Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

A while ago on this blog I discussed Philip Longman's excellent book on demographics, The Empty Cradle, which shows that world population is below replacement level in 59 countries (according to UN data) and will level off and begin to decline by the mid-twentieth century. By then it may be too late to reverse economically disastrous populations decline. It may even be too late now. A less central conclusion of that book was that the world is likely to become more conservative and more religious because secular liberals just can't be bothered to reproduce much.

Now, a new book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by secular, liberal Eric Kaufmann, has come out (although Amazon.ca does not have it yet for some reason), which confirms the conclusions of the Longman book and exhibits some serious angst about the earth belonging to the religious conservatives of all religions in the future.

Casper Melville at the UK's The New Humanist has an interview with Kaufmann and it is an interesting read. I can't help but think that the ground is being prepared for an aggressive liberal offensive aimed at defusing this ticking demographic time bomb. The exact shape that will take is not yet clear, but it could involve the secular state assuming a more aggressive posture with regard to the inculcation of values in children even against the wishes of parents. Anyway, here are some excerpts.
"Whenever demography is the subject a panicky headline usually follows. Generally these take the form of anxieties about overpopulation. “Are there just too many people in the world?” asks Johann Hari in the Independent. “The World’s population is still exploding,” confirms the Optimum Population Trust (patron David Attenborough). Though equally they could be about the opposite. “Is Europe Dying?” queries Catholic apologist George Weigel (before answering his own question: “The brute fact is that Europe is depopulating itself”). “Falling birth rate is killing Europe says Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks” is the Guardian’s offering. To these hysterical headlines let’s add another, especially for you secular folk: with birth rates of seven babies per women fundamentalists will take over the world. And here is the kicker: it’s all secularism’s fault.

This grim prognostication comes courtesy of political scientist Eric Kaufmann, a reader in politics at London’s Birkbeck College, and the author of the new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, out in March from Profile Books. . . .

What Kaufmann is arguing is that the secularisation thesis, the assumption that modernity leads inexorably to a lessening of religious belief and a day when we are all rational humanists, is wrong – at one point Kaufmann approvingly quotes Rodney Stark and Roger Finke’s view that this is “a failed prophecy”. Further he is saying that there is something about our current form of liberal secularism that contains (here’s another headline) the seeds of its own destruction. Since the birth rate of individualistic secular people the world over is way below replacement level (2.1 in the West), and the birth rate of religious fundamentalists is way above (between 5 and 7.5 depending on sect), then through the sheer force of demography religious fundamentalism is going to become a much bigger force in the world and gain considerable political muscle. Literalist religious conservatism is being reborn and we secular liberals are the midwives.

But what kind of fundamentalism is he talking about? The book covers a wide array of sects from Haredis in Jerusalem to Hutterites in Montana and Salifis in Manchester. Some of the American and Jewish sects are hundreds of years old, but others – like Quiverfull and Salifism – are relatively new. What do they have in common?

“I call them ‘endogenous growth sects’. The defining features are that they have strong boundaries to the outside, they try to live segregated from the rest of society, they practice ‘in’ marriage, they have high fertility rates and high retention of members – it’s grow-your-own-fundamentalism. The irony is that in terms of growth this is the most successful model for religion in Western secular societies. This is not true for the developing world, or for the Muslim world, but it is for the West.” The reason why Kaufmann covers both older forms of fundamentalism like the Amish and Hutterites, sects that are not likely to put the fear of God into secularists because they seem so passive, so withdrawn and uninterested in imposing their worldview on the rest of us, alongside more aggressive and self-consciously power-hungry forms of evangelical Christianity and Islamism is because, in his argument, the older sects provide the model of success that is now being followed by the newer ones. To understand them, Kaufmann argues, we need to look at the older forms they are self-consciously aping.

. . .

This is the heart of the American case. While secularism will grow, a bit, and moderate religions lose out a lot, it is fundamentalism that flourishes. There is a polarisation taking place where the outer reaches – irreligion and fundamentalism – grow and moderate religion is squeezed out. The consequences will be, in Kaufmann’s view, to increase the friction between the two groups. . . . .

However the success-through-fertility of these groups has served as a powerful model for newer variants of fundamentalism with a far more sinister agenda. One such is the Quiverfull movement (The name derives from Psalm 127: “Children are a heritage from the Lord/ Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them”). Kaufmann describes Quiverfull as “backward engineered religion”, an attempt to replicate the successful growth of these historic sects, combined with an ambitious agenda for political power. Under the leadership of the infamous religious conservative Doug Phillips, son of Howard, who was instrumental in the early stirrings of the Religious Right, Quiverfull, a coalition of neo-fundamentalist protestant denominations and communities, dedicated to biblical literalism, deeply patriarchal and morally conservative and separatist in mindset, has a 200-year plan, a “self-conscious strategy for victory through fertility”, as Kaufmann calls it. “They look around and see the low birth rate amongst the secular population, and the success of the sects, and they say, ‘Hey, we can take over here and quickly.’
. . .

I ask him what he thinks we should be doing about it. Should we, for example, all be shagging for secularism?

“Well, I don’t think we want to get in a population footrace. It may be necessary for secular people to have slightly more children but it would be nicer if we could get fundamentalists to have fewer children.” A strangely authoritarian notion to fall from the lips of a self-confessed liberal. “Yes,” he admits, “imposing restrictions would be condemned as discriminatory. But there are carrots as well as sticks. . . .

Another scenario he imagines in his conclusion is that secularism might start to do a better job of winning over the children of religious fundamentalism. But at the moment he sees no statistical sign of this, and he seems gloomy about the prospect. Why? “Part of my argument is that religion does provide that enchantment, that meaning and emotion, and in our current moment we lack that. . . .

What Kaufmann and Malik are certainly in accord on is the need to displace the multicultural “celebration of difference” model of toleration with one that contains a far more robust sense of common values and a far more stringent rejection of reactionary fundamentalism. “We need a stronger sense of liberal values,” Kaufmann told me. “We should answer back to all fundamentalisms.”
I think it may be dawning on liberals that if they do not do something to coerce conservatives, or at least conservative children, to embrace liberal values, then liberal values may not triumph. But to embrace this level of social engineering is to abandon all vestiges of liberalism and become statist fascists. Will this split the liberal movement itself and create more conservatives?

1 comment:

leftistquaker said...

Friend, I discovered your blog today as I was looking for reviews of "StRItE." Yours caught my eye as I am an ex-fundamentalist (Pentecostal) whose path beyond literalism was begun with serious doses of Yoder and Anabaptism, centrally a 10 year stint with a Mennonite intentional community (Reba Place Fellowship/Church). At the end of that anabaptist period, I became a liberal nontheistic Quaker.

While with RPF/C, I also dabbled in neo-Thomism. OK, more than dabbled, I considered myself a synthesizer of anabaptism, pentecostalism, social movement theory, and neo-thomism. I still think there is fruitful area of work there and you seem to be contributing something to that conversation.

My own interests now are more wholly secular, but my commitment to Quakerism and through them to ecumenical and interfaith work, position me to speak to both sides, secular and religious.

I expect I will purchase this book and hope to incorporate its ideas into my perspective. Thank you for your witness here.