they assured their children growing up in the 60s, 70s and 80s went to school and church they would be brought up with the same social and moral values as their parents. Many large, conservative Christian families of the period saw more than half their children leave behind the faith and values of their parents. This trend, coupled with the view that “progress” constituted a move from a religious to a secular worldview led many to conclude that religion would inevitably go the way of the dinosaurs and Victorians. Indeed, to this day I often hear people twice my age pontificate that we need only wait “a few more years” for the last of the conservatives to die out.

However, those moral and theological conservatives who did successfully weather the storm of the 60s and 70s learned the obvious lesson: if you value your belief system and wish to see your children share it, you must assure that it is actively lived and taught to them during their formative period. The 80s and 90s saw a renaissance among conservative Christians in the understanding that parents must be the primary educators of their children, especially in the area of religion and morality. This realization is in large part responsible for the burgeoning Christian homeschooling movement, which according to the Home School Legal Defense Alliance (HSLDA) now accounts for upwards of 2 million students in the US, as well as a new wave of independent Christian and Catholic private schools. Traditional Christians whose children attend public schools are also aware of the necessity of giving their children the education necessary to retain and defend their beliefs in an increasingly secular mainstream culture.

The results have been dramatic. When HSLDA sponsored a study of homeschooling graduates over 18 last year, 94% agreed with the statement, “My religious beliefs are basically the same as those of my parents.” And to magnify the effect further at the political level, respondents voted at twice the rate of the general population, and contributed money and time to political campaigns three times as often as other people their age. Clearly the children coming out of these younger traditionalist families do not have the nearly 50% conversion rate to secularism that their parents’ generation did.

Merely by stemming the tide of conversion from a religious to a secular worldview, moral traditionalists would be able to stabilize their current percentage share of the population, which is depending on how the group is defined is probably somewhere between 10 and 25% of the US population. However as Max Singer pointed out in an August 1999 article in The Atlantic, the current total fertility rate (TFR) of the US is below the replacement rate; the TFR of most other developed nations is far lower. Indeed, the world TFR as a whole has been falling rapidly and shows all signs of continuing to do so as the third world becomes more industrialized. The 2002 UN Population Division report suggests that the world population will stabilize and then begin to fall somewhere between 2040 and 2075 with a maximum world population of between 7.5 and 9 billion. Singer suggests that in a world of stable or falling population levels and ever increasing technology, ideology (rather than war, famine or disease) will play a key role in determining the size and composition of world and national populations.

The increasing demographic significance of the Hispanic population in the US is a case in point of how a birth rate significantly above the norm can impact a group’s representation in the total national population. The US TFR is 2.05 (just barely below replacement level); however; the white TFR is 1.9 and the Hispanic TFR is 3.2. In some states, more than half of the babies born each year are Hispanic. Although American Hispanics have yet to assert themselves as a cohesive political force, politicians in both parties have made increasing efforts to endear themselves to this rapidly growing population group.

An even more dramatic example from a cultural/religious point of view is the Muslim population in France. The overall French TFR is 1.85; however, the TFR of French Muslims is approximately 3 to 4 (the French government does not collect official statistics on religion) while the non-Muslim TFR is only 1.4. Thus, while Muslims make up only 7% of the French population, they constitute 25-30% of the population under 25. Clearly, unless major changes occur (if it is not already too late), France is facing major cultural changes in the next 50 years, especially because the mainstream French culture has generally left its Muslim immigrants underrepresented and unassimilated. (The above figures are drawn from the CIA 2003 World Fact Book and from this article originally printed in the New York Sun: )

I have yet to find any studies examining the TFR of Americans broken down by religious affiliation and degree of orthodoxy. However, experience suggests that traditional/orthodox Christian reproduce at significantly higher levels than the secular population. Among Christian homeschooling circles, families of three to seven children seem the norm, and those children in turn marry younger than their secular peers and will in all likelihood have more children.

