Family Size and Religious Optimism

A while back the chattering class got its knickers in a knot about demography. Secularists noted that secularists were not having many babies, while the religious nuts were. The demographic future, it would seem, belonged to the Jesus-freaks. Of course, many of these folks consoled themselves with the hope that the forces of reason and science were secularize the next generation. However, while this story might be an ideological warm blanket for the left, the daunting problems of childlessness remained. Who pays for the social security benefits of all of those folks with point-something children?

Interestingly, the key assumption behind this debate is that religion causes large families. In an interesting article in last summer’s issue of Policy Review, however, Mary Eberstadt offers the reverse story: families, she argues, cause religion. Her prime bit of supporting evidence is the demographic history of western Europe, where she notes that in virtually every cases decreases in family size proceeded declines in religiosity rather than vice versa. In other words, people stopped having kids and then they stopped believing in God, rather than the other way around. According to Eberstadt it is the experience of parenthood itself that drives religiosity (or at least drives a lot of it). She writes:

First, there is the phenomenological fact of what birth itself does to many fathers and just about every mother. That moment — for some, even the first glimpse on a sonogram — is routinely experiences by a great many people as an event transcendental as no other. This hardly means that pregnancy and birth ipso facto convert participants into zealots. But the sequence of events culminating in birth is nearly universally interpreted as a moment of communion with something larger than oneself, larger even than oneself and the infant. It is an elemental bond that is cross-cultural as perhaps not other — a formulation to which most parents on the planet would quickly agree.

Fine, you say, but to paraphrase the mythical Jewish uncle, “How does this effect the Mormons?” The secularization thesis — much under attack by sociologists of late and fervently defended by Sam Harris et al — sees the decline in religiosity as the pre-ordained result of modernism. Science, wealth, education, and liberal democracy combine to make people less religious and the progress is all one way. Western Europe has gone secular and it isn’t going back. We’re waiting on America. Our global missionary efforts seem to implicitly rest on something like this idea: There is a denominational land grab in the developing world and Mormons need to grab as much of the religious market share as possible before prosperity and secularization set in and the converts dry up

If Eberstadt is correct, however, then modernity isn’t driving religious decline; family size is driving religious decline. (Note, this is how she explains the religiosity of America, a manifestly modern country. Americans, for whatever reason, have larger families and this causes American religiosity.) Now it may be that modernism drives family size down which drives religion out, but Eberstadt thinks not. She writes, “[T]here is nothing fixed or inevitable about today’s low birth rates or (bearing in mind that fertility is just one of several measures for the vitality of the family) low marriage rates or, for that matter, notions about the desirability of the natural family itself — in Europe or anywhere else.” Indeed, if the decline in family size really does lead to demographically driven fiscal collapse, to say nothing of the negative effects of everything from single motherhood to childless old age, then there may be a feed back loop in favor of families.

Consider the example of smoking and how many decades it took to change the global consensus from benign encouragement to widespread opprobrium. That example is a powerful confirmation of the truth that social norms do change in unexpected ways. All kinds of things might affect any individual’s calculation about whether to marry or any couple’s calculation about whether another child or two might be desirable — from sublime considerations like what that might add to their extended family’s happiness to prosaic factors like how many children can fit legally into most cars.

Ironically, if the prophets are right about the dire effects of the decline of the family, that fact itself may be good news for families. After all, people learn, adapt, and change. Who knows, maybe policy and social problems will drive an increase in family size in western Europe, and missionaries will once more find more converts on the edges of Benbow Pond than they can cope with.

37 comments for “Family Size and Religious Optimism

  1. Adam Greenwood
    October 31, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Or maybe having kids will become more expensive in this country and we’ll go to hell in a handbasket. But I like your optimism. I read that Eberstadt article when it came out. It really piqued my interest.

    My gut feeling is that religion and demography feed off each other.

    Here’s a ‘religion comes first’ post at First Things that mentions Eberstadt’s claim.

