"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Revenge of the Cradle

The "revenge of the cradle" is an old Québécois one ("revanche du berceau"), though not exclusively so. It describes the demographic aspiration of a minority group to overtake a majority through the fecundity of the former and sterility (at least in relative terms) of the latter. What if, early in the 21st century, we are seeing the beginnings of a "revenge of the religious" against their sterile liberal-secular counterparts? 

For years we heard that the earth was being overpopulated and this would create all kinds of problems, not least famines and other such catastrophes. This became an article of faith for some in the religion of environmentalism. None of that came to pass.

More recently we have heard that in fact the effort to curtail population has been too successful, the use of birth control too efficaciously widespread, and as a consequence many countries of the world are already in, or presently about to enter, a "death spiral" in which deaths outstrip births at such an inexorable rate that societies like Japan, Russia, and much of Western Europe will, unless nothing changes dramatically, largely disappear before the end of this century.

Now a new thesis comes along, courtesy of Eric Kaufmann of the Birbeck College of the University of London: Shall the Religious  Inherit the Earth: Demography and Politics in teh Twenty-First Century (London: Profile Books, 2010), xxii+330.

Kaufmann argues that the fertility rates of certain select Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups are prolific enough as to ensure that they will come to a position of much greater political and social prominence later this century, and thereby supplant the influence of liberal-secular types (and their liberal co-religionists) who are not reproducing sufficiently--if at all--and whose legacy, supposedly, as heirs of the so-called Enlightenment, is therefore in peril. Such peril, he notes, may be especially acute in "the United States, Europe, Israel, and the Muslim world" (xxii).

This, surprisingly, is not quite the kind of doomsday scenario one might anticipate. Though Kaufmann clearly remains uncomfortable with some of the possible or projected consequences of this religious revival, he is not writing a Margaret Attwood-like science fiction tale in which a fundamentalist sect of Christians takes over the United States en route to world domination by means of controlled and highly aggressive breeding. He does not, in most instances, write with horror for or disdain of those whom he is describing. In the main, this is a surprisingly dispassionate book--though with some lapses--written by a qualified social scientist who tries to stay close to the data. This book exudes considerable respect for Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and does not celebrate their decline (especially the latter two) in the West today--nor demonize those often more traditional or "conservative" Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups that are growing. Kafumann very much deserves to be credited for his tone and perspective. Even when he disagrees or is not entirely happy about some possible demographic developments, he is genuinely open-minded enough to see, e.g., that "maybe fundamentalism can replenish the social fibre and demographic capital that seculars expend" (260). Moreover, "one has to admit that religion is more rational than unbelief" and that "the religious live longer and are happier than sceptics" (266).

Kaufmann's overall thesis is that "religious fundamentalists are on a course to take over the world through demography" (ix). It takes him some time to define "fundamentalists." It takes him the rest of the book to demonstrate his thesis, and by the end I have to say that he ends up rather considerably qualifying his thesis--without seeming to notice that he has done so. His final conclusions are not nearly so stark as this thesis posited at the outset: they are rather nuanced and not nearly so confidently stated. Which is as it should be given that--as Alasdair MacIntyre famously demonstrated more than thirty years ago in chapter 8 of After Virtue--the predictive power of the social sciences is very dismal.

Kaufmann is himself aware of this lack of predictive power, noting several times that most sociologists have been completely wrong in predicting that the further "modernity" advanced, the more "religion" would recede. The only one who predicted this, but saw the error of his ways and recanted, was, Kaufmann notes, Peter Berger. Berger, by the 1980s, had come to see that religion was not receding but growing.

For Kaufmann, the predicted demographic advances of these religious types are worrying precisely insofar as some of them seem to threaten what he various (and confusedly) calls 'secularism,' 'secularity,' 'Enlightenment values,' and similar terms. His main worry is whether religious 'fundamentalists' will begin to clamor for a theocracy, for restrictions on the so-called right of women to slaughter their unborn babies, and for the substitution of 'dogma' over 'science, ' faith over 'reason.' None of these terms is ever defined with any precision.

When Kaufmann sticks to sociology and demography, which he does for most of the book, he seems rather reliable and trustworthy. But when he gets anywhere close to religion or theology--which is rare, suggesting, commendably, an author aware of his own limitations--he immediately loses his footing. Thus he attempts (pp.1-2) to provide, in one paragraph, a description of what "religion" is and its history, but this is so sweeping as to be unhelpful, and it contains some of the old shibboleths about "wars of religion," a phrase nobody should continue to use in the light of William Cavanaugh's work over the last fifteen years.  Worse, he makes several basic factual errors that a moment's Googling could have righted, all of them having to do with Catholicism: e.g., he speaks (p.23) of "the second Vatican Encyclical (1968)," referring, of course, to Pope Paul VI's bombshell, Humanae Vitae. He also claims that Pope John Paul II had a "coronation" (80) at the start of his pontificate, though he did not, having followed his predecessor and namesake in refusing to be crowned (see paragraph 4). (Later he refers, vaguely, to "Vatican II reforms of 1968," even though the council ended in 1965.) He says that Pope John Paul II "posthumously canonised Italian paediatrician Gianna Beretta Molla," seemingly unaware that all canonisations are always after death (111). (On p. 206 he refers to an unnamed "Archbishop of London" even though there is no such figure--neither Catholic nor Anglican, or Orthodox.)

