Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century


Jason Collins


July 22, 2016

While I suggested in my post on Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting that reading about demographics in developed countries was not uplifting, the consequences described by Last could be considered pretty minor.

A slight tightening of government budgets could be dealt with by raising pension ages by a few years. Incomes may be lower than otherwise, but as Last states, “A decline in lifestyle for a middle-class American retiree might mean canceling cable, moving to a smaller apartment, and not eating out.” Not exactly disastrous - although of more consequence than the subject of almost every other economic debate.

I found it harder to generate the same blasé reaction to Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century. I don’t have a lot of confidence in most long-term projections of fertility, population, religious retention and social opinions, but even if the world described by Kaufmann has only a 10 per cent chance of occurring, it is worth thinking about.

Kaufmann’s basic argument is that the higher fertility of fundamentalist religious groups, together with their high rates of retention, is going to shift in the make up of the populations in the West over the next century, profoundly affecting our politics and freedoms.

The important word in that above sentence is fundamentalist. This is not a case of religious groups breeding faster than the irreligious. Fertility levels for many groups are rapidly converging in the West. Muslim family sizes are shrinking. Catholic families are no larger than those of Protestants.

Where the action lies is within each faith. There the fundamentalists have markedly higher fertility than both the moderates and seculars. And, if anything, that gap is widening.

To give a sense of the power of this higher fertility, the Old Order Amish in the United States have increased from 5,000 people in 1900 to almost a quarter of a million members. In the United Kingdom, Orthodox Jews make up 17 per cent of the Jewish population but three-quarters of Jewish births.

At one point Kaufmann likens the process to the development by insects of resistance to DDT (although he spends little time on the heritability of religiosity). The growth of secularism has produced new resistant strains of religion, with the middle ground between fundamentalism and irreligion hemorrhaging people, revealing a fundamentalist core.

Kaufmann labels these high fertility religious groups as endogenous growth sects. They grow their own rather than convert - mainstream fundamentalists recognise this is where their advantage lies - and they have high rates of retention for their home-grown. As an example, three-quarters of the relative growth in conservative Protestant denominations in the United States in the 20th century was due to fertility differences, not conversion.

So what does this change mean? Kaufmann argues that we may have reached the peak of secular liberalism. The growth of these fundamentalist religious groups is going to start influencing policy and leading to less liberal outcomes.

As a start, fundamentalist Christian, Muslim, Jewish groups have elevated the most illiberal aspects of their traditions to the status of sacred symbols - be that outlandish dress requirements (often of quite recent origin) and positions on women’s roles and family size. This has helped inoculate them against secular trends.

For the United States, those who believe homosexuality or abortion is always wrong have a growing fertility advantage and they are becoming a larger part of the population. Combined with the tendency of children to adopt the positions of their parents, Kaufmann projects a slight increase in those who oppose abortion by mid-century, whereas opposition to homosexuality will decline only marginally. By the end of the century, however, opposition to abortion could increase from 60 to 75 per cent, and increases in opposition to homosexuality will reverse changes in opinion of the last few decades.

Kaufmann projects similar trends will occur in Europe, and he argues that you can’t speak of secular Europe and religious immigrant minorities. In the future the children of the religious minorities will be Europe. Most large European countries will have between 10 and 15 per cent Muslim population in 2050 (From mid-single digits today. Sweden will be more like 20 to 25 per cent). Depending on whether fertility converges, that proportion will grow through to 2100. And importantly for Kaufmann’s thesis, this growth will largely relate to the fundamentalist core.

Kaufmann goes on to suggest that the growth of these fundamentalist groups points to a contradiction in liberalism. The combination of tolerance of fundamentalism with a choice not to reproduce may well be the agent that destroys it.  To do other than tolerate would be against liberalism principles.

Kaufmann also discusses the implications for world politics. One starting point - hard to perceive in the West - is that the world is becoming more religious and is projected to become more so. While rich nations are still tending more secular (for the moment), poorer religious regions are growing faster.

With nation states boundaries generally well-defined, demographic changes within states are the main cause of change in relative size - and superpowers tend to be demographic heavyweights (although to what extent this holds through the 21st century will be interesting to see). Kaufmann quotes Jackson and Howe that it is “[D]ifficult to find any major instance of a state whose regional or global stature has risen while its share of the regional or global population has declined.”

Thus, if you are someone who worries about international geopolitics, trends aren’t going in the right direction - although China and Russia are running into a demographic wall. Kaufmann asks whether the short-term choice is inter-ethnic migration to increase population or accepting a decline in international power?

Put together, Kaufmann’s case worries me more than tales of government deficits due to demographic change. Even if you assign a low probability to Kaufmann’s projections, it provides another strand to the case that low fertility in the secular West is not without costs.