To Whom Does the Future Belong?
Review: Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann.
What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, by Jonathan Last.
To whom does the future belong?
There are many lenses through which we might view this question: military prowess, economic potential, education levels, forms of government, etc. However, for demographer Eric Kaufmann and journalist Jonathan Last, the best answer to this question is simple: the future belongs to those groups that can adequately reproduce.
Global birth rates have been declining for decades, and in many places, they are spiraling out of control, approaching a demographic point of no return. Just as military technology is useless without an army, so economic potential is irrelevant without a consumer base, and education is meaningless without students. All these activities require a steady flow of human beings. Yet huge swaths of humanity have forgotten about the most basic and essential step of survival: reproduction.
According to Kaufmann and Last, if we want to know where the future is heading, we need not fret over stock markets or fifth-generation fighter jets or what the U.N. is doing about human rights; we need to fret over birthrates. They are the golden numbers that provide the most accurate projection of what our future holds.
While there are myriad variables that determine birth rates, one clearly stands out above all others – one which transcends country, culture, and socioeconomic group: religion. No other variable has a stronger correlation with fertility than how religious a person is, and all manner of significant implications flow from this observation. Let’s take a look at Kaufmann and Last’s arguments:
The magic number for demographics is 2.12 – the average number of children that every woman in a population group of 100,000 people or more must have for that group to sustain itself; not grow, not shrink, merely sustain.
There are two things to notice about this number, starting with the .12 at the end. In the simplest terms possible, it represents bad luck. If every man and woman got married and had two kids, who in turn got married and had two kids, and so on, that would lead to a static population size – meaning the sustainment birthrate should be 2.0. Unfortunately, disease, accidents, wars, natural disasters, and a hundred other manifestations of chance always prevent some percentage of the population from reproducing.
To sustain a population group, some couples would have to go above the 2.0 mark to offset the vicissitudes of life that prevent others from having children. In many ways, this .12 coefficient represents humanity’s unending struggle with chance. The fact that it isn’t any higher is a testament to human ingenuity. The fact that it isn’t any lower is a testament to human contingency.
The second thing to note is that women can’t have .12 children. This means that, extrapolated to the macro level, the individual choice between having two or three children carries significant ramifications.
If every woman (or every couple) in a population group elected to have two children, and all subsequent generations continued in this election, then that group’s slow demise and eventual extinction would be a mathematical certainty. As we’ll shortly discover, though, population groups all over Europe and parts of Asia are doing exactly this, only in a much worse fashion.
CAUSES AND CORRELATIONS
If you have ever taken a statistics class, you may recall that correlation does not equal causation. Just because two events regularly happen together does not mean one causes the other. So, demographers cannot definitively say what causes low birth rates, but they can definitively say which factors are most strongly correlated.
The list is unsurprising: divorce, abortion, premarital sex and cohabitation, female education and career opportunities, industrialization, rising income levels, birth control, the increased costs of child education, and, in places like China and Singapore, government policy. As Last points out, even seemingly unrelated issues like child car seat laws have created disincentives to having multiple children.
Nearly all the items listed above are products of affluent, secular, 20th-century democracies. These countries have produced the freest and wealthiest people in recorded history, who, in turn, have produced the lowest birth rates in recorded history, regularly dipping well below 2.0 (and, in some places, even going below 1.5 – levels which some demographers believe to be unrecoverable).
This should strike us as counterintuitive as if a sort of reverse Darwinism were at play. Everywhere else in nature, those organisms with the most resources and fewest constraints are the ones that reproduce most abundantly. For homo sapiens, however, it appears that too many resources and too much freedom discourage reproduction, relegating it to just one more optional preference. In many affluent societies then, birthrates have become mostly a reflection of individual values.
Marriage, sex, childbearing, and traditional family roles used to be inextricably bound up with one another, but modernity has disentangled these issues, making them unrelated matters of personal choice. Sex now has even less to do with marriage than with procreation.
Traditional family roles are under attack in some circles as anachronistic examples of patriarchal oppression. Society no longer views marriage as a lifelong spiritual commitment for mutual improvement but as a legal contract for mutual convenience, to be dissolved as easily as it is made.
In sum, personal liberty has gained much ground at the expense of social structures which were more conducive to procreation. This does not imply that personal liberty is inherently bad. However, the new social mores of our day are leading to low birth rates, and low birth rates, per the below section, have some very real problems associated with them.
