Monday, 22 March 2010

Are fundamentalist families taking over?

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In our latest cover story, Caspar Melville talks to political scientist Eric Kaufmann, whose new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? dives deep into demographic data to provide a worrying projection – the birth and retention rates among religious fundamentalists (which includes everything from Amish to Islamists) are far greater than those among both moderate religious people and secularists, meaning the influence of fundamentalism could be set to increase greatly in the coming decades.

This is, of course, not the full story, as will become clear when you read the interview. For instance, to take a common misuse of demography committed by those on the right who suggest Europe is destined to become "Eurabia", such as Geert Wilders and Melanie Phillips, Kaufmann points out that suggestions that birth rates mean Muslims will one day outnumber non-Muslims in Europe are false. Demographers predict that Muslims in countries like the UK, Holland and Germany will make up between 10 and 15 per cent of the total population.

So, while it makes for scary headlines, Kaufmann's is a greatly nuanced argument, but one that poses a real challenge for both secularism and moderate religion. It is certainly another nail in the coffin of the secularisation thesis. The main purpose of this post is to provide a place for people to comment once they have read the interview. So, if this has attracted your interest, go and read the full piece, and then share your thoughts by commenting on this post.

28 comments:

Stuart said...

Absolutely fascinating article, thank you.

Tom Rees said...

The calculation depends critically upon conversion rates. Kaufmann's argument is that conversion rates from fundamentalists to 'moderate' religion is low is correct. Now, it is true that there appears to be a higher heritable component of fundamentalism, but it's still relatively low. So the main reason is that fundamentalists are able to shield their children from the wider currents of thought.

So whether fudamentalism will expand or contract in the future depends on the extent to which the religious are allowed to opt out of society (special schools or home schooling, special TV channels, self-segregation etc).

That may change in the future, in either direction.

Anonymous said...

Having not read the book I'm commenting somewhat blind. However, in the article there appears to be no consideration of the link between secularism and material independence.

As far as I can see the greater the opportunities that people have to separate themselves from their immediate upbringing the more chance they have to think for themselves. For example, someone who cannot afford, financially, to leave the family home (and therefore the culture that they grew up in) until their late 20s or even 30s will experience far fewer differing viewpoints than someone who can leave home at 18.

My understanding is that the most fundamentalist groups (at least in Western Europe) are either immigrants (and therefore generally poor by dint of their situation) or the poorest elements of the indigenous population. Each generation of these groups will therefore have the least chance to experience a variety of philosophies and arguments. They will also be the groups with the least access to family planning (hence the higher birth rates that are the focus of the piece).

So, I feel that the point that the article misses is that there is a correlation between poverty and extremism, and there is a correlation between poverty and high birth rates, but that does not mean that the high breeding rates in these cultures will continue to spread extremism. So long as these cultures can be allowed to improve their financial and cultural capital there will be the same break between religious nutcase parent and religious nutcase children that has happened in Europe over the last few centuries.

Brandon said...

Well My fiance' and I are both Atheists. and sure we are selfish a bit. We plan on only one Kid. No just because we are selfish but because there is 6.9 billion on earth now thats too many. However I was a Baptist growing up. Faith is non-rational and as such many will loose it. I don't think the ratios exactly translate to reality.

Eric Kaufmann said...

There are many excellent points raised here. First of all, Tom is correct that the main reason for fundamentalist growth is their ability to indoctrinate their children to view the mainstream as the 'other' against which they must identify. The degree to which they can opt out is of course important, and to the extent that the state permits separate schooling, this helps insulate such groups from secularising pressures.

The second commentator points to poverty, but what is increasingly clear is that fundamentalism is no longer the province of the poor. Would you believe that educated Mormons have higher fertility than poor Mormons? The Ultra-Orthodox have impoverished themselves by having large families, but they are hardly ignorant of the outside world. In this sense, they are very different to the poor 3rd world immigrants to Europe, who are more susceptible to modernisation.

