With fertility rates dipping to almost one child per woman in Spain and other European countries, it’s hard to even imagine the future. Who will work and pay all those retirement benefits to the current and larger generation of workers? How can societies with declining populations maintain a robust, confident cultural outlook? Will European demographic suicide turn the continent over to Islamic domination, as Mark Steyn and others darkly foresee?
But why the demographic suicide? In The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel offers an explanation. “There are,” he writes, “economic, sociological, psychological, and even ideological reasons why Europe’s birthrates have fallen below replacement level for decades. But the failure to create a human future in the most elemental senseby creating a successor generationis surely an expression of a broader failure: a failure of self-confidence.” And by Weigel’s reckoning, this failure is “tied to a collapse of faith in the God of the Bible.”
A fascinating working paper from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research offers data that suggest that Weigel is right and that faith is correlated with fertility. First, self-reported religious conviction is higher in the United States than in Europe. Drawing from a Pew poll released in 2002, Tomas Frejka and Charles F. Westhoff report that the the percentage of adults “for whom religion is important” range “from 11 percent in France to 21 percent in Germany, 27 percent in Italy, 33 percent in Great Britain.” The highest percent in Europe was Poland’s 36 percent. It is 59 percent in the U.S.
The same is true of fertility. Birthrates in America are higher than in Europe. In 2002 the American total fertility rate was 2.01, close to replacement rate. Europe’s was 1.50.
QED. The faith-saturated Americans make babies, and the God-abandoning Europeans don’t. Well, yes, but why?
Maybe not because Americans are more religious. Correlation does not causality make. And even if there is a causal relation, the arrow might point the other way. Maybe babies make for faith rather than the other way around. After all, it’s common knowledge that young people tend to drift away from church and then return when they marry and have children.
Moreover, some scholars think that economic insecurity is the main factor encouraging high fertility. Children are the traditional form of Social Security. The American anomaly is therefore explained by our cowboy capitalism and modest social safety net as compared with Europe’s more stable system and generous benefits. Others point to literacy rates, rates of teen pregnancies among the impoverished, attitudes toward gender roles, differences in health care systems, and so forth.
Nobody said demography was a simple science. But when we dig into the data and get beneath the broad comparison between America and Europe, some more precise and interesting correlations emerge.
The National Survey of Family Growth (2002) asked women questions about religious observance. Among self-identified Catholics, women between the ages of 18 and 44 (the child-bearing years) who report attending church more than once a week have a mean number of 1.78 children. (Careful: 1.78 is not the fertility ratedoubtless many young women in this cohort will have children as they grow older.) Self-identified Catholics who report never going to church (sounds like an oxymoron, but we’ll let it pass) have a mean number of 1.26 children. Those who identify with no denomination and never go to church have 1.00 children.
Now let’s go to some numbers drawn from the European Value Study (2000). Sticking with the Catholics, the more-than-once-a-week-at-Mass crowd has a mean number of 1.81 children, while those who never go to church have 1.09. Protestants and Orthodox show a similar though less dramatic decline when church attendance is correlated to number of childrenwith an interesting exception. Protestants who go to church more than once a week have fewer children than those who just go on Sundays (1.53 as compared to 2.03). Are the pious Protestants being demoralized by all that sober church-going?
The same decline occurs when you run the numbers on the way in which women aged 18 to 44 answer the hoary question about religion: Very Important, Somewhat Important, Not Important. The Very Important cohort among American Catholics has 1.74 children; the Not Important crowd has 0.93. The same differences obtain for Protestants, and the same differences show up in Europe.
Fascinating, and I am certain George Weigel would say “Not surprising.” But when Frejka and Westhoff look at individual European countries and regions, the picture gets muddy. Norwegians, it seems, have children in spite of religious disinterest. Italians don’t have children even if they go to church. The French, they speculate, might be more fruitful and multiplying if they went to Mass on Sunday. So the study concludes on a tentative note. If Europeans as a whole were as religious as Americans as a whole, “one might expect a small increase [in fertility] for Europe”with one qualification“but considerably more for Western Europe.”
It seems awfully opaque, doesn’t it? Welcome to demographic predictions. Maybe European unbelief is a factor in their demographic suicide, or at least maybe in some of the countries of Europe. Perhaps the “maybes” are inevitable. Faith influences everything in culture, but I can not imagine that social scientists will ever be able to isolate “the religious coefficient” for any significant social practice, least of all for something so fundamental as forming families and having children.
But I do not want to end by muddying the waters. Let us leave fertility aside for a moment. One other statistic astounded me: 12 percent of American women aged 18 to 44 attend church more than once a week. That’s a lot of people! Among Europeans, the percentage is 3, a noble cohort, but a much smaller one.
With faith comes a culture of life. But a culture of life needs to penetrate and shape society. Laws matter, schools matter, politics matter, but deep underneath all institutional affairs heart speaks to heart. The women who attend Mass or Bible study during the week (12 percent!)they (and the men as well) are the irradiated core. Their hearts do far more than polls or surveys to explain why our society still vibrates with religious intensity. May their numbers increase, both here and everywhere.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University and features editor at First Things.