FALLING FERTILITY AND FAILING SOCIETIES
We have been taught to worry about there being too many people on planet earth, not too few. The last fifty years have been littered with warnings about the dangers humans pose to Mother Nature, and overcrowding is one of the clarion calls of the environmentalist movement.
Kaufmann and Last are not the first thinkers to treat falling fertility as a canary in the coal mine. Various Greek, Roman, and Arab intellectuals of yore lamented a dearth of children (especially among the societal elite) as a sign of decadence and cultural decline. The polymath German historian Oswald Spengler once observed: “When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard ‘having children’ as a question of pros and cons, the great turning point has come.”
There is not a single instance in all human history of a shrinking, aging population with a dynamic, growing economy. Innovation, entrepreneurship, and risk-taking are hallmarks of a vibrant economy and young people. When you have fewer of the latter, you get less of the former (as several European countries are beginning to realize). Additionally, the modern-day welfare state has substantial financial programs which are only sustainable when you have more taxpayers (i.e., young people) than beneficiaries (i.e., older people).
Many of our government-provided medical and retirement benefits were established during times of high fertility in which the number of taxpayers greatly outnumbered the number of beneficiaries. However, falling birth rates have started to invert our population model, and beneficiaries are quickly outstripping taxpayers. The problem is only growing worse. In 1940, there were 160 taxpayers for every Social Security beneficiary in the U.S. By 1950, the ratio fell to 17:1. In 1960, it was 5:1. Currently, it is below 3:1.
Solutions to these economic problems are not forthcoming. Nearly every government that has tried to raise birthrates to increase its base of taxpayers and consumers has met with utter failure. This leaves few other options – one of which is to reduce benefits. This is unlikely in democratic countries where the strongest voting bloc is increasingly the beneficiaries. There simply aren’t (or won’t be) enough young, taxpaying voters to overrule them.
Some remaining solutions are increased taxation, deficient spending, or immigration. The first two choices are really anti-solutions because they compound the problem while simultaneously kicking the can down the road. The third solution – immigration – solves one problem, simultaneously creating several others.
For example, France has a significant constituency of Muslim immigrants who do far more to bolster the country’s bleak fertility than the average French couple. Yet, these immigrants also seem relatively uninterested in fully assimilating into secular French culture, bringing the religious/secular divide into sharp relief. They are at once both a demographic boom and a political liability.
Immigration will become a flashpoint elsewhere, as a prosperous but aging global north increasingly requires immigrants from the poor but fertile global south to supplement a dwindling supply of native workers, consumers, and taxpayers. In countries that can culturally assimilate these immigrants to a sufficient level, conservative political stances will soften. In countries that cannot, they will harden – perhaps drastically.
The fastest-growing bloc of voters in many Western European nations isn’t the secular natives but the religious immigrants. As this realization continues to dawn on Europeans, will they still adhere to the tenets of liberal democracy? As Kaufmann observes, “It is hard to imagine how cohesive minorities can continually expand without awakening an ethnic response among a declining majority.” Demographically powerful groups can conquer a land over extended periods of time without ever resorting to violence. All they need to do is have lots of children and vote.
BUCKING THE TREND
For some time now, demographers have consistently found religion to be the strongest indicator of high fertility. After all, “go forth and multiply” is a particularly religious injunction, as are proscriptions against divorce, homosexuality, and abortion.
A practicing Christian or Muslim may have a legal right to do these things, but within his or her social milieu, such acts will be deemed taboo and typically be avoided. Instead, a practicing Christian will be far more likely to adhere to social constraints designed to promote a traditional nuclear family and, hence, more children.
American exceptionalism regarding fertility is often attributed to its strong religious sentiments, especially when compared to a more secular Europe. Even within the U.S., the highest birthrates are found in the western Republican states of the Bible Belt, whereas the lowest are found in eastern Democratic states.
The most remarkable part of the religion-fertility connection is that demographers have found the correlation to remain strong even when a person has a high level of education and income – two factors that otherwise kill birthrates. If you live in a Western democracy, have a college degree, make six figures annually, yet still have three or more children, you are almost certainly religious.
Consider the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism” versus myself and three of my friends from my time in the Marines. Everyone in both groups has at least a graduate-level education, a successful professional career, and is a family man. The first group collectively has eight children, coming in below the sustainment birthrate of 2.12 children per couple. By contrast, the second group (three practicing Catholics and one Protestant) has eighteen children, more than doubling the sustainment birthrate. The first group also has four divorces, while the latter group has zero.
