Friday, December 19, 2008
A pair of interesting articles caught my eye this morning.
The first considers the fact that religious fervor correlates with increased fertility the world over, and notes that at least one researcher holds that something about having a large family may predispose a couple to become more religious, even as something about being religious predisposes a couple to have a large family.
Nobody knows exactly why religion and fertility tend to go together. Conventional wisdom says that female education, urbanisation, falling infant mortality, and the switch from agriculture to industry and services all tend to cause declines in both religiosity and birth rates. In other words, secularisation and smaller families are caused by the same things. Also, many religions enjoin believers to marry early, abjure abortion and sometimes even contraception, all of which leads to larger families. But there may be a quite different factor at work as well. Having a large family might itself sometimes make people more religious, or make them less likely to lose their religion. Perhaps religion and fertility are linked in several ways at the same time.Setting aside the determinism that saturates the first paragraph -- Sorry, but family size does not "make" someone religious. -- and the altruism that infects the second, there is an interesting point to be had here. Raising children is both very demanding and very rewarding. The decision about whether to have children is all about values.
Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, has suggested several ways in which the experience of forming a family might stimulate religious feelings among parents, at least some of the time. She notes that pregnancy and birth, the business of caring for children, and the horror of contemplating their death, can stimulate an intensity of purpose that might make parents more open to religious sentiments. Many common family events, she reasons, might encourage a broadly spiritual turn of mind, from selfless [sic] care for a sick relation to sacrifices [sic] for the sake of a child's adulthood that one might never see. [bold added]
Secularization brings with it, albeit inconsistently, the idea that one's life is one own, and an obvious corollary to that is a heightened sensitivity to the time and money commitments that are part of having children. Many women put off or forgo children in order to have rewarding careers, for example.
It is probably more straightforward to see how secularization might correlate with decreased overall fertility. (It does not cause it, but it allows us to understand the individual choices behind the trend.) Less straightforward is the connection (in terms of personally-held values versus religious dictates) between having many children and being more religious.
The second paragraph above, as well as an article about the emotional appeal of Barack Obama, of all things, help us see what might be going on here:
The researchers say elevation is part of a family of self-transcending emotions. Some others are awe, that sense of the vastness of the universe and smallness of self that is often invoked by nature; another is admiration, that goose-bump-making thrill that comes from seeing exceptional skill in action. [Dacher] Keltner says we most powerfully experience these in groups -- no wonder people spontaneously ran into the street on election night, hugging strangers. "Keltner is an evolutionary psychologist who holds that such emotions serve a role in turning human beings into collectives, a view I disagree with, and which I think hampers our understanding of emotions generally, and particularly the higher emotions. Nevertheless, he is right to point out that higher emotions are very much entangled with various forms of collectivism. Why?
As I have noted before, the higher emotions are very commonly associated with religion. This is first because religion is a precursor to philosophy (historically and in the sense of intellectual development). Secondly, it is because so much of modern philosophy, being actively engaged in attacking values, plays right into the hands of religionists. who claim that only faith can allow man to have purpose, reach his highest potential, and be at one with the universe. (Just saying that last phrase will mark me as a loon to many ears for that reason, and because too many people let religionists define terms like "universe" for them.)
Emotions are, as Ayn Rand pointed out, instantaneous reactions to our values (which are ultimately shaped by our beliefs). Aside from religious injunctions such as "Go forth and multiply," deciding to have a child and raising him involve many higher emotions, and often, over a very long period.
If the only worldviews that promote higher emotions are the religious, this would make religion an even stronger motivation to have children. Similarly, if experiencing such emotions awakens a desire to do the right thing (as it ought), where will a parent turn? Some variant of nihilism -- or the religious "alternative"? Religion is wrong, but given such a choice, I do not blame a parent for making it.