It seems quite reasonable that the secular, white American TFR is the same as that of most Western European countries: 1.2 to 1.4 children per woman. In that case, the American population will increasingly be made up of two rapidly growing groups: recent immigrants (whose TFR is likely to drop after one or two generations unless they have further cultural/religious motivations to continue to reproduce at above average levels) and morally conservative Christians. Far from enjoying the undisputed cultural victory they have long predicted, liberal secularists will increasingly find themselves in the minority.


mary said...

I would appreciate your thoughts on

I am surprised at the lack of dissonant voices in the comments. But the writer obviously has the chops. How do you answer him?

Darwin said...


Thanks for the comment.

I'd like to write an actual post dealing with the NY Times piece in a little more depth, so keep an eye out for that in a few days if you're a regular reader, but a few quick thoughts:

- As the Times piece briefly nods to, the brakes are already on world population numbers, indeed by some estimates the world population will start shrinking during this current century.

- Again, as he notes, there are plenty of resources on Earth to support far more than 7 billion people, but not the way they're currently being allocated. One thing he doesn't seem to account for in his assessment is that price is generally much more efficient in dealing with scarcity than planning is. We have a lot of weird subsidies and incentives in the developed world that encourage the use of water, grain, land, etc. in ways that do not get the most efficient allocation of resources -- including getting those resources to those who need them in the developing world. Trying to shrink the population is not, to my mind, the right solution to that imbalance.

- People aren't just resource hogs -- they're also the producers of resources and the inventors of new technologies and processes. Historically, I don't think that people have been very good at predicting how many people society will be able to support in the future. (Which he does acknowledge.)

- While I tend to be strongly pro-natalist, I certainly wouldn't say that everyone "must" have children. If one can't support children, it's clearly not prudent to have them. I can imagine that in some times and places (perhaps more prevalent in the future in some places) this may be a more common problem. However, given my understanding of sex and marriage I'd tend to see not getting married (or getting married much later) as being a more appropriate solution to not wanting to have any or many children than trying to push a lot of sterilization and contraception, which I think separate sexuality and reproduction in a way that doesn't fit well with the human condition.

mary said...

Hi Darwin,
Thank you for your thoughtful and kindly-worded response. I enjoy your blog and the words of Mrs. Darwin immensely (found you from Jen at Conversiondiary) I will look for your more in-depth coverage of the article to come.
However, I will say, that, as pro-life as I am, and as religious (I am currently practicing as a Lutheran although raised Catholic with a devout mother, to whom I am very close), time and time again, I come back to the realization that the way population biology works, is that there are boom and bust cycles, with the busts driven by intense competition for resources, die-off and predation.

I acknowledge and understand the terrible consequences of the Pill, as it renders females utterly available and at the mercy of the intense male libido, however I maintain that, within a committed marriage, non-abortive birth control methods make sense.

Also, to your point about the slowing of world birthrates, and the low birthrates in developed nations: true...but this has been achieved not ONLY via women's education and later marriage, but significantly through widespread contraceptive use and sadly, abortion. If you could show me a nation where the TFR hovered around 2.2, and all or most participants practiced NFP as the sole method of limiting births, then I might reconsider. Again (I have been on your site before as mary lee I think), I have no qualms whatsoever with any specific couple lovingly, and honestly deciding to bring many children into the world, but my view is shaped by an understanding that many other couples will contracept while others never marry. I live in a state with a European-style TFR (Massachusetts), so a large family here and there is a beautiful thing to see.

If you read the comments section for the article I sent you, you see an unrelenting hatred of people who have many (or even several) children. Many seem ill-informed and ignorant, but many others truly believe that abortion and contraception are absolutely necessary to keep our numbers in check.

Also...many Catholics I know urge early marriage, as a way to stop the ridiculous prolongation of adolescence in our culture through the twenties (something I agree with), and to place the intense erotic desire of the twenties where it belongs--in marriage--rather than let it drift through numerous premarital encounters.

mary said...

Did I miss your latest post on population? I have been busy...but cannot find it.

Darwin said...


No, you didn't miss anything. I got busy, and then I forgot (though stayed busy too.) I'll see what I can do.