The West, Religion, and Demographics
April 11, 2014
I recently taught a Sunday school class on postmodernism, critical theory, and identity politics — building off of prior classes, especially Hegel’s historicizing of the absolute and Feuerbach’s anthropology of religion. (Once you remove the universal in Hegel’s historicism, with the help of a couple world wars in Europe, postmodernism was inevitable.) I even introduced Foucault’s Panopticon! It is actually not very difficult to communicate these ideas, because cultural illustrations are abundant. I had mentioned off-hand that affluent Westerners are too busy cultivating their personal identities to bother with having families. With some time to waste the other day, I was curious to get some recent numbers. The most helpful that I found is the CIA World Factbook, comparing the population and fertility data of the world’s nations.
You can scroll down to see the fertility rates of European countries. Finland and Denmark are 1.73. Switzerland is 1.54. Spain is 1.48. Austria and Germany are 1.43. Italy is 1.42. Greece is 1.41. The replacement rate needs to be 2.1, a little more than two births per woman. The UK is slightly better than others at 1.9, and France is 2.08 (presumably helped by African immigration). The US is in this range at 2.01. You can also click on the country and analyze more details. For example, Germany not only has an abysmal fertility rate at 1.43, but the median age is 46.1 and the mother’s mean age at first birth is 28.9. Germany’s religiously unaffiliated are 28.3% of the population, in a country where the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches (tied at 34% each) still include a high number of nominal membership.
These numbers will become increasingly important, if not already at a crisis point, and they should be of particular interest to Christians. Mary Eberstadt has received a lot of attention for her latest book, How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization. Her thesis is that the decline of the family precipitated the decline of religion, not the other way around — or, at least, that they are interdependent. You can read a good synopsis of the book at The Imaginative Conservative.
Meanwhile, the bright lights of the Protestant mainline have been making their bed with the feminist ideology that will only further accelerate their demographic free-fall. I appreciate Rod Dreher’s related thoughts in a TAC article last year:
It seems that when people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex, they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.
This raises a critically important question: is sex the linchpin of Christian cultural order? Is it really the case that to cast off Christian teaching on sex and sexuality is to remove the factor that gives—or gave—Christianity its power as a social force? …
Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the sexual revolution—though he did not use that term—as a leading indicator of Christianity’s death as a culturally determinative force. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture was at the core of Christian culture—a culture that, crucially, did not merely renounce but redirected the erotic instinct. That the West was rapidly re-paganizing around sensuality and sexual liberation was a powerful sign of Christianity’s demise.