  2. Adam Greenwood
    October 31, 2007 at 3:14 pm

    I’ve heard it said and I’ve seen it that one of the prime conversion times for Americans is when they’ve just moved in to a new home. I’ve always thought this was just because of the sense of change you get and the desire to form some ties, but I wonder if it may also be because people who are moving into a new home more often tend to be parents with younger kids, parents who, if Eberstadt is correct, are in the process of having their views changed by having families.

    I believe that in this country there is quite a bit of research showing that getting married and having kids tends to make you more conservative; and showing that being conservative is correlated with being more religious. Maybe the marriage and kids thing is why.

  3. October 31, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    She could have spent a couple of paragraphs on the Demographic Transition, which is widely accepted as an explanation for falling birthrates in developed countries. So better agriculture and rising incomes lead to smaller families, which in turn causes an increase in unbelief or religious apathy? I’m not sure most atheists want to hear that their enlightened disbelief is actually rooted in better crop yields.

  4. Adam Greenwood
    October 31, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    The Demographic Transition is best used as the name of a phenomenon that happens in countries that are becoming richer, not as a name for an explanation of that phenomenon.

  5. October 31, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Picky picky. I wouldn’t actually say a country gets “richer.” I would say that the measure of average wealth or income for individuals within that country increases, and (as a consequence) the aggregate measure of wealth for all individuals in that country increases. I think the phenomemon to be explained is the falling birth rate. The Demographic Transition, strictly speaking, isn’t a phenomenon, it’s a model that attempts to explain the falling birth rate. It posits that economic development, characterized by increasing agricultural yields and increasing levels of capital, drives an increase in average income, which then leads individual rational actors to choose to bring forth, on average, fewer children. It really is an explanation, well supported but not necessarily universally applicable.

  6. Adam Greenwood
    October 31, 2007 at 4:50 pm

    The Demographic Transition, strictly speaking, isn’t a phenomenon, it’s a model that attempts to explain the falling birth rate

    Disagree. Its a characteristic demographic transition to which an explanation has been tacked on. If the Demographic Transition is the explanation, what do you call the facts that it attempts to explain?

  7. October 31, 2007 at 4:56 pm

    The falling birth rate.

  8. Adam Greenwood
    October 31, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    There’s this demographic transition, but that’s not what we call The Demographic Transition. The Demographic Transition is the reason why the demographic transition is occuring.

    (Truthfully the Demographic Transition is neither. Its crossing some writing about people, that’s what it is.)

  9. October 31, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    You two are a hoot.

  10. October 31, 2007 at 5:19 pm


    This (I’m not sure most atheists want to hear that their enlightened disbelief is actually rooted in better crop yields. ) is no more meaningful than this (I’m not sure most religious people want to hear that their spiritual feelings and beliefs are actually rooted in their copulation in the absence of effective birth control.).

    Perhaps there is a more useful way of discussing those whose views differ from ours?

  11. Jacob M
    October 31, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    greenfrog – I was thinking the same thing, except that I realized that the atheist have been trying to disavow our spiritual feelings for a long time now, usually suggesting that we religious folk suffer from some neurosis that keeps us believing in something so illogical as religion. It’s not very often that we have a good counter-snide comments. So Dave, continue. (grin)

  12. Matt Evans
    October 31, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    I’m skeptical of Eberstadt’s hypothesis and methodology. Eberstadt’s methodology requires her to rate a whole society’s degree of secularization, but that’s a nebulous endeavor with an unacceptable margin of error, and of course we can imagine factors that would cause secularation *and* fewer children. Because society’s secularization is the aggregate belief of its individuals, it would be better to investigate the direction of the causal arrow by looking at individuals. Among the siblings of my parents and grandparents, for example, church activity at age 20 is an excellent predictor of the number of children they had later. My parents and their siblings, by objective religiosity indicators (their number of children):

    – LDS mission, LDS marriage: (7, 7, 6)
    – No mission, LDS marriage: (6, 5, 3)
    – No mission, no LDS marriage: (2, 2, 0)

    I’d bet my house that Mormon males who served missions have greater fertility than their Mormon peers who didn’t serve missions, or who were baptized but never received the priesthood (two objective measures of Mormon religiosity prior to childbirth). That’s because, at least in the case of Mormonism, religion drives demography, not the other way around.

