Ed West meets the academic who predicts that the future will be dominated by traditional religious groups One reviewer of Eric Kaufmann’s book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, wrote that it would “send Richard Dawkins on to antidepressants”.
Which may sound encouraging, but if Kaufmann’s fascinating and rather disturbing thesis about religion and demographics is true, Prof Dawkins won’t be the only one on happy pills.
The basic premise is this: across the western world the fertility rate of religious conservatives outstrips that of non-believers, so much so that Europe, North America and the Middle East will eventually become dominated by fundamentalists as mainstream Christianity, Islam and Judaism are squeezed by secularism and religious extremists. It may well be one of the most significant books of our era, all the more interesting because it goes completely against the thinking of the previous decades.
It used to be taken for granted that, just as liberal democracy meant the end of history, so it also meant the end of religion. Once people became rich, educated and sexually liberated, they would leave irrational beliefs behind and spend their Sundays shopping in malls rather than worshipping these old desert idols.
But things aren’t turning out that way – rather the sexual revolution and the wholesale use of contraceptives and abortions have increased the fertility gap between secular liberals and religious conservatives, which itself is tiny compared to the gap between fundamentalists and the rest.
“I found that birthrate differentials [between religious and secular] were not closing but widening,” Dr Kaufmann tells me over coffee at the London School of Economics, where the Vancouver-born academic earned his degree and where he is now attending a seminar.
“As the total fertility rate declined, the fundamentalist advantage has actually increased.
“The moderate religions are the worst affected; they’re being torn apart by both sides, because if you’re attracted to religion, you’re probably going to be drawn to the real stuff.” Take one example: a century ago a small group of pacifist Anabaptists left Germany, a country of 55 million people, and headed towards the western United States and Canada. Today those 400 Hutterites have become 50,000, with very little conversion, and although their fertility rates have dropped, they are still four times that of US atheists. Indeed, at current rates they could conceivably outnumber Germans in Germany within a century and a half.
Or the Mormons, who continue to grow by 40 per cent per decade, largely thanks to a high birth rate, so much so that by 2080 there could be as many as 250 million Latter Day Saints.
It’s happened before: Kaufmann believes that Christianity’s rise from 40 followers to six million within three centuries had much to do with higher birth rates, since the Christians rejected such pagan practices as polygamy, homosexuality and infanticide. It may well be that future societies composed of Mormons, Muslims or Amish will view secular Europe’s attitude to abortion in a similar way. Certainly the demographics suggest history will be written by pro-lifers – pro-choice women have a significantly lower fertility rate than their anti-abortion sisters.
And these groups contradict the secular assumption that religious groups, however fertile, leak too many members.
Every generation 50 per cent of Catholics and Anglicans drop out of the faith; only five per cent of the more traditional Amish do, and when a community’s birth rate outstrips the national average by 200 or 300 per cent they can easily afford to lose one in 20 of the flock.
These groups are comparatively small, but evangelical Christians now account for two-thirds of white American Protestants, while Judaism in Israel, North America and Europe is becoming increasingly fundamentalist. For example, the ultra-Orthodox account for 17 per cent of British Jewry, but 75 per cent of its children.
More disturbing, and politically sensitive, is the growth rate of Islam within Europe. Muslim immigrants everywhere in western Europe have far higher fertility rates than natives, a cause of considerable anxiety. And although Kaufmann’s projections suggest that the continent will not become Islamic before fertility rates converge, he estimates that western Europe will be 15 to 25 per cent Islamic.
Kaufmann does not predict a “Eurabia” scenario, but even that figure could be enough to cause problems, for in its worst instance demographic instability, with one group reproducing at a faster rate than another, can lead to bloodshed. In Bosnia Serbs, alarmed at the growth of the Muslim population, moved towards war; likewise Lebanon’s delicate balance was upset by the arrival of Palestinian Muslims.
And as Kaufmann points out: “In Northern Ireland there was a fear of Catholic demography so the Unionist government thought if we discriminate against them enough they’ll leave. Instead it started the Troubles.” It was Ulster that first got Kaufmann interested in this subject. After LSE and before taking his current place at Birkbeck, his first book was on the ethnic politics of the United States, before he started taking an interest in Ireland, where religion is a badge of identity and a barrier to integration.
“Religions can’t separate themselves entirely from nations and ethnic groups. Because the ethnic conflict sustains the religion, so the religiosity is sheltered. And a different religion insulates you from the host country.” In Northern Ireland faith acts as a badge of identity, keeping the barrier strong. Just as the UVF and IRA weren’t fighting over religion, in parts of England poor whites in areas with high levels of Asian immigration increasingly identify themselves as “Christian”. The crusader imagery of the English Defence League, the anti-Islamic far-Right group, illustrates the potential for sectarianism, I suggest.
Sectarianism could emerge in England, he says, “if Christianity was to emerge as the badge that distinguished natives from Muslims”. On the other hand, “for non-white immigrants Christianity might be a route into establishment. You can insert yourself above Muslims.” Religion, he stresses, is a far stronger barrier to integration than skin colour.
The other scenario is what happened in the United States, where Right-wing politics moved away from ethnic nationalism and towards cultural conservatism that bridged across groups, first with Catholics and later with Jews and then Muslims.
“America’s culture war has pious Muslims, Jews and Christians co-operating on abortion and gay rights. Whites were the most liberal group on Prop 8 [the California law that banned gay marriage]. Evangelicals, Mormons and conservative Catholics forged these alliances with Latinos and African-Americans.” Either way it is a problem for liberal secularists, especially as their very liberalism prevents them from stopping a religious group with a high birth rate from taking over.
“A determined secular ideologue can easily smash these groups. The problem is if you are a liberal you’d have to violate your own principles.” He perhaps owes his own existence to his grandfather being an atheist at a time when the religious were at a huge disadvantage – in Nazi Germany. Assimilated Jews were more likely to survive the Holocaust than the religious. His grandfather, a German-speaker from Prague, got out in 1938 – a good time to leave.
Kaufmann’s mother is from a Catholic family, a mixture of Spanish and Chinese, and he had a “bog-standard secular upbringing. The north-west is the least religious part of North America.” He now lives with his English-born wife and two children, a secular immigrant in London, a city that, thanks to immigration, is far more religious than the rest of the country. So what about his own religion? “I don’t think I’m an atheist. I’m non-religious. I can see the appeal of God, and the attraction is very rational. It has all sorts of health and psychological benefits. The ques tion is – even if it’s good for you as an individual, is it good for society?” “In one way moderate religion might be the answer. It’s sane and rational on the one hand, but it might also counteract and provide social glue. It might provide what is generally in demand, this meaning and spirituality. By the same token I see the contradiction by which religions are torn apart by secularism and fundamentalism.
“I don’t have a strong agenda. Yes I don’t like fundamentalism and I can understand the New Atheists in one area – being told you’re not allowed to express criticism – but that is mainly an Islamic issue. And I’m not sure how popular the New Atheism is. How many people will say ‘I’m an atheist’ on the next census?” I’m not so sure.” So what of Europe’s native churches? Massgoers have a higher fertility rate than seculars and “nominals”, by around 0.5 children per woman, and this will tell, he believes, in the long run.
Fundamentalist Protestants may be the big winners, but whatever the harbingers of doom predict, Dr Kaufmann’s theory seems to bear out Gibbon’s prediction that the Church will outlast everything.
Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the TwentyFirst Century by Eric Kaufmann is priced £15 from Profile Books