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June 11, 2009

by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse

side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar side bar Secularism was to be the wave of the future. Leading secular theorists such as Peter Berger taught that secularism would be the inevitable result of the inexorable march of progress and that its many advantages would simply drive out religion in all of its forms. No serious discussion was possible or necessary. Religion would be deposited unceremoniously on the dustbin of history.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the dustbin: secularism has not only failed to triumph over religion, it can’t even reproduce itself.  In spite of enormous institutional advantages conferred on it by the state, the media and academia, secularism has created a society that cannot achieve replacement fertility. The most secular places tend to have the lowest fertility rates, and within countries, the most modern parts of modern societies tend to have the lowest fertility rates.  

This is highlighted in the soon to be released second part of Demographic Winter, an independent film project which features interviews with me, among other experts.

For instance, the US is alone among the modern western democracies in having fertility rates at or above replacement, and the US is widely regarded as the last remaining religious country in the industrialized world. Within the US, the New England states have among the lowest fertility rates in the US. Vermont has the lowest total fertility rate of any state in the union: 1.66 babies per woman. (Note: you have to click on the link for the excel file to see the birth rates.) While you’re looking at the table, please notice that the six New England states, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, are in the “top ten” of the lowest total fertility rate states in the country. Not surprisingly, Vermont has a low population growth rate compared with the rest of the country: Vermont’s population grew 2 per cent between 2000 and 2007, while the entire country grew by 7.2 per cent over the same period.

Citizens of Vermont also have the lowest rates of regular religious practice. In Vermont, for instance, 26% of the population considers themselves “unaffiliated” with any religious tradition, compared with 16 per cent of the US population. Even in Massachusetts, with a large percentage of nominal Catholics, a full third of the population never attends church services, while nationwide only about a quarter of the population nationwide never attends church.  Only 30% of Massachusetts residents attends church services at least once a week, compared with 39 per cent of the general US population. The other New England states have even lower rates of church attendance.

Secularism contains many disincentives for child-rearing. The most obvious is that secularism considers sex a recreational activity, with no social or moral significance, and with no necessary connection with child-rearing. People, including school children, are encouraged to act as if they have perfectly functioning contraception, with abortion available any time during pregnancy. Of course, no contraception functions perfectly. So women get themselves involved in relationships and situations that cannot possibly support a pregnancy. They naturally view these pregnancies as “unintended” and believe abortion is the only “choice.”  Under that world view, having children becomes an inconvenient “choice.”  

Operating within their world view, secularists have created a society in which sex is sterile for most people, for most of their lives, with children thrown in as an afterthought for those peculiar souls who happen to like that sort of thing. Marriage is organized around the desires of adults, not around the needs of children. The state does not recognize that children have an interest in the stability of their parents’ union.

Mothers can count on the government for a minimal level of support, but they cannot count on substantial material or emotional support from their child’s father. Poor people can obtain low quality housing subsidized by the state. But nice homes in good neighborhoods, with good schools, require two incomes. Women with high aspirations for their children do want to raise their children within a stable marriage. But the government undermines their efforts to do so, by permitting divorce for any reason or no reason. Women are expected to work throughout their lives.

By contrast, most religious traditions consider sex sacred and children a blessing. Christianity, for instance, holds that God created marriage in the Garden of Eden. Man and woman are meant for love, for union and communion with one another. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2360), “Sexuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage, the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and a pledge of spiritual communion.” Marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman of exclusive fidelity for the purpose of procreation and education of offspring and the mutual good of the spouses. People who participate in the Christian tradition believe that the connection between sex, marriage and children is ordained by God, for their good, and for the common good of society. This gives people a motivation to bear with the inconveniences associated with child-rearing.

Demographer Phillip Longman, author of The Empty Cradle, puts it well: “who are the people who are still having large families today? The stereotypical answer is poor people, or dumb people, or members of minority groups. But birth rates among American racial and ethnic minority groups are plummeting. The more accurate answer is deeply religious people.”

The claim that secularism would inevitably drive out religion always had an element of wishful thinking to it. The lofty semi-science of the “inexorable laws of history,” hid the fact that specific people embraced secularism and enacted specific policies to implement it. There was never anything particularly inevitable about it.  But now it is clear that in the absence of massive institutional support of the state, secularism does not stand a chance of competing against religion in a fair demographic fight of having and raising the next generation.

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  Jennifer Roback Morse
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D. is the founder and President of the Ruth Institute. Dr. Morse brings a unique voice to discussions of love, marriage, sexuality and the family. A committed career woman before having children, she earned a doctorate in economics, and spent fifteen years teaching at Yale University and George Mason University. In 1991, she and her husband adopted a two year old Romanian boy, and gave birth to a baby girl. She left her full-time university teaching post in 1996 to move with her family to California. She was a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Until August 2006, Dr. Morse and her husband were foster parents for San Diego County. In the summer of 2008, Dr. Morse founded the Ruth Institute, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to bringing hope and encouragement for life-long married love.
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