  13. Adam Greenwood
    October 31, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    It could be both, Matt E. If you take the set of persons who become inactive in their youth, you may find that the ones who have children are more likely to come back to activity (or to join some other church) than the ones who don’t. Dunno. You may find that among the set of those returned missionaries who married in the temple, the ones with children are more likely to remain active or, if they apostatize, to join some other church. Dunno. The problem with your data is that missions and temple marriages almost always come before childrearing so you can’t tell if demography also drives religiosity.

  14. Matt Evans
    October 31, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    I don’t doubt that having kids makes people more religious, I just believe it’s small in comparison. Because the strongest transcendental magic is experienced with the first child, under Eberstadt’s hypothesis I’d expect all parents (whether one child or ten) to be comparably religious.

  15. Adam Greenwood
    October 31, 2007 at 7:20 pm

    Because the strongest transcendental magic is experienced with the first child, under Eberstadt’s hypothesis I’d expect all parents (whether one child or ten) to be comparably religious.

    True, but if drops in birth rates corresponded with increases in childlessness, her theory would still hold. There might also be a correlation between those parents who find the experience most transcendant and those who are most likely to have more than one child. You could also separate the cause-and-effect she identifies– high birth rates => religiosity –from her explanation for that cause and effect, transcendence.

  16. California Condor
    October 31, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Dave (5),

    It’s pretty clear that birth rates drop as countries get richer. But why do you think this is? Is it because rich people have more opportunities that have to be sacrificed for each child born, thereby making the opportunity cost of a child higher?

  17. mmiles
    October 31, 2007 at 8:15 pm

    How are we defining “religous” here? The far right? I know many a mother who would describe birthing a child as extrememly transcendant and would describe themselves as more “spiritual” after childbirth, but not as religious. A good questions to ask is if women (and men) who describe themselves as spiritual rather than religious are lilkely to have more children or not.

  18. Ray
    October 31, 2007 at 8:16 pm

    I had a clear choice when I was a college student – focus on money or children. I chose children specifically because of my religious convictions. I didn’t become religious because I had kids; I had (lots of) kids because of my particular brand of religiosity.

    My father took a 60% pay cut to move to a different location and make very little money explicitly so my mother could have the peace of mind she needed to have more kids – and their focus on kids came from their religion.

    What I would like to see is a solid study of family size among Mormons, focused on determining whether socio-economic status and conversion situation affect the number of children among members.

  19. Jonathan Green
    November 1, 2007 at 4:04 am

    Adam and Matt, if the mystery of childbirth drives religiosity, then we would expect to see a substantial gap in religiosity between parents and the childless, and smaller or no gaps as family size increases. I have no idea if this is the case. I do note that where I am, in the middle of a highly secularized society, the ratio of children in the “ethics” class to those in Catholic or Lutheran religious classes is something like 1:4, and some of the kids in the “ethics” class are actually religious, including Islamic families and various Christian sectarians. Given the choice between spending an hour on ethical education, and an hour preparing a child for first communion, most parents in my corner of secular society opt for the traditional religious option. The religious service on the first day of school at the church down the street also seems to be quite heavily visited, although it is entirely optional. This is just an observation, and not meant to undermine or support either side of the discussion.

  20. November 1, 2007 at 7:15 am

    There’s another personal element that seems central to both becoming a parent and becoming religious – at least in the sense that I understand being religious. That is being able and willing to shift the focus of one’s motivation from serving one’s own needs to serving the needs of others. Is the falling birthrate rather a continuation of self-serving adolescence into later years?

  21. Adam Greenwood
    November 1, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Ray, like you I feel like our religious convictions and our cultural background are behind our having children. But the question is whether you would be more likely to be less religious if you hadn’t been able to have children for some reason or if Joe and Jane Average are more likely to become religious if they end up getting pregnant though they weren’t intending to.

    If having kids does drive religiosity, I’m betting its not because of transcendance. Having children reawakens the helplessness and humility that the well off and childless persuade themselves they don’t have.

  22. Matt Evans
    November 1, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    I too doubt the transcendence hypothesis, but my guess is that post-birth religiosity is a partial biproduct of the parental increase in civic and community affairs. Many people who didn’t worry about their culture and community when they were single start to think about it once they have children to nurture and protect.