What’s more, as Kaufmann shows, religious families are slowly doing a better job at keeping their children within the flock through to adulthood. Secularism has grown almost exclusively through conversion – not conception – yet the rise of secular, anti-religious culture (replete with its own literature and spokespeople, such as the four horsemen mentioned above) has led to a deliberate countermobilization by religious organizations and intelligentsia, which is gradually undermining the secular conversion rate.
Until secularism can figure out how to “grow its own,” it will continue to lock horns with religious groups over the fate of their children. Ironically, this struggle has created an odd ecumenism among the religious, as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus put their differences aside to decrease the onslaught of secular culture.
CRYSTAL BALL CONCLUSIONS
There are several tentative conclusions we can draw from these demographic trends. First, the future will witness the initial cases of large, ethnically homogenous populations electing voluntary suicide through a simple lack of reproduction.
If the Western tradition started in Greece and Italy, it is cruelly ironic that the Greeks and Italians will be the first Western peoples to undergo this self-immolation. Their birthrates are abysmal, putting their final dissolution in clear mathematical sight. Within Eastern realms, it will be the Japanese who first experience this fate.
Second, the proportion of religious people within most population groups will grow even as the population group itself shrinks. This means that the meteoric rise of secular culture in the 20th century may be eclipsed by a re-emergent culture of religion as early as the 21st or 22nd century.
Western elites have come to view secular values as all but axiomatic and unquestionable. They will be surprised to wake up and find themselves in a potentially dying minority one day. Since culture and politics often mirror one another, we can expect conservatism to be the primary beneficiary of this religious resurgence.
Finally, the fertility of the religious will not be strong enough or fast enough to prevent the meager birthrates of today from becoming the economic and political problems of tomorrow. Russia is instructive. With high abortion and alcoholism rates, a stagnant economy, and one of the most dismal birth rates among large countries, the future of the Russian people does not look bright. Consequently, they have fallen prey to long-term political demagoguery and military adventurism. As Last points out, Russia has been behaving exactly as you would expect an aging, sick, angry bear to behave.
As demographics create acute economic and political troubles elsewhere, how might governments react – even ones with track records of responsible, democratic rule? History shows that even reasonable men will act rashly and dangerously if they feel their backs are against the wall. The rise of political factions with extreme ideologies becomes much more likely in times of crisis. Liberalism is neither necessary nor guaranteed.
COMMENTS AND CRITIQUES
1. Biologists are forever studying the adaptive traits which aid a species's survival, while secularists criticize religion for its supposed denial of life and fascination with death.
The confluence of these two observations creates an embarrassing enigma for biologists and secularists alike, though – specifically, why is it that the purported morbidity of religion yields a great bounty of children, whereas secularism yields so few? In the Darwinian clash of adaptations where truth and survival become synonymous, can secularists claim their worldview is superior and more life-affirming despite its inability to compel its adherents to sufficiently reproduce?
If secular humanism is the worldview of human flourishing, then it is a particular brand of flourishing which has little to do with the perpetuation of humanity. Rather, it focuses more on the individual in the here and now. Conversely, many religious worldviews conceive human flourishing in a long-term, communal sense in which children and families play a central role.
While we can debate the pros and cons of these opposing views, from a reproduction standpoint, one of them has a future, and the other does not. Suppose religion is the preeminent adaptive survival trait for home sapiens. In that case, secularists hell-bent on destroying religion are actually (and ironically) hell-bent on destroying human life itself – even if their worldview is correct and all religions are false. This possibility has all the makings of an Ancient Greek tragedy: the strong, young protagonist thinks he is saving his city from a great threat, but, in actuality, he is unwittingly leading it to its doom.
2. One of the defining traits of modernity is the massive expansion of governments. Information technology has elevated countless local issues to the national or global scene. Governments in developed countries have a policy on every topic imaginable, with few issues remaining completely beyond government purview. While both authors discuss the (so far) abortive attempts of various governments to address failing birthrates in their respective countries, this subject deserves far more consideration, especially if falling fertility does in fact lead to failing societies.
While it’s difficult to imagine the level of social coercion it would take to bring low birth rates back up to or above the sustainment rate, it’s also difficult to imagine that a government facing an existential threat would not take extreme measures to preserve itself and its society. Can we really imagine the Chinese Communist Party taking a demographically induced nosedive without resorting to something as revolting as coerced copulation under threat of state-sanctioned violence? Conversely, could Western civilization witness the eventual commodification of childbearing fueled through massive government incentives?