All immigrant groups to Europe, including Muslims, have rapidly falling fertility. They all have access to contraception. Christian immigrants from Africa have high secularisation rates too. However, non-Christian immigrants tend not to secularise because their religion serves the secular function of propping up ethnic identity. A minority of Muslims turn to fundamentalism in response to the 'in between' nature of the immigrant experience: not Pakistani or Bangladeshi, not English, but just 'Muslim', shorn of cultural bells and whistles, which points toward Salafi fundamentalism.

So rising human development will pull some immigrants and their descendants toward secularism (especially Christians), but will have no effect on fundamentalists, who have set their face against secular modernity and its charms.

Finally, faith may be nonrational, but this does not mean we are destined to overcome it. Advertising agencies tell their staff to 'think irrationally' - to appeal to people's emotions and not their reason in marketing a product. Purveyors of fundamentalism do likewise. Cognitive neuroscience confirms that our 'rational' prefontal cortex is only part of the story. Like it or not, humans are at best semi-rational.

Michael Kingsford Gray said...

Why is it "selfish" to recognise that limitless population growth is a cancer of the planet?
The fetish with growth is a suicidal notion.

Anonymous said...

If the only way for secularists to beat fundamentalists is to have more children, then humanity is doomed.

Anonymous said...

There is an important point about demographics that has nothing to do with religion, but rather ecomics. Countries with catastrophically low birthrates will not have enough young people to pay for the geriatric majority's health and pension plans. A society without children will by definition die out eventually, but before it does that, it will also be broke. You have the birthrates. Now do the math.

Raghuvanshi said...

From last twenty years religious dogma is increased in India.More people are visiting religious palaces, more rituals are follow by people.This speedy life tension, stress people donot understand how to face it naturally they turn to religion.This is a open secrets that when stress anxiety increase uncertainty chaos spread mankind turn to religion this you can see a world phenomena.

Anonymous said...

“What has eroded is faith in the idea that it is possible to win peoples of different backgrounds to a common set of secular, humanist, enlightened values. And that is the real problem... the lack of conviction in a progressive, secular, humanist project.” Precisely.What secularists of all shades fail to admit is whence this lack of conviction.As long as the Western secularist branch willfully keeps cutting itself off from its unacknowledged source in the tree and root of the Judeo-Christan tradition, it is destined to wither away! As if any belated and strategic alliance with the moderates of all faiths can save it!

Anonymous said...

I am an Israeli living in London, and I can see these things happen in both countries. I'm an atheist, and I;ve been warning my Israeli friends for years about this, but they prefer to bury their head in the sand. Much to the delight of Muslims, Israel will kill itself by letting Haredim multiply no end. But Europe will not fair much better. Secularism needs to defend itself, it has become too liberal in the sense that it accepts anyone, even these that want to kill the secular way of life, it has lost the will to live apparently. It's about time we recognize that religious fundamentalism is a danger and an enemy. Britain had no qualms about bombing German cities during the war understanding perfectly well that it justified the goal of beating the Nazis. We must understand that the fundamentalists have essentially a similar goal as the Nazis, eradicating the secular way of life. I suggest we follow the old Jewish adage, he comes to kill you, you kill him first.

Luke Lea said...

Trends change. Secularism may turn out to be a transitional stage to a new, more stable form of"enlightened" fundamentalism that re-enchants the civic world our religious forbears handed down to us. In which case the heirs of this secularist generation may find themselves at a competitive advantage -- in terms of conversion -- with the poorer, more fertile forms of religious fundamentalism.

In any case, at some point (in Europe earlier than in America) dysgenic trends must collide with the Malthusian realities Darwin wrote about.

As Jesus said, many are called but few are chosen. In the race of life the winners are those groups and, yes, individuals, who finish last. They are not necessarily the ones who think they are chosen, let alone the ones with the highest fertility.

But who really knows?

deztron said...