  23. November 1, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    Y’all: Those of you who have grown up in the church are a very bad sample from which to generalize about religiousity. You might be a good case study for how religion gets passed on intergenerationally, but you are a bad case study on how people become religious or why they cease being religious.

    Eberstadt’s thesis is simply that there is something about parenthood that makes people more likely to be religious. This is not the same thing as saying that parenthood makes people religious. When we are talking about macro-social movements it is the aggregate tendencies that matter rather than the causation in individual cases. If Eberstadt tells a story that accounts for causation in some non-trivially large set of cases, then her theory is a major contribution. This doesn’t require that all parents have a humbling experience with the transcendent while all childless adults live lives of selfish emptiness; it simply requires a non-random distribution of humbling transcendence and selfish emptiness in favor of the group with children. In other words, the post isn’t about you; it’s about societies as a whole.

  24. Kaimi Wenger
    November 1, 2007 at 4:08 pm

    Having children reawakens the helplessness and humility that the well off and childless persuade themselves they don’t have.

    Interesting observation, Adam. I think there’s a lot to this; but I worry that you may inadvertently be understating some of the ways in which a lack-of-children may bring about those same qualities.

    It’s absolutely true, to follow on to your comment, that having children can be a humbling experience. And it’s an experience that some people could use. I’ve had far too many run-ins with neo-Malthusian types who are awfully smug and condescending about the superiority of their family choices and the inferiority of my own. Are there smug and condescending childless elites? Absolutely, and they’re quite a pain.

    On the other hand, I’ve known some very good people who I like and respect deeply, who have struggled with infertility or other inability to have children. And from discussions with those people, I’ve seen that it can be the act of _not_ having children that really awakens the “helplessness and humility” that Adam G. praises. After all, what could better highlight our own helplessness as mortals, than an inability to have a child? Particularly given the place of family in Mormon dialogue, this inability can be one of the great humbling trials of a person’s life. (And indeed, for people who find themselves in that situation, the smug and condescending antagonists can be their own ward members, who may make all manner of unwarranted assumptions about that family’s choices.)

  25. Adam Greenwood
    November 1, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Excellent point, Kaimi W. I know couples like that. So either my explanation for Eberstadt’s thesis is wrong, or her thesis is wrong, or else a lesser percentage of adults without children find the experience to be humility-inducing than the percentage of adults with children (which is Nate O’s point about statistics and trends as compared to individual experiences). One of those, I don’t know which.

  26. Matt Evans
    November 1, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Nate, that’s not her only thesis. She claims not only that fecundity increases religiosity, but that fecundity increases religiosity more than religiosity increases fecundity. That claim is best studied at the individual level because the chronology is easier to track for individuals than for societies.

  27. John Jay
    November 1, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    There is a mathematical component to this, though. At SOME point, the population must stabilize. We can argue whether than point was decades ago or decades from now, but why should some family in 2150 be denied the joy of having even, say, 2 children so a family today can have 6 or 8? We as a species are smart enough to control our murderous rages (generally speaking .. and in % terms, most of us die of old age rather than war or violence). We should be smart enough to measure the inevitable and predictable mathematical and quality of life consequences of doubling or tripling population every generation.

  28. Adam S.
    November 1, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    I could imagine (and know of concrete examples of) a pragmatic parent choosing to be more active in religion in order to reinforce values in their children. In these cases, do you think genuine religiosity has increased, or is it just another extra-curricular activiy?

  29. Adam Greenwood
    November 1, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    At SOME point, the population must stabilize.

    There is no end to increase. Of course, you might say, that’s in the eternities.

    In the here and now, worldwide population increase is set to reach a stopping point sometime mid century and will probably decline thereafter. The United States population has already stopped growing and in many advanced countries, the populations are declining. I hope you’re right that in Japan and Germany and Italy and Spain and Eastern Europe and Russia the population eventually stabilizes.

    Why should some family in 2150 be denied the joy of having even, say, 2 children so a family today can have 6 or 8?

