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G-d’s Little Rabbits…

January 5th, 2011

I find it odd that people dispute the notion that birth rates and other issues relating to population matter a great deal to society and the composition of society.  People who comment here attribute my views on this matter to my religious fanaticism or whatever.

I have frequently observed the irony that atheists are often so insistent in their trumpeting of Darwin.  Without commenting at all on the merits of Darwin’s ideas, it’s easy to see how secularists of all stripes are Darwin’s biggest losers.  They do, after all, have the fewest children.  I note with further amusement, that some of our commenters want me to believe that people of my point of view are quickly to die out and disappear from the world.  Seeing as how my wife is busily gestating our fourth child, I hardly can see things their way.

But don’t take it from me.  Take it from a gay, atheist (I venture to say an “anti-theist”) who recognizes and laments that fact.  Witness this article.

What’s that famous quote, by Edna St. Vincent Millay? Oh, yes: “I love humanity but I hate people.” It’s a sentiment that captures my normal misanthropically tinged type of humanitarianism well, but it roars apropos on some particular occasions.

You see, right here in his first paragraph, I already disagree with Bering, the author of this hilarious article.  For me, I love human beings, but I’m not exactly too partial to humanity after the gulag archipelago, the Cultural Revolution, the Holodomor, and the Khmer Rouge (how’s THAT for not running afoul of Godwin’s Law?)  Sure, I hate individuals like Hadrian, Nebuchadnezzar, Mao Zedong, etc. with the fire of a thousand suns, but most people are decent.  I cannot disagree with Bering more.

Leaving all this aside, on with the motley:

But in any event, the exchange reminded me of my German colleague Michael Blume’s research on reproduction and religiosity.  [...]

But where all of this gets really interesting, says Blume, an evolutionary theorist and religion researcher at the University of Heidelberg, is where the illusion of intelligent design intersects with a reproductive imperative—essentially the commonplace idea that God “wants” or “intends” or “demands” us, as faithful members of our communities, to have a litter of similarly believing children. You’ve been blessed with your pleasure-giving loins for a reason, so the unspoken logic goes, and that’s to get married to the opposite sex and to breed. By God, just look at the Old Testament. “Be fruitful and multiply” is the very first of 661 direct commandments. God doesn’t seem to be merely making a suggestion here but instead issuing a no-nonsense order.

A “litter”?  I think the contempt in that last paragraph will confirm Bering’s bona-fides to our commenters that he is as nauseatingly anti-theist as the best of them.  It is also worthwhile to note that, according to Jewish tradition, G-d gave us 613 commandments, not 661.  It is also worthwhile to mention that I take the order to procreate very seriously.  Had I not recognized this obligation, I might have stopped having children at zero.  There certainly would be a whole lot less of other people’s poo in my life were I to have gone in that direction.

Blume has found that those religions that actually put this issue front and center in their teachings are—for rather obvious reasons—at a selective group advantage over those that fail to endorse this stern commandment. He reviews several religions that are either already extinct or presently disappearing because they strayed too far from this reproductive principle. The Shakers, for example, hindered and even forbade reproduction among their own followers, instead placing their emphasis on missionary work, proselytizing and the conversion of outsiders. But this turned out to be a foolish strategy, evolutionarily speaking. “In the long run,” Blume points out, “mass conversions happen to be the historic exception, not the rule. Most of the time, only fractions of populations tend to convert from the religious mythology handed to them vertically by their parents and they convert into different directions. [C]ommunities who start to lack young members also tend to lose their missionary appeal to other young people. Therefore, the Shakers overaged and deteriorated.”

I guess here would be a good place to point out that it is highly unlikely that any event of mass conversion has ever happened in history ever (with the exception of the Revelation at Sinai).  So, I guess I have to disagree with Blume on that point.

By contrast, similarly insulated, non-proselytizing religions that encourage their members to proliferate alleles the old-fashioned way—such as Orthodox Jews, Mormons, the Hutterites and Amish—and also emphasize “home-grown” faith in which members are born into the group and indoctrinated, are thriving.

