The global decline of fertility rates may well be the single most important trend in the contemporary world, a phenomenon that will transform our societies into something radically different from anything in recent history. The worldwide birth strike will cause upheaval in the ethnic and social structure of familiar nations and will echo through financial and political structures. Most observers would also agree that the change is intimately linked to religion, and the connection between religious beliefs and social behavior. But is the decline of traditional religious loyalties a cause of shrinking families, or a consequence? The answer matters because the change will reshape all religions, not just those of the West. Which came first, the chicken or the lack of eggs?
In order for a population to remain stable, an average woman needs to bear 2.1 children during her lifetime: That figure is called the replacement rate. As is well known, European fertility rates have fallen perilously below replacement, to 1.2 or 1.3 in many countries, and the result is a rapidly aging population that needs immigrants in order to do essential work and maintain services. Until recently, the question of supply posed no problem because Third World societies had very high fertility rates, and a few still do: The Congo’s rate is over six. But gradually, that European fertility transition is spreading worldwide. Some Latin American countries already have population profiles considerably older than that of the United States, and many Muslim lands are now recording the sharpest fertility drops ever recorded. In just 20 years, Iran has slipped from six children per woman to well below two, and Algeria’s decline is comparable. Globally, something stunning and unexpected is happening.
Based mainly on studies of Europe, conventional wisdom blames the change on secularization. According to this view, in traditional societies, religious sanctions support the family ethos and convince women to define motherhood as their major role in life. As religious loyalties decline, women are more likely to go into the workplace and to reduce family size. Meanwhile, in Catholic societies like Italy and Spain, declining vocations mean fewer priests and nuns, and a shrinkage in the church-based social services that help large families cope.
But the reduction in family size, in turn, contributes to making society more secular. Only by taking children out of the picture can we appreciate how much of the institutional life of any religion revolves around the young. At the height of the Euro-American baby boom in the 1950’s and 60’s, churches of all shades devoted immense effort to teaching and socializing the young, whether in Sunday schools or classes for First Communion or Confirmation. While teenagers and young adults might drift away from religious practice, they would likely return when they had families of their own, children to whom they hoped to pass on values and a sense of community.
But then, take away the children. Imagine cities filled with households with only one child or none. Those couples define themselves entirely in terms of their companionate relationship and find little need for organized religion, or for its moral structures. And if “ordinary” marriage is no longer based on children and the continuity of family, why should the right to companionship be denied to homosexual pairs? In such an environment, advocates convincingly present “gay marriage” as a logical extension of the loving companionate relationship, a manifestation of universal human rights.
The more widely such rhetoric is accepted, the weaker the case that can be made for any sexual morality that is based on religious sanctions. Organized religion becomes an abhorred symbol for the traditional restrictions that they see as constraining freedom—sexual freedom, contraceptive freedom, restraints on sex equality. Iranian ayatollahs and North African mullahs had better enjoy their present social hegemony, because they are not going to be keeping it much longer. Their status and reputation will likely collapse much as happened with Catholic priests in Western countries. Hindu Brahmins could be next in line.
And as German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski has noted, the demographic shift has a still more profound cultural impact. The loss of children, he remarks,
results in a dramatic lack of maturity in the way people choose to live their lives. . . . For childless singles, thinking in terms of the generations to come loses relevance. Therefore, they behave more and more as if they were the last, and see themselves as standing at the end of the chain.
Without a sense of the importance of continuity, whether of the family or of the individual, people lose the need for a religious perspective. Personal hedonism is the only principle by which political arrangements can be judged.
At one time, we might have dismissed this crisis as peculiar to Europe, but it looks increasingly as if the whole world has caught Europe’s disease. Globally, the future could be a frightening, lonely place.