Fertility and Religious Practice

In the last several decades, the intact married religious family has diminished as the cultural norm in the Western world. What weakened it—extra-marital and non-marital sexual practices, a rejection of childbearing, and areligious sentiments—has prompted a fertility crisis. The continuance of Western nations and peoples depends on the restoration of religious worship and sexual mores.

In Europe, the child-bearing heart of the people—that fertile subpopulation of women between 15 and 45 years of age—follows an exponentially decreasing trend.

Total Fertility Rates in Europe

The below chart from 2001 illustrates the difference between the attained fertility of European women depending on their age,1) compared to their potential fertility (which was gauged by the actual fertility of Hutterite women).2) The number of children actually born (red area) is a much smaller percent of the number of potential children (blue area).

Married Female Fertility

The three charts below summarize the history of openness to children in Europe from 1872 to 2008. There are three distinct elements depicted here:

  1. the growing contraceptive and secular revolution;
  2. the baby boom of 1950 to 1960;
  3. the sexual and divorce revolution of 1960’s to the recent present.

Major Cultural Transitions' Effects

Taking hold after the on-set of industrialization in the West, the contraceptive mindset (fewer children) is of one cloth with the West shifting its economic orientation from family enterprise to individualist labor activity while simultaneously moving from religious to secular social values.3)

The marriage trend has been less consistent. Current sexual-revolution norms have deeply reduced the propensity to marry.4) Governments, the U.N., International Planned Parenthood, Marie Stopes and other foundations, as well as all who have adopted the new model of how society is to function, continue to work to establish these polymorphous sexual norms. In the past, and especially during the marriage boom of the 1950s (center chart below),5) there was a tendency toward earlier and long-lasting marriage. This tendency and its appreciation of the importance of the family allowed for replacement rates of fertility, seen especially in the ‘baby boom’ of the marriage boom.

This information is condensed in the chart below. The evolution of views on marriage and contraception in the West has resulted in fertility levels far below the needed replacement number of successors. It now approaches 1.5 children per couple, which is much less than the required 2.1.

Cultural Transitions and the Evolution of Family Size in the West

3. The Role of Religious Practice

Over the last number of decades governments of advanced economies have experimented with decreasing fertility rates, and many, having overshot the mark, then tried to increase fertility rates. They were able to succeed in decreasing, but despite their greatest efforts have only increased fertility at the margins, in the best of cases. Their strong efforts and generous spending have failed to restore fertility rates to sustained replacement levels.

Review of the literature shows that only one variable consistently delivers fertility rates at or above replacement level: regular religious worship, especially weekly religious worship.

John Mueller of The Ethics and Public Policy Institute (EPPI) in Washington DC, has done significant work on this issue as he set out to correct a gaping hole in modern economic theory: measuring, understanding and explaining the causes of a significant portion of the economy—namely, that economic activity which is not governed by the laws of price and exchange but rather by a motivation very different from that of personal gain or advantage. In his book, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element, Mueller found that the vast proportion of economic activity is motivated by altruism or selflessness. Even more significant, in his chapter on fertility, Mueller draws attention to the rather glaring and for some uncomfortable demographic: the only variable that yields increased fertility is weekly religious worship.6)

In the below chart Mueller shows that increased social spending by governments is significantly correlated with decreased fertility. It also demonstrates that totalitarian governments rather consistently yield fertility rates slightly above 1.0.

Per Capita Social Spending vs. Fertility

In the following chart Mueller also illustrates that increased per capita savings is significantly correlated with decreased fertility. The more one invests in self the less one invests in others (including children).

Per Capita National Saving vs. Fertility

Mueller elegantly develops and deftly illustrates at the macro level the differential impacts of two opposing elements that vie within the heart of all parents: a selfless giving to their children for the benefit of their children, and the competing element of ‘giving to their children for their own personal benefit’ (such as to be taken care of in their old age).

Mueller comments, “The problems just recounted are the inevitable result of attempting to explain anything so fundamental as fertility —the reproduction of human persons—without the element of economic theory that describes one’s preferences for persons” 7).

The below chart illustrates the positive relationship between frequency of weekly religious practice and national fertility rates.

