Shrinking the Footprint Ecotheology of human fertility and population

11 September 2013

Moderates attract adults, Fundamentalists rely on babies

Filed under: Natalism — John @ 10:09 am

Table from Vegard Skirbekk, Eric Kaufmann, and Anne Goujon. “Secularism, Fundamentalism, or Catholicism? The Religious Composition of the United States to 2043.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49.2 (June 2010): 293-310.

This matrix is dynamite: it shows how people in the USA changed their religious affiliation after age 16 and what they had moved to as adults (from Skirbekk, Kaufmann & Goujon, p.300). It uses General Social Survey (GSS) data so the classification divides Protestants into categories including “Fundamentalist” (PFU) and “Protestant Moderate” (PMO), which I have highlighted on the table.

Notice in “Net Flow” that “Protestant Moderates” are positive +10.3 – these churches are attractive to outsiders. People who grew up in other affiliations (or secular) are joining them. The denominations in this category include Episcopalians, most Lutherans, some Methodists and Baptists, and “Open” Evangelicals.

Observe by contrast that “Protestant Fundamentalists” have negative -3.3 net flow on the transition matrix – those churches are comparatively unattractive to outsiders. The FPU category includes (as far as I can tell from GSS Methodological Report 43) the Missouri Synod Lutherans, many Pentecostals, and “Conservative” Evangelicals.

Despite this, overall the Fundamentalist churches are still growing numerically. Why is this? The same article (Skirbekk, Kaufmann and Goujon p.298) found that “Fundamentalist Protestants” had a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) significantly higher than the national average. So although they “lose” a larger proportion of their kids, they have more to start with.

It looks like “Fundamentalist” Protestants are doing badly at attracting outsiders. I’ve read their books, heard their audiovisual broadcasts preaching pronatalism, telling their congregations to have more kids. It sounds like they are relying on the statistical likelihood that if they bear a larger number of children some when adult will stay and follow their parents’ religion. Professor Danny Akin (a Southern Baptist) advised “if you have one child as opposed to four, five or six, then you have a much smaller initial mission field” (interview by Trevin Wax, 2009).

This is a worrying trend because there are many cases in history of religious groups that began as outgoing and open, but decades or centuries later turned inward and start relying on children to perpetuate the institution. Think of the Hutterites and the Amish; not many outsiders joining them today. It’s a recurring temptation for churches to transform themselves into ethnic groups. It’s not really easier, in fact its hard labour (pun intended), but apparently it looks like a dependable human strategy to the new pronatalists. They seem to “put confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4-5) – the pronatalists should instead consider that the Holy Spirit reaches out to whoever He will regardless of ancestry and parentage. And that high birth rates are incompatible with increasing longevity and maintaining quality of life within ecological limits.

Links to chapters on Christian reproduction.

9 December 2012

Church of England should not make reproductive potential essential to marriage

Filed under: Natalism — John @ 12:58 am

Having researched Christian attitudes to human fertility, when I saw the recent Church of England statement (7 December 2012) on marriage my attention immediately focused on a phrase that looks dangerously close to the idea that a marriage is validated by its potential for reproductivity (an ideology that can be labelled “reproductionism”). My reaction appears below:

The C of E statement includes in their “definition of marriage” as an essential feature:

“the biological union of man and woman which potentially brings to the relationship the fruitfulness of procreation”

The (anonymous) authors may think the word “potentially” sufficient to avoid linking a marriage’s value to its reproductivity, but there are many people whose infertility is discernibly permanent prior to marriage i.e. they completely lack potential fertility. I want to alert the C of E authors to the danger of using these ideas, by mentioning some of the disturbing implications and historical consequences.

For example, the ideology raises questions about eligibility to begin a marriage for the following kinds of people:

  • A permanently infertile person (for example a castrated man, a woman who has had a hysterectomy, or is past the menopause, and the elderly).
  • A man and woman who intend to remain childless or childfree (for whatever reason).