It seems that the thesis of the fundamentalist demographic advance rests on the potential insularity of fundamentalist families and groups. In this regard I wonder if we have overlooked the power of information technology. When I grew up in the 50s it was hard for kids to get information about sex. Now we learn about Viagra and 4 hour erections every night on prime time news. Any kid with a cell phone can now access sexually explicit videos (lap dances) on YouTube. How long can parents--even fundamentalist parents--keep cell phones out of the hands of their kids? I say good luck trying. Imagine the effects of this information flow on sexual awareness and other attitudes, especially as information technologies permeate every layer of world culture (as they are rapidly doing). Add to this the fact that people can generally be relied on to prefer freedom to slavery. Since fundamentalism definitely qualifies as a form of slavery (especially for the women in many of these groups), who will consistently choose this lifestyle when aware of and seduced by the alternatives? Perhaps the thesis about the fundamentalist demographic advance relies on an underestimation of human nature as well as the effects of technology.

Anonymous said...

This is nitpicky, I know, but if you're going to quote psalms, they should be quoted correctly. The relevant part of psalm 127 is:

Lo, sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward./ Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth./ Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them!/ He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies at the gate. (Revised Standard translation)

This was a patrilineal society in which the production of sons early in a man's life had concrete political rewards later on -- as the text says, they would be an important support to him in dealing with his enemies.

This is a very different meaning from the one in the article, which suggested that the psalm was just celebrating children as a generic blessing. As I say, I know this is nitpicky, but fundamentalists especially have an obligation to be faithful to the text.

Anonymous said...

I think the formula needs to be amended to account for the millions of fundamentalist lives lost in the stupid ways they are going to fight over religion and god in the future.

Timothy said...

Phillip Longman made all of these points in a piece in FP several years ago, and in a book written before that.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. However, I have read Mark Steyn's "America Alone" and I found it neither "hysterical" nor "propagandist". Perhaps the author of the article should read books before dismissing them.

jay said...

The first thing that bothers me about this argument is how similar it is to the racial supremacists: they, too, are complaining that 'non whites' are reproducing far faster than whites.

But the big problem is that the assumption is made that those born into fundamentalist households are automatically fundamentalist--that is patently untrue. Both my wife and I were raised in fundamentalist households, we are atheists now. Rather than wringing our hands we need to recognize that MOST humanist/atheists were born into religious households. The article treats it like it's a genetically determined fact.

So what if these people are reproducing rapidly-- reach out to their children with the appeal of rational thought. If we require a birth rate to establish our beliefs, we truly are missing something.

Alice Finkel said...

The author makes a mistake when he attempts to minimalise the demographic impact of a rapid influx of young and fertile Muslims into a rapidly aging Europe.

Muslims settle in the cities, and have a youth-heavy demographic profile. This means that even if Muslims only make up 15% of a nation's total population by 2050, they can easily constitute 40% of the population of a nation's capital city, and over 50% of the population of school students.

The Muslim youth bulge passing through European schools (and presumably its prisons) cannot help but have a deep impact.

Shalom Freedman said...

The picture presented on Israeli demography in this article is woefully incomplete. First of all , Israel has a higher growth rate than any other Western country. Pro- Natal feeling does not belong to the Haredi sector alone, but is in fact a general Jewish value.
Israel also has a more serious demographic problem than the one indicated here. It relates to the growth of a Palestinian Arab population within Israel whose loyalty to the state is questionable. But this formulation too is simplistic and unfair. In any sense the problem of Israel's future demography is far more complicated than indicated in this article.
I would also say that the pooh- poohing of Melanie Phillips and Mark Steyn is wrongheaded. The Muslim percentage of the youth population in key European countries will be in the next quarter century well- beyond ten percent. As this population has difficulty and perhaps even lack of desire to integrate into the general population the problems of these societies, including internal violence will increase.

Graham Nickel said...

Deztron (above) suggests that Kaufmann's bleak analysis stems from an "underestimation of human nature" as regards access to information. I would suggest it is you who are underestimating the resolve of many modern fundamentalist Christians and others. Case in point, my wife and I—both Christians—recently concluded counseling a younger Christian couple before their upcoming wedding. Both of them are 26 and they have been dating for 2 1/2 years. They have each lived on their own during that entire time and they will be having sex for the first time on their wedding night. We didn’t have to cajole or supervise them constantly to achieve such a “radical” state of affairs – they both expressed their intentions independently of us. Furthermore, we did not find their resolve especially remarkable since it was the case for us as well as virtually everyone else we know.

