Religion, Fertility, and Values

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.

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]
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.

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.

-- CAV


Richard said...

I would like to offer one other consideration. One spouses religion rubbing off on the other. Many times a husband or wife will adopt their spouses religion even though may have no religion or a separate one.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's does occur, although I would distinguish between a mere nominal conversion and a higher degree of devotion/enthusiasm.

I would say that the two phenomena can, but do not always, overlap.

madmax said...

Many conservatives I have read - especially traditionalists like Larry Auster - argue that secularism is killing the West by decreasing the fertility rate and allowing Muslims and non-Europeans to procreate at higher rates. This goes hand-in-hand with the conservative movement's obsession with demographics. So articles like this one play right into the conservative's hands as they will look at this and say "see, this is why the West needs a reinvigorated Judeo-Christianity."

As I see it, today's secularism is heavily - I'm almost inclined to say totally - committed to skepticism, moral agnosticism and nihilism. Such a worldview will not lend itself to having children. This I think accounts for two facts that the social scientists constantly trot out: namely that 1) the religious are often happier (by however how they define that) and 2) that the religious have a higher fertility rate. But this says nothing about secularism as such.

Today's secularism is thoroughly irrational given its Humean and Kantian influence. The type of culture that a rational secularism would produce would be unrecognizable from today's world. In that world, my guess is that raising rational, productive children would be a supreme value for most people. I doubt there would be problems with fertility rates.

Gus Van Horn said...

"The type of culture that a rational secularism would produce would be unrecognizable from today's world. In that world, my guess is that raising rational, productive children would be a supreme value for most people. I doubt there would be problems with fertility rates."

I completely agree.

Harold said...

Today's secularism is thoroughly irrational given its Humean and Kantian influence. The type of culture that a rational secularism would produce would be unrecognizable from today's world. In that world, my guess is that raising rational, productive children would be a supreme value for most people. I doubt there would be problems with fertility rates.

Seconded. The establishment of such a culture though would require people to really think about what it is they really want rather than simply conform to religious and "ethnic" community pressure. It would mean developing a hierarchy of values instead of turning away from them all together.

But that's not easy.

In my case it's led to not getting married or having children. To be fair, there's no crowd of women beating a path to my door, but it's conclusion that I've reached after serious thought and introspection. It almost goes without saying that a similar process will lead most people to a different conclusion. So be it.

Hm, "madmax" certainly has a lot of good things to say.

Gus Van Horn said...

"It would mean developing a hierarchy of values instead of turning away from them all together."

That's an additional dimension to the battle for cultural change that deserves more attention.

Pragmatism makes it harder for many to think, and cultural value deprivation makes it harder to value.

And yes, I wish Madmax had a blog, as well as a few other of the regulars here I can think of.

Andrew Dalton said...

maxmax -

The grave importance given to birth rates by some conservatives is a worldview that I like to call the Primacy of Loins. It odd that such a stark example of materialism would be popular within a movement that claims to be opposed to materialist theories of history and human nature.

Gus Van Horn said...

But it does go with the force corollary to faith.

You've thrown out persuasion (and, perhaps, in a holy war, the potential converts themselves), and the best bet to increase your religion's following is lifelong indoctrination anyway.

Jim May said...

The grain of truth behind the "collective experience" of emotions is the phenomenon described by Ayn Rand as "the brotherhood of values", surrounding the Apollo 11 launch. The particulars she noted were a significantly expanded friendliness among strangers and a heightened general civility (in streets, for example).

Two examples that I know of that had similar effects, both from the world of Canadian sports, are the 1972 "Summit Series" hockey victory over Russia, and the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays' World Series run.

These are both instructive, in that they had the same effects even though they flowed from different and less momentous -- and not necessarily rational -- premises.

The 1972 series was a big deal in Canada, in first part because of the national pride Canadians have in their hockey prowess, and in second part because of the Cold War implications that the Canadians were the ones defending the honor of the West against communism.

The 1992 World Series win also followed from nationalism, but this time it wasