Last week the American Enterprise Institute’s Eric Kaufmann posted an article dissecting global demographic trends with an eye toward birthrates among the religious and the secular. His conclusion? The future is likely to be far more religious than many imagine—and not just because of the much-discussed ascendency of the southern hemisphere. Western cultures, where religious practice has long been in decline, will themselves see a revival of faith as a combination of immigration and consistently high birthrates among traditionalist believers simply outlasts the selfish ideals of sexual liberationism and perpetual singlehood. A culture with more leashes than strollers is simply unsustainable in the long run, Kaufmann argues. His essay should pique the interest of anyone concerned about these things, and it merits a careful read. Were it more widely circulated and digested, it would go a long way towards piloting the discourse on the future of religion and secularism away from intellectual shorthand and tired, simplistic tropes.
But there’s room for disagreement. AEI’s Andrew Rugg, in a response posted this morning , challenges Kaufmann’s thesis with data on “Milennial” religious practice, like frequency of church attendance. It’s important to note that Rugg’s rejoinder is specifically considering the American scene, while Kaufmann’s original piece looked at both domestic and international trends. In some of Kaufmann’s cases (the unnoticed steadiness of Christianity in Britain thanks to Eastern European and African immigrants; the resurgence of Orthodox Judaism in Israel’s army, schools, and public arena) both the data and the anecdotes are undeniable—religion is ascendent. But when it comes to the United States, Rugg thinks there may be an important difference:
While the PRRI survey shows a high degree of change among todays Millennials, a Pew analysis of General Social Survey data shows they have a higher rate of unaffiliation than previous generations. Compared to their Baby Boom parents, Millennials (which Pew defines as ages 18 to 29) are twice as likely to list themselves as unaffiliated (26 to 13 percent). If the experience of early generations is a guide, levels of unaffiliation persist over time. The percentages of religiously unaffiliated members of the Greatest, Silent, Boomer, and Gen X generations have held remarkably constant over time. The level of unaffiliation among Millennials is therefore likely to remain high in the long run. [ . . . ]
In other words, movement away from frequent religious observance is accelerating. Whatever association holds between church attendance and certain demographic patterns such as high fertility is likely to be reduced as a result.
That seems to be Rugg’s strongest point: Demography need not be destiny—especially not in the United States, which surrounds the concepts of choice and individual identity with a quasi-sacred aura, and where material assimilation has had (at least until recently) an uncanny way of bringing cultural leveling along with it. In other words, the mere fact that a first-generation, religious Hispanic couple has four children in no way implies that all four of them will grow up to be practicing Catholics. Tempering this optimism would give us a clearer preview of the future, and of the work to be done.
Though Rugg’s analysis may initially dampen the enthusiasm of those of us eager for a religious renaissance in our country, perhaps we ought to think about what his conclusions do not imply. To be wary of temptations to determinism (not that Kaufmann is a determinist) is to be wary of a too-reduced version of a generally accurate tale: that secularism is exhausted, and in retreat, and it is only a matter of time before religion’s place is restored. But rejecting the simplest version of this story also means refusing to buy the narratives of hardline secularists and triumphant atheists: Christianity is outdated, and, like other illusions in Marxist thought, it is only a matter of time before it withers away and dissipates.
The Christian faithful cannot ‘run out the clock’ waiting for their worldview to triumph but are called to evangelize. Demography is a mighty force, no doubt, and it is one which must be reckoned with if a nation-state is to survive and perpetuate its identity. It may even be the necessary foundation upon which a religion’s cultural influence can then increase. But even a fruitful, multiplying, highly religious society is never more than one or two generations away from crisis if those whose task it is to pass on the faith rely on numbers alone and make no attempt to bring the faith of history into the present, no provision for active catechesis; for a prime example, see Ireland over the past forty years. The faith of the fathers no longer guarantees as much about the sons as it once did.
Thus, a statement on which both Kaufmann and Rugg might agree: Like the relative decline of faith in the twentieth century, secularism is tenuous, not inevitable. It is even reversible provided the requisite empirical scene-setting is capped with dramatic witness.