The West, Religion, and Demographics

Mary Eberstadt
Mary Eberstadt

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.


  1. Dreher makes a mistake: he ignores the more basic reality that when people have been taught that there are no alternatives within “historically normative Christianity,” the decision that has been set up is already to agree or leave. The foreclosure of the great breadth and depth of the tradition down to one position on one issue is what forces those who disagree to leave the church.

    • But the mainline Prot denominations are a sizable voice over the past 30+ years who have been telling the culture that Christianity is flexible on how it negotiates these issues, hence the popularity of a Borg or Spong in their day or a Rachel Held Evans today. The alternatives are known.

  2. The assumption that the liberal strand is only ever a kind of fifth column over against the true church is an abject failure in the face of reality. As is the assumption, common on the other side, that the conservative churches are a fifth column against the mainline.

    None of us are actually in any kind of “freefall” unless the discussion is framed in terms of percentage of population and relative growth rates, rather than actual numbers. Very gradually declining growth in dominance is not a demographic freefall, much less a decline.

    • The mainline Prot denominations have each seen about a 20-25% decline in membership since 2000 and upwards of 50% since the decline began in the mid ’60’s, to say nothing of the mean age of those in the current membership. I call that a significant decline, hence “free-fall,” an intentionally hyperbolic expression in this case.

      For those who care, a couple years ago I gathered the data of various denominations in America from 2000-2011. Evangelical denominations are either growing or plateauing, or some modest decline. The (evangelical) Presbyterian Church in America grew 14.78% between 2000 and 2011, the Assemblies of God grew 18.02%, and the Southern Baptists grew 0.11% (but that is now a slight negative). Of course, independent churches have seen the greatest growth. Though I suspect that evangelicals in America will experience some decline in the near future, but we will see.

      • Don’t mean to play devil’s advocate, but how much of that growth in evangelical churches, and especially pentecostal churches, involves the kind of craziness that one might see at a Benny Hinn revival? How much of it is related to health-and-wealth theology rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ? How much of it would Barth view as a faithful response to the gospel, and how much would he criticize as the result of humanity’s drive toward religion?

      • That is a very good question. It’s true that much of the massive growth can be found in prosperity peddling churches. But there is growth in evangelical denominations, like the PCA mentioned above — a growth which is not staggering but important and healthy. And in our day, even a plateauing denomination like the SBC should not be in hysterics, especially given the SBC’s stronghold in small Southern mill towns that have been deprived of their mills. The PCA is particularly interesting because it is a (relatively strict) confessional denomination, very cautious about church growth techniques (and even Keller is hardly a typical megachurch type). Another good example is the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), which takes conservative evangelical doctrine seriously, and yet has experienced some significant growth to this day (since its founding in 1950 as a merger of Swedish and Norwegian free churches) and operates Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I belonged to an excellent EFCA church when I lived in Cedar Rapids, IA.

        I suspect, however, that an overall decline is coming, for everyone except maybe the most egregious megachurches like Lakewood. If so, the denominations just mentioned will be hit, but the mainline’s decline will be further compounded — unless their longtime wish comes true, that the culture will see how awesome and tolerant they are! But I doubt it.

      • Also, I have some (albeit brief) experience with the Assemblies, and there are many very solid churches within this Pentecostal fold, eschewing the excesses of the charismatic movement and even turning toward doctrinal seriousness. In our Barth reading group here in Charlotte, we even have a couple charismatics! I still have concerns about the theology in these churches, but I would caution those (not yourself) who want to apply the prosperity label too freely.

  3. I don’t think it’s that sexual morality is supremely important among the Christian virtues so much as that it’s especially unpopular and difficult in the west nowadays (even if you set the homosexuality issue aside).

    Though it worth noting that the Soviet Union and Muslim countries are/were strict on sex, at least in theory. Not exactly fertile ground for Christianity.

      • I think there are too many other variables with Muslim countries to make an apt comparison. Though it is important that Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially in Scandinavia where the immigration laws are so lax, are rather fertile and not assimilating into European culture. There are innumerable articles on the web dealing with this increasingly very controversial issue in European society.

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