Kaufmann, in fact, seems to know very little about Catholicism, and it is a very great surprise to me how totally he neglects the Catholic Church except for a very few very passing references to certain "current trends" such as "the rise of Hispanic Catholics" in the United States (whose rise will be similar to that of American Muslims, a group Kaufmann predicts will grow to "around 1.3 per cent of the population in 2020, when they will overtake Jews" [91]). He seems not to be aware at all of the Natural Family Planning movement in the Church, the Couple to Couple League, and other similar organizations, which are, admittedly, small, but growing. Also surprisingly he does not seem to be aware of Robert McClory's fascinating, if relentlessly tendentious work on Catholic arguments about birth control.

If Kaufmann very largely neglects Catholicism, his neglect of Eastern Christianity is total. Apart from a handful of very vague and passing references to Russia, he does not consider Eastern Europe in any detail, nor other Eastern Christian countries--Armenia, say, or countries with substantial populations like Syria or Lebanon. Why this is so is not clear to me, not least because countries like Ukraine, Russia, and others have some very interesting and very worrying demographic challenges ahead of them. (The only place Kaufmann quotes an Orthodox thinker--without realizing it--is when he cites "conservative theologian David Bentley Hart" twice as saying that when it comes to defeating secular liberalism today "Probably the most subversive and effective strategy we might undertake...[is] one of militant fecundity: abundant, relentless, exuberant, and defiant" [40]. It appears, however, that no Orthodox today are taking Hart seriously: the Christians who are, according to Kaufmann, are evangelicals like those in the Quiverfull Movement, or other groups like the Amish and Mormons.)

Apart from this neglect of Eastern Christian countries, my other major problem with this book is the repeated--though on balance rather refreshingly and commendably halfhearted--efforts to argue for some kind of moral equivalency between the three great monotheistic religions on the question of violence: "religious terrorism is much less common among American Christian fundamentalists than it is among their Middle Eastern Islamist counterparts, but is far from absent" (112). It is far from absent but even more it is far from present in the ways, or on the scale, fantasized by the fatuous dolts hosting BBC shows and writing for the NYT, or producing Law and Order episodes. Kaufmann is forced to recognize this by admitting that "anti-abortion terrorists have killed nine people since 1993." Nine--in over seventeen years! Each of the nine murders is of course an abomination, but a little perspective please. The famous religion of peace took out more than twice that number of Coptic Christians in Alexandria on one evening two weeks ago--to say nothing of the long litany of their other atrocities whose casualties, just within the last decade alone, easily number into the tens of thousands. (To his credit, however, Kaufmann recognizes that "religion is no more conflict-prone than secular ideologies, and even contains resources which can be used to combat violence" [148]).

Kaufmann tries, rather weakly, and perhaps even a touch sheepishly, to conjure up evidence for this equivalency in several places in the book, beginning by seeming to equate the shooting of abortionist George Tiller (pp.2-4) with the Taliban's treatment of women in Afghanistan, treating both in the same paragraph even though the two scenarios are, in every conceivable way, so vastly different as to make comparisons very highly implausible. He does this later by seeming to suggest that demographic developments in the Amish community--which is so numerically tiny, and such a threat to precisely nobody, that I don't know why he even considered them at all--are as worrying as those of Wahhabi-inspired Muslim groups in, e.g., Western Europe. The only plausible reason for this absurd comparison is, probably, to give "balance" to his book and hide the fact that, as even he cannot fail to see in several places, the greatest anxiety today is the fact that "Islamic terrorism in Europe has grown noticeably since the early 1990s" (185) and only somewhat less worrying is the fact that "European Muslims are particularly resistant to assimilation" (70).

On this score, however, Kaufmann, picking up from where Philip Jenkins began recently, notes that the oft-heard predictions whereby France and Holland, inter alia, will, before the end of this century, be majority Muslim countries, are not in fact very reliable predictions. Here Kaufmann's book really comes into its own, and here he is more interesting, and shows more creative and original thinking, based on genuine research (rather than journalistic hyperventilating) than any comparable treatment I've yet seen. I will not give it all away, but instead encourage those interested to buy the book and read through his original survey data and its interpretation. It certainly gives a more complex, and, in the main, less anxious picture than we have often heard previously.

In sum this is, as I say, a fascinating book largely free from much of the expected baggage and agenda one would expect. On this score, Kaufmann is to be congratulated for his restraint and his open-mindedness, and for being free of most of the biases one so often sees in academics treating topics like this. He treats vital questions facing us in the decades ahead, and all who care about them should read this book.

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