Contrary to your thesis, I would suggest that the choice of this couple to abstain from sexual intercourse is rather more likely the result of the reams of sexually explicit data available today. Though all of us would take some care to avoid the most pernicious aspects of web-based porn, we are—both couples—hardly unaware of it and are otherwise as plugged-in to the wider world as any "secular" people; we even all have cell phones ;-) What is most obvious to us, in all that sea of information, is that people who are careless about their sexuality are generally less happy and fulfilled than those who are thoughtful and deliberate. From there it is actually a relatively simple step (though admittedly not always an easy one) to delay sexual gratification until the appropriate time: marriage.

As regards the pornography that the internet has made virtually ubiquitous and that you would seem to imply beckons our children like a siren of worldly wisdom, we talk very openly to each other about it in order to demystify it. I teach Orwell’s timeless 1984 at a “fundamentalist” high school (sorry, it makes me giggle a little every time I write that word about myself) and the conversation we had in class this past week was, in part, about the way Big Brother and the Party in that novel stultify the Prole classes by means of cheap, easy access to industrial-grade porn. I don’t have to rail against our culture’s juvenile fixation with explicit fantasy or pretend it doesn’t exist in order to condemn pornography for the evil that it is—you might be surprised at what an efficient means of inoculation it is to present my students with the pathetic (and very real) image of a culture so trapped in warped self-stimulation that it has lost all self-respect or drive to achieve much of anything productive in life.

deztron said...

Mr Nickel--my point was that information flow is a powerful force for breaking the generational connection between fundamentalist kids and parents and that there is evidence that this force is difficult to limit and thereby capable of being subversive. I'm no supporter of the flood of sexual material on the internet. The "slavery" comment was prompted by my not being able to think of any fundamentalist religious culture that does not, in theory and practice, subordinate women and, compared to male freedoms, constrain their life and lifestyle choices. Such constraints "from above" (hierarchically speaking) only amplify the potential for "subversion" where there is abundant access to information.

Graham Nickel said...

Thanks for your reply, Deztron. The slavery comment is intriguing in that I can't think of any of my female colleagues, friends, students or, indeed, my wife who would describe their lives as anything resembling what you've descibed. Perhaps this is because we are so blinded by our faith that only enlightened outsiders can properly assess the hellish subservience under which we keep our women, but I'm inclined to think I'd have noticed that by now. Theologically, we don't hold men to a different moral standard or blame women for the fall of humanity, and practically speaking I don't expect my wife to serve me or clean up for me or bear me children. The Christian women I know are free to be either quiet or outspoken as their personality dictates, have children or not, and work either outside the home or mostly within it. I guess I'm not sure which of these aspects of our lives constitute "slavery".

r a said...

To digress from the secular-fundamentalist divide, this article also contains an implicit challenge to the widespread belief that global population will eventually level out.

Now that we are in a new era in which the Malthusian checks on population growth (poverty, disease) have largely disappeared the field is clear for sub-populations which practice high-fertility strategies. The article focuses on religious fundamentalists, but in fact, any group, which for whatever reason, embraces high-fertility can be expected to prosper. Those segments of the total population which, for whatever reason, do not reproduce at replacement level will naturally shrink - and their traditions and culture with them.

In a nutshell: population control is self-subverting. Culturally (and even genetically) less fertile sub-populations are at a significant disadvantage compared to more fertile groups.

It follows from this that the global average fertility will, even though currently slowing, eventually begin to accelerate again. World population will very likely blow through the 10 billion barrier and keep racing ahead until the Malthusian checks begin to reassert themselves.

Eric said...

I'm interested in a meta-narrative I see in both the the article and some of the comments. It goes something like:

"We all know how bad it is to be a religious fundamentalist (can you imagine there being more of them? *gasp*). And to our surprise, an author says we have caused part of this terrible and growing movement of them. How can this be? Solution: we'll reason with their kids (harder and smarter than we do). After all, we are right."

If it is true that secularists are not religious pluralists, then they do want a say in what other people believe. What could be more frightening to any parents of *any* faith than to know someone is targeting their kids?