“Indoctrinated”?  If he wants to use that term, I’ll run with it seeing as how I just picked my kids up from the local “indoctrination center” (Orthodox Jewish day school).  In most of the orthodox synagogues I have attended, there are children running around all over the place.  Some exceptions to this apply, but this is the case of most of them.  Thank G-d.

And now Bering really hits you with it (you can practically feel him cringing as he writes):

In fact, Blume’s research also shows quite vividly that secular, nonreligious people are being dramatically out-reproduced by religious people of any faith. Across a broad swath of demographic data relating to religiosity, the godly are gaining traction in offspring produced. For example, there’s a global-level positive correlation between frequency of parental worship attendance and number of offspring. Those who “never” attend religious services bear, on a worldwide average, 1.67 children per lifetime; “once per month,” and the average goes up to 2.01 children; “more than once a week,” 2.5 children. Those numbers add up—and quickly. Some of the strongest data from Blume’s analyses, however, come from a Swiss Statistic Office poll conducted in the year 2000. These data are especially valuable because nearly the entire Swiss population answered this questionnaire—6,972,244 individuals, amounting to 95.67% of the population—which included a question about religious denomination. “The results are highly significant,” writes Blume:

… women among all denominational categories give birth to far more children than the non-affiliated. And this remains true even among those (Jewish and Christian) communities who combine nearly double as much births with higher percentages of academics and higher income classes as their non-affiliated Swiss contemporaries.

In other words, it’s not just that “educated” or “upper class” people have fewer children and tend also to be less religious, but even when you control for such things statistically, religiosity independently predicts number of offspring born to mothers. Even flailing religious denominations placing their emphasis on converting outsiders, such as [J]ehova’s witnesses, are out-reproducing nonreligious mothers. Hindus (2.79 births per woman), Muslims (2.44), and Jews (2.06), meanwhile, are prolific producers of human beings. Nonreligious Swiss mothers bear a measly 1.11 children.

Is this good data to go on?  More cringing from Bering provides that answer:

Blume recognizes, of course, that these are correlational data. It’s not entirely clear whether being religious literally causes people to have more children, or whether—somewhat less plausibly but also possible—the link is being driven in the opposite direction (with people who have more children becoming more religious). Most likely it’s both. Nevertheless, Blume speculates on some intriguing evolutionary factors that could have resulted—and are still occurring through selection today—from the fact that religious people have more children. Since religiosity is to some degree a heritable trait, offspring born to religious parents are not only dyed in the wool of their faith through their culture, but Blume believes that they may also be genetically more susceptible to indoctrination than children born to nonreligious parents.

The whole situation doesn’t bode well for the “New Atheism” movement, in any event. Evolutionary biology works by a law of numbers, not moralistic sentiments. Blume, who doesn’t try to hide his own religious beliefs, sees the cruel irony in this as well:

Some naturalists are trying to get rid of our evolved abilities of religiosity by quoting biology. But from an evolutionary as well as philosophic perspective, it may seem rather odd to try to defeat nature with naturalistic arguments.

As a childless gay atheistic soul born to a limply interfaith couple, I suspect, perhaps for the better, that my own genes have a very mortal future ahead. As for the rest of you godless hetero-couples reading this, toss your contraceptives and get busy in the bedroom. Either that or, perish the thought, God isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Yeah, um, good luck with that.

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  1. Leo
    January 5th, 2011 at 20:47 | #1

    Ari,

    Congratulations on your growing family.

  2. Ari
    January 6th, 2011 at 06:24 | #2

    Leo,
    Thank you.

  3. Sean
    January 6th, 2011 at 08:37 | #3

    “I have frequently observed the irony that atheists are often so insistent in their trumpeting of Darwin. Without commenting at all on the merits of Darwin’s ideas, it’s easy to see how secularists of all stripes are Darwin’s biggest losers. They do, after all, have the fewest children.”

    Do you presume that the children of religionists automatically become religionists themselves? I think you might want to rethink that notion. If by “secularist,” you mean someone who wants the government to be non-religious, there are quite a few religionists who subscribe to that. Organized religion is in decline in most countries, as education supplants mythology for explaining the world.

  4. Ari
    January 6th, 2011 at 09:12 | #4

    Sean,
    Let me address your points one by one.

    Do you presume that the children of religionists automatically become religionists themselves?
    No, but my chances are better than average that at least some of my children will follow in my footsteps. Were I not religious, I would have no children, so nobody would be there to follow in those footsteps. Automatic? No. Good chance, yes. Furthermore, I know many religious Jews who have many children. Did all of those children follow their parents religious footsteps? No. Did most of them? Actually, a very large majority. Very close to all of them.

    “I think you might want to rethink that notion. If by “secularist,” you mean someone who wants the government to be non-religious, there are quite a few religionists who subscribe to that. ”
    You have a funny definition of “secularist.” I am extremely religious, but I want our government to be non-religious. So, by your odd definition, I am a secularist. By secularist I personally mean a person who adopts a doctrine that rejects religion, esp in ethics. True, a version of the definition you propose is the second definition given in dictionary.com. However, given the context of my post, the first definition, the one I propose is more apt here.

    “Organized religion is in decline in most countries, as education supplants mythology for explaining the world.”
    This statement is absolutely false. Check out Rodney Stark’s book What Americans Really Believe or check out his lecture “Christian Establishments and the Neglect of Faith.” Decline of religiosity in Europe has absolutely nothing to do with “education” and everything to do with lazy state churches not bothering to bring people to faith, combined with penalties that European governments put on religions that compete with their official state faiths. Obviously, you did not read Bering’s article.

  5. Leo
    January 6th, 2011 at 10:09 | #5

    A distain for procreation is not unique to atheists. Consider the Shakers. As a believer in freedom of religion, I grant them the right to be their views, many of which I presume were positive and beneficial to themselves and society, but their views on marriage meant that the legacy that they have left the world consists primarily of fine furniture in museums rather than a living religious tradition.

  6. Ari
    January 6th, 2011 at 10:43 | #6

    Leo,
    The Shakers are a rare and soon-to-be-extinct group.

  7. Leo
    January 6th, 2011 at 17:27 | #7

    Ari,

    Yes, soon-to-be-extinct is precisely my point, though at one point they numbered in the thousands and attracted considerable attention. At last count I believe there were three remaining members of the faith, and I am presume they are all good people.

    One can be politely critical of the advocacy of the Shaker way of life without being hostile to them or advocating the banning of Shakerism.

  8. Sean
    January 6th, 2011 at 20:17 | #8

    Jews face the same problem. Holocausts and low birth rates suggest that there won’t be many of them left either. Since religion is mutable, you can be born a jew and leave the faith at some point. Christians have a larger base but that religion is dying out too. Any kind of belief system can be abandoned when something better comes along.

  9. sg
    January 6th, 2011 at 20:43 | #9

    It is not atheists that don’t get it. It is leftists. Check out the secular right blog. Not much for the religious to love, but they understand demography.

  10. Leo
    January 6th, 2011 at 21:48 | #10

    Sean asserts that Christianity is dying out but produces no evidence. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups#Trends_in_adherence for the positive world-wide growth statistics of Christianity and other major faiths.

    http://www.simpletoremember.com/vitals/world-jewish-population.htm suggests a more modest growth in the world-wide Jewish population. I wouldn’t bet on the collapse of Judaism as a living faith. They have a very long track record of surviving and even flourishing against the odds. Also, one can “leave the faith” in some sense and still be considered a Jew both by the Jewish community and by those outside of it. It is not a matter on which I am an expert, but Ari can no doubt clarify this.

  11. January 7th, 2011 at 02:12 | #11

    Thanks for the insightful post and discussion! I enjoyed the read.

    Ari, you wrote about a single point of probable disagreement, as you assumed “that it is highly unlikely that any event of mass conversion has ever happened in history ever (with the exception of the Revelation at Sinai).”