Weekly Worship vs. Fertility

The more frequently people worship God, across all religions and nations, the more likely they are to give selflessly. As we have seen, a 100 percent rate of weekly religious worship yields 2.1 more children per mother or per family. According to Mueller, “After purely selfish factors are accounted for, acting on belief in God and some kind of afterlife makes the crucial difference as to whether people reproduce themselves. It suggests that the personal gift of time and resources involved in worship is closely and systematically associated with the personal gift of having children for their own sake rather than for the pleasure and utility of the parents” 8).

The total fertility rate (TFR) in countries where the rate of weekly worship is close to zero is 1.25. Where weekly worship is 100 percent, the net TFR is 3.4, or 2.1 children higher.

The following chart combines the data and insights of Mueller’s three charts shown above: social spending, per capita national savings, and weekly religious worship rates. When combined, the predicted and actual total fertility rates largely coincide—and very closely so—despite absence of some data that likely would have decreased the distance still more.

Why does this happen? Because it includes the missing element of modern, neoclassical economics (in their task of oversimplified theory of Adam Smith). The missing element is the law of the gift or the valuing of other persons, at least at times, more than valuing oneself.

A very significant portion of economic activity is undertaken not for exchange or profit, but to give to others for the benefit of others. The largest example of this form of economic activity is the obvious, very frequent, and very foundational activity of all economies: the economic activity of parents when they give existence to children, rear them, and instruct them or provide for their education. Another significant example is “works of charity.”

Total Fertility Rate: Predicted vs. Actual

However, as the below chart from the “International Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism”9) illustrates, most countries are experiencing a significant decline in rates of religiosity (not exactly the same as weekly religious worship, but a closely related indicator).

The implication of these data and insights is significant: Europe (and other nations) face the choice of a return to worshipping God or gradually declining.

For nations that take this old/new direction there are many, if not myriad other benefits.

Trend in Religiosity Index Among 39 Countries Surveyed in Both Waves (2005-2012)

Country (Rank order by 2012, High to low) 2005 2012 Percent Change in Religiosity
Global Average 77% 68 -9%
Ghana 96% 96% 0%
Nigeria 94% 93% -1%
Macedonia 85% 90% 5%
Romania 85% 89% 4%
Kenya 89% 88% -1%
Peru 84% 86% 2%
Pakistan 78% 84% 6%
Moldova 78% 83% 5%
Columbia 83% 83% 0%
Cameroon 86% 82% -4%
Malaysia 77% 81% 4%
India 87% 81% -6%
Poland 85% 81% -4%
Serbia 72% 77% 5%
Italy 72% 73% 1%
Argentina 80% 72% -8%
Ukraine 70% 71% 1%
Ecuador 85% 70% -15%
Lithuania 75% 69% -6%
Bosnia and Herzegovina 74% 67% -7%
South Africa 83% 64% -19%
United States 73% 60% -13%
Bulgaria 63% 59% -4%
Iceland 74% 57% -17%
Russian Federation 57% 55% -2%
Finland 51% 53% 2%
Korea, Rep (South) 58% 52% -6%
Spain 55% 52% -3%
Germany 60% 51% -9%
Switzerland 71% 50% -21%
Canada 58% 46% -12%
Netherlands 42% 43% 1%
Austria 52% 42% -10%
Hong Kong - - -
France 58% 37% -21%
Vietnam 53% 30% -23%
Turkey - - -
Czech Republic 22% 20% -2%
Japan 17% 16% -1%

For instance, the following chart based on the Add Health Survey—a U.S. federally funded longitudinal survey of youth with an initial sample size exceeding 16,000 students—illustrates the education performance of U.S. children in high school. The more frequent their rates of worship, the better they tend to perform (here, specifically, in terms of their combined Math and English Grade Point Average).

Average GPA English/ Math Combined

This is especially important for disadvantaged youth. Frequency of worship (blue line) is one of the strongest beneficial factors in raising education outcomes for the poorest children in the inner-cities of America. Most of these disadvantaged children live in families headed by single mothers.