3. If we assume that religious people will continue to have high fertility and secular people low fertility, then Kaufmann’s argument that the religious will inherit the earth hinges largely on the idea that the conversion rate of religious people to secularism will eventually be brought under control by the targeted efforts of faith-based groups. While Kaufmann briefly discusses the modest accomplishments of these efforts thus far, the issue is far from settled. Since the mid-twentieth century, religious people in Western societies have left their faith groups in droves.
Is it foolish to think this trend will somehow die out?
Perhaps not. In 1932, the German political theorist Carl Schmitt wrote The Concept of the Political, a brief but bold tract in which Schmitt claimed that the essence of group relationships and group mobilization is the friend/enemy distinction. In other words, people take the most action (political or otherwise) only when they have a clearly defined rival group to work against.
If we extrapolate this concept to Kaufmann’s work, the idea is that only in the very recent past have we witnessed the rise of a secular popular culture which stands as an overt enemy to religion. This phenomenon is so recent that the countermobilization of religious groups has barely begun, and it is impossible to predict just how successful it might be at undermining the appeal of secularism. The assumption behind Kaufmann’s work is that, in the long run, the religious will be far more committed to winning this battle than the secularists.
4. Finally, it will be interesting to see how long it will take for these demographic issues to supplant the current mainstays of public discourse: artificial intelligence, environmental conservation, marshaling in the reach of “big tech” companies, etc. For now, the demographers and sociologists remain mostly a voice crying out in the wilderness, telling us as John the Baptist once did that “those trees which do not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” So shall it be with those population groups which do not bear children. Will we heed their warning in time?
Tyler Tidwell is a retired Marine who lives in the Oklahoma City area with his wife and three children.
 The regular assumption here is that the accumulation of all these correlative factors does in fact represent real-world causation, even if an airtight mathematical model of causation cannot be derived from the numbers alone.  One key metric demographers use is the difference between desired birth rates (how many children a woman says she wants) and actual birth rates (how many children she in fact ends up with). While actual birth rates have been dipping lower and lower for some time now, it was only recently that desired birth rates in many parts of Europe started slipping below the sustainment level also. It seems that the fewer children that people see, the fewer children they begin to want for themselves.
 This doesn’t mean that a plethora of young people is unequivocally good. Failed and underdeveloped states oftentimes suffer from a “youth bulge” in which a society and its economy cannot facilitate a proper job or role for a large portion of its young people, often resulting in civil unrest. In many ways, it is the inverse of the problem that the developing world is beginning to experience.  Beneficiaries who, as Last points out, still receive their monthly check even if they never had a single child to help keep the taxpayer base viable. The common retort here is that the person still deserves benefits because he or she “paid into” the system through their own taxes when they were younger. This is a common misunderstanding however, at least as far as the U.S. systems of Social Security and Medicare are concerned. When your paycheck is docked each month for these programs, the government isn’t setting the money aside for you. They are immediately giving it to some beneficiary. If you one day hope to collect benefits of your own, you will need ample taxpayers around to pay them. In this sense, the only real way to “pay into” the system is to have children who will themselves become taxpayers one day.
 Likewise, the fecundity of orthodox Jews in Israel (compared to their secular brethren) is having profound effects on the political direction of that country.  Of the nineteen developed countries with a population of 100 million or more, the U.S. is the only one whose birthrate is still close to the replacement rate.  These eastern states do have the highest concentration of pets and pet spas though.
 Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett.
 See Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons for a modern-era, Russian rendering of this tragic theme.  I am imagining here something like the growth of a surrogate parenting market in which the higher end of the socioeconomic strata employs the lower end to have children for them in order to reap said government benefits.
 We could challenge the premise that secular fertility will continue to remain low in the future. As feminist philosopher Amia Srinivasan has suggested, it’s impossible to predict what would happen to fertility rates under radically different conditions, such as a society offering universal, free, 24/7 childcare. While Srinivasan’s point is valid in a technical sense, it also largely dismisses how ineffectual past incentives have been when it comes to addressing sub-replacement rate fertility in Western societies. See Conversations with Tyler, podcast episode 132.  Schmitt ended up having a relationship with the Nazi Party which understandably led to the marginalization of his ideas later in the twentieth century. The great irony is that the Nazis showed the efficacy of Schmitt’s thought, as they built their political capital in the interwar period almost exclusively through the villainization of different groups within German society (communists, Jews, etc.) who were supposedly to blame for Germany’s defeat in the Great War.  Luke 3:9.