Consider from the comments:

"lost in the stupid ways they fight"
"fundamentalism is a danger and an enemy"
"fundamentalism definitely qualifies as a form of slavery"

The rhetoric implies a belief, and not one of live and let live.
With this kind of approach, you'll frighten moderates into becoming fundamentalist sympathizers.

Truly liberal thinking would say they are humans who deserve a modicum of respect. We can offer to educate them, but this angry approach will likely engender...anger. How surprising.

Nikki said...

what about an economic breaking point? In the case of Israel the Haredis are an enormous welfare burden and their 7+ children learn no job skills whatsoever in separate schools. This means less and less economically productive seculars are supporting (and defending in the army)a rapidly growing welfare-dependent population that has no interest and no practical ability to earn a living. Unlike the Amish, who are fully self sufficient, The Israeli Haredis are doomed to total urban poverty and dependency on government subsidies.
Won't this system just break at some point? Non-Haredi Israelis are getting sick of the situation. Isn't it likely a tax-payers revolution will bring about policy changes at some point?
The problem with demographics, is it assumes things will continue as-is. In a country like Israel, eventually, the tax-payers will put their foot down and Haredis will either have less kids, start working or move elswhere. Once they start working and studying secular concepts, they may start loosing their young.

x marks the spot said...

Multiculturalism, there's the rub. Western societies must integrate those who choose them, have them understand that they did not only travel a distance in space, but also in time. Welcome, but welcome to the realm of Modernity!

Fertility? But is fundamentalism so fertile? What does it breed other than the reproduction of the same? But the numbers? A culture, a «world vision» needs numbers to prosper, but without appeal a culture is abandoned. Especially if its goal is to replace all the books and paintings and songs and films by only one book! The numbers can be (must be) outnumbered by ideas, by the viral contamination of ideas, and especially the socratic tradition of questioning, the invitation of debating about authority. Something like democracy. Which brings us back to numbers. And of course multiculturalism stands only as long as secular liberals are not outnumbered by fundamentalists who are by nature strangers to the otherness of plurality (equality of women, homosexuality, freedom of expression, facts and science...). But then what is fundamentalism? It is the panic, the ultimate run, in front of what is already there: the death of god.

So? War, not between people, but between ideas. A world debate, a philosophical confrontation, not demographical fact checking!

Numenius said...

Very fascinating article, thank you. I do have a few quibbles, however, and would be happy to hear your response.

1) While Mark Steyn may be an hysterical screed writing right wing propagandist, I don't see how anything Eric Kaufmann said fundamentally contradicts his argument. This is true even of the claim that Europe will only be 10-15% Muslim by 2050. Claiming that Europe is Islamifying a little more slowly than Steyn says is hardly significant if it still is Islamifying and becoming more fundamentalist in the process. Further, as a previous poster notes, a 10-15% proportion of Muslims in Europe would have a greater political impact than the number would suggest, since there would be a much higher proportion of Muslims than that within cities and among the youth, and those youths in the cities will be subsequent generations of Muslims immigrants who have a tendency to radicalize, as Kaufmann argues. So Steyn could accept the 10-15% number without it substantially affecting his Eurabian view.

2) On another note, I wonder if the focus on religious fundamentalism as the primary category of concern ignores more important differences that tend to cut across fundamentalisms. Protestant fundamentalists, in particular, are very different from Islamic fundamentalists politically, since the Protestants will tend to embrace political liberalism in principle (and taken generally) (even if they disagree with secular liberals on how it should be interpreted and applied), whereas Islamists by definition will be against it in principle. It is not enough to claim that the two groups will come together on some issues (e.g. abortion and homosexuality), since one can equally point out that the radical secular left (who might also be considered fundamentalist in some sense) will come together with Islamic fundamentalists on other issues (e.g. anti-Israel, anti-war against any Muslim dominant country, and perhaps even anti-US and anti-UK as the worst 'rogue states' in the world (as George Galloway said in his debate with Christopher Hitchens)). So the more important category seems to be whether one accepts liberalism (in principle and taken generally) and not whether one is a religious fundamentalist.