Neighborhood Poverty and Academic On-Track Performance

4. A New Social Policy

On every outcome measured by the U.S. statistical system—and frequency of worship is one of the variables measured in at least eight different major federal surveys—the more frequent the rate of worship, the better the persons tend to do on positive outcomes. For undesirable outcomes the opposite holds: the more frequent people worship, the less frequent their negative outcomes.

An additional variable further affects the impact of religious practice: family structure. Scholars across the political spectrum, at least as manifested in the major Washington think tanks, agree that on every outcome both adults and children in the intact married family do best.

Demographically in the United States, the intact married family that worships God weekly does best on every outcome measured, while the non-intact family that does not worship does worst. The other two structures—the intact married family that does not worship at all, and the broken family that worships weekly—fall in the middle. On different outcomes they trade places for second and third place. Observing the patterns is quite instructive: on matters of self-control such as issues of sex, alcohol, drugs and anger or violence – frequency of worship is powerfully protective. On matters related to income, intact marriage is powerful.

The public policy experiment of moderate socialism in the last 60 years has failed in many instances to grow the social and human capital of its people, despite its success in redistributing a significant portion of national material wealth.

A new social policy that is very simple yet very powerful would prove far more productive: Grow the young intact married family that worships God weekly.

The nations that succeed in growing the young intact married family that worships God weekly will undoubtedly prosper in all the social outcomes desired by the modern welfare state. These nations will reap the benefits in such desirable outcomes as increased education attainment, income, productivity, savings, health, longevity, mental health, happiness, stability of marriages and happy children. These nations will experience increased fertility, and its citizens will find greater sexual enjoyment.

Positive Feelings During Intercourse

Clearly, this social strategy cannot be executed by governments; it relies on the nation as a whole, and will only be attained by cooperation among family, school and church (and synagogue, mosque, and temple). The government’s main role would be to give these three fundamental institutions (family, church and school) the space to cooperate with each other in forming the future generation, the children. This social policy is motivated by a deep desire to serve others with time, attention, talent, and wealth.

1) A newly formed marriage of a 20 year-old woman receives nearly a full weight (100 percent) on the y-axis, as that marriage has the potential to bring many children into the world if contraceptive means are not employed. A new marriage formed by a 50 year-old woman would receive no weight (0 percent) as that marriage statistically will not bring children into the world.
See Henry Potrykus and Patrick Fagan, Marriage, Contraception & The Future of Western Peoples, Marriage and Religion Research Institute (2011). Available at http://downloads.frc.org/EF/EF11K50.pdf.
2) The upper, blue curve in this chart is a sociologically—not biologically—determined potential fertility. It is the fertility achieved by an Anabaptist sect settled in the north-central United States which adhered to a religious prohibition of contraceptives. This depiction of high fertility also represents with some faithfulness the traditional delay of marriage (and fertility in marriage) seen in Western societies.
3) Ron Lesthaeghe and Chris Wilson, “Modes of Production, Secularization, and the Pace of the Fertility Decline in Western Europe, 1870-1930,“ in ed. by Ansley Coale and Susan Cotts Watkins The Decline of Fertility in Europe, (Princeton University Press, 1986) Chapter 6.
Theresa Notare, “A Revolution in Christian Morals: Lambeth 1930, Resolution 15—History and Reception,” PhD Thesis at the Catholic University of America, 2008.
4) Mark Regnerus, “Sex is Cheap,” Slate (February 2011). Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/02/sex_is_cheap.html.
Joseph Anthony Burke and Catherine Pakaluk, “The Contraceptive Revolution and the Second Demographic Transition: An Economic Model of Sex, Fertility, and Marriage,” Ave Maria University, no. 1003 (2010).
5) John Hajnal, “The Marriage Boom,” Population Studies 7, no. 2 (1953): 111-136.
6) John D. Mueller, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2010).
7) Redeeming Economics, 236
8) Redeeming Economics, 238-239
9) Ijaz Shafi, Gilani, Rushna Shahid, and Irene Zuettel, “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism,” WIN-Gallup Gallup International (2012). Available at http://www.wingia.com/web/files/news/14/file/14.pdf.

This entry draws heavily from John D. Mueller, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2010) and "Marriage, Contraception & The Future of Western Peoples".