    No one in 1850 would have any idea about current population trends and our ability to support population today, so I don’t imagine you have any basis for saying that an individual’s decision to have a large family today will somehow force a family generations later to be sterile. Sounds far fetched to me.

  30. California Condor
    November 1, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    John Jay (27),

    Sorry, you’re wrong. Technology keeps improving over time, which increases productivity. So farms today can more efficiently produce food than the farms of the past. And the farms of the future will be able to produce a lot more food than the farms of the past. So the population can double or triple or increase and still enjoy higher and higher standards of living as long as entrepreneurs are given the freedom and incentive to innovate.

  31. November 1, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    That’s by no means clear. You are correct that technology has made food production more efficient and more plentiful. But that does not per se mean that our food-technology will continue to grow apace; we may have reached (or nearly reached) the zenith of food production. We may see the future and, for whatever reason (obesity, inhumane treatment of animals, or something else) decide that we don’t want it, and legislate against it (see, for example, Europe’s recent treatment of genetically modified agricultural products).

    Or technology may continue as it has over the last hundred years. But past technological improvement is not, of itself, indicative of what the future holds.

  32. Rosalynde Welch
    November 1, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    I admired (and envied) the cleverness and elegance of Eberstadt’s revisionist claim, but I found it only moderately persuasive. The heart of her argument is the observation that in Western Europe, declines in fertility preceded (or coincided with) declines in religiosity. This is an empirical question, but even IF she right about the chronology—this is a big if; I found the evidence to be rather impressionistic and would like to see it corroborated by other researchers—she could still be wrong about the causality: both declining fertility and declining religiosity could be sibling effects of a prior cause; or they could be unrelated. I found her proposed mechanism, in the second part of the article, very unpersuasive.

    How’s this as a potential prior cause of both phenomena: the development of intellectual and material technologies (legal instruments like contracts, communications technologies, etc) that enabled high-trust societies in which the tribal connections of kin and faith are less efficient.

  33. Adam Greenwood
    November 1, 2007 at 6:10 pm

    we may have reached (or nearly reached) the zenith of food production.

    You’re absolutely right that we just don’t know if future breakthoughs will increase our ability to produce food or not (though I’d bet they will). We have not, however, reached the zenith of food production since there are arable lands that aren’t being used (some of these are areas that we would want to preserve for aesthetic/environmental reasons and others are formerly farmed lands that ceased to be economic given how cheap food is these days).

    We may see the future and, for whatever reason (obesity, inhumane treatment of animals, or something else) decide that we don’t want it, and legislate against it (see, for example, Europe’s recent treatment of genetically modified agricultural products).

    Quite possibly, but I don’t see how laws against obesity or inhuman treatment of animals would lead to food shortages. If they did, I’d bet the laws would be changed.

  34. Adam Greenwood
    November 1, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Rosalynde W., you may be on to something.

  35. California Condor
    November 1, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    Sam B. (31),

    Well, we should do what we can to continue on our present path of agricultural innovation.

  36. djinn
    November 2, 2007 at 10:29 am

    I found Ms. Eberstadt’s article darn near incoherent. What is her argument? That for some mysterious unspoken reason people choose to have families of a certain size and then their experience of the divine follows in lock-step. Cuz babies are cool in a multisyllabic transcendent way. Right? She totally blows off the first point to make the second. I think part of this reason is because she associates, uh, secularity, pretty smack dab with “Nietsche’s Madman,” not written until after childbirth rates in Europe had already begun to decline. So, as in her somewhat unspoken timeline the decline in religiosity, fuelled by Zaranthustra, didn’t start until after the decline in fecundity, the latter must have driven the former. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, anyone?

  37. jnilsson
    November 2, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    One troubling feature of my SLC neighborhood is how many young families with one or more children are completely detached from any religious organization, at least as far as I can see. My kid will not have any playmates his age on our street (or the next couple of neighboring streets) who are being raised in an active LDS family. The other interesting thing is that most of these families with young kids have parents who were once active LDS. Is the desire to have kids a cultural remnant of religiosity for these folks? Most of these families I\’m thinking of boast at least one RM as a spouse and none that I have seen have brought their kids to the ward to have them blessed…

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