It also has implications for people who have been married for years:

  • If a husband or wife is infertile for ten years is that grounds for divorce? (That was one view among diverse medieval rabbinic interpretations of the text “be fruitful and multiply”.)
  • If a childless husband and wife fail to seek medical fertility treatment, is the marriage invalidated?

These are just a few of the grotesque implications.

The church should steer well away from this. I wonder why the C of E authors chose to dredge up that line of argument. I understand their primary concern is about a different issue and I realize they have no intention to pursue the logical implications further by adding fertility-related criteria for men and women seeking marriage. Even so, in a context of defining marriage their mention of a potential for biological reproduction as distinctive of the essence of marriage is unhelpful. They are lending credibility to procreationism (and natalism). A marriage which husband and wife know in advance will be childless is just as valid as any other marriage.

I urge the Church of England to amend their statement.

17 February 2012

Rick Santorum : dangerous natalism

Filed under: Natalism — John McKeown @ 1:59 pm

Two of the leading Republican candidates to become U.S. President in 2012 are pronatalist (advocates of higher birth rates). Rick Santorum in his book “It Takes A Family…” claims that “Europeans appear firmly committed to the most disastrous family trend of all: they are simply not having children. … What all of this means is that the nations of Europe are slowly dying off – sometimes not so slowly.” Another leader in Republican polls, Mitt Romney, in his speech exiting from the previous elections in 2008 similarly claimed that “Europe is facing a demographic disaster.”

These claims are perverse: Europe’s population is not only growing, but also currently has more births than deaths (EuroStat data is 5.36 million births and 4.84 million deaths, for EU-27 in 2010). Europe’s near-stable population is regarded by Santorum and Romney as a “demographic disaster” and a “dying off”. I can understand why Romney might be discontent with anything less than a Mormon rate of reproduction, but Santorum is a mainstream U.S. Christian so his ideas trouble me more. Europe’s total ecological footprint is already double its biocapacity (GFN 2011) so if there was population shrinkage it would be good, but so far Europe as a whole is not achieving that.

U.S. commentators are interested in Santorum’s opposition to federal support for family planning, and his view (unremarkable for a Catholic) that contraception is “harmful”, but [most] have not noticed that Santorum is also a natalist, just like many conservative Protestants and Southern Baptists. Update: I added [most] after seeing Politico’s report [below] that Santorum wants U.S. birth rates to rise and plans to increase Tax Credits for that purpose. I am disturbed by Santorum’s intention. The U.S. population already exceeds 300 million (back in 1900 it was 76 million). Also there is no lack of births in the USA: for example in 2008 there were 4.25 million births compared to 2.47 million deaths (Census Bureau), and even in 2011 (after a drop caused by recession) there were still 3.95 million births compared to 2.51 million deaths. Santorum’s policy would hurt America (by worsening its ecological overshoot) and the world.

Politico reporting Santorum’s desire for a higher U.S. birth rate, January 2012

Huffington Post on Santorum and birth control, 15 February 2012

Rush Limbaugh discusses Santorum and contraception, 16 February 2012

Mitt Romney’s exit speech from the 2008 presidential primaries

EuroStat data on births and deaths

Global Footprint Network

15 August 2010

U.S. Protestant Natalism and Martin Luther

Filed under: Natalism — John @ 9:32 am

Author version (submission before editing, no page numbers) of an article published as McKeown, John P. “Receptions of Israelite nation-building: Modern Protestant Natalism and Martin Luther.” in Dialog: A Journal of Theology 49(2), pp. 133-140. Web version follows below. PDF is available to download from University of Chester repository.

Abstract: Ancient nation-building demanded fecundity and traces of this lie dormant in Old Testament scriptures. In the USA today some Protestants preach natalism (an ideology promoting high fecundity) often with the objective shifted from national preservation to denominational aggrandizement. Some present Martin Luther as a forerunner of natalism and this article evaluates that claim, looking at his thought on reproduction in historical and theological context.

The published version is listed at


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