    Well, there have been cases of (sometimes forced) mass conversion i.e. after the conversion of political leaders. Or think about the re-emergence of Buddhism in India primarily as a political movement by leaders such as Ambedhkar, who led a few million converts from lower-cast Hinduism to a new branch of Buddhism. On a smaller case, the Shaker have flourished for some generations by winning a following of some thousand adherents, but inevitably falling to demograhic decline.

    If someone (such as @Leo) is interested in comparative case studies, here is a post about the fate of the Shakers
    http://www.scilogs.eu/en/blog/biology-of-religion/2010-10-03/the-shakers-and-their-importance-for-evolutionary-studies

    and here, as a comparison, about the Old Order Amish
    http://www.scilogs.eu/en/blog/biology-of-religion/2010-05-01/the-amish-a-case-study-in-evolutionary-studies

    And of course, Judaism is a very interesting case! You maybe even want to check out this book:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/en/blog/biology-of-religion/2010-10-31/judaism-in-biological-perspective-by-rick-goldberg

    The religious-demography-studies discussed in this post have been brought up this week by the (London) Sunday Times, too. If you are interested, here’s is the full draft of the article:
    http://www.scilogs.eu/en/blog/biology-of-religion/2011-01-06/atheists-a-dying-breed-as-nature-favours-faithful-sunday-times-jan-02-2011-jonathan-leake-full-draft-version

    Thanks for your interest. I hope, you might enjoy the evolutionary science!

  12. Ari
    January 7th, 2011 at 04:34 | #12

    Prof. Blume,
    So pleased to have you visit us here!!

    Professor Rodney Stark, a sociologist, is one of my big influences. I read a lot of his material I base my assertion about mass conversion on page 30 of his history of the Crusades called G-d’s Battalions. Check out that page beginning with the paragraph “Aside from confusing…” and continuing through the discussion of Richard Bulliet’s work on biographical dictionaries that showed actual conversion rates in Muslim occupied nations. Essentially, Bulliet’s work shows that treaty conversion may have happened instantly, but actual conversion of creed took centuries to affect even fifty percent of the populations in countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=2g8iCLzG-aEC&pg=PA30&lpg=PA30&dq=%22god%27s+battalions%22+%22mass+conversion%22&source=bl&ots=TpS8agiz5S&sig=-BvdaMoHxOaicdF4DUnYAbtetuE&hl=en&ei=VQcnTdDtNIK8lQfzsd2XAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

    That said, it was great to hear from you!

    P.S. As far as evolution goes, I am also a big fan of Rabbi Natan Slifkin over at http://www.rationalistjudaism.com.

  13. Leo
    January 7th, 2011 at 20:46 | #13

    Very interesting links. Thanks.

    It has been noticed for some time that conservative churches have generally grown in recent decades while more liberal ones have faced declining numbers of adherents. See, for example,

    http://www.amazon.com/WHY-CONSERVATIVE-CHURCHES-ARE-GROWING/dp/0865542244

    http://www.amazon.com/Empty-Church-Suicide-Liberal-Christianity/dp/0684828111/ref=pd_sim_b_1

    Part of the trend is, I suspect, due to attitudes towards childbearing and part is due to doctrinal appeal.

  14. January 12th, 2011 at 07:06 | #14

    @Ari

    Thanks for the answer. Yes, I think the differences in the perception of “mass conversions” are only miniscule. :-)

    And yes, I certainly agree on the endorsement of Rodney Stark’s works. I am a great fan of his empirical and insightful studies, although I would have wished for a stronger inclusion of demographic data in his accounts, too. For example, the growth of the Old Order Amish cannot possibly be explained by them winning many converts – it is a function of their extremely high fertility.

    Now, I will take a look at the page of Rabbi Natan Slifkin. Thanks for the link!

  15. January 12th, 2011 at 07:10 | #15

    @Leo

    Yes, exactly. Richard Sosis did a very good study about the “mystery” of the low defection rate among the Hutterites:
    http://www.anth.uconn.edu/faculty/sosis/publications/hutt.pdf

    And Robert Rowthorn did a fresh study in population genetics about the spread of religiosity:
    http://www.livescience.com/culture/religion-and-fertility-110111.html

    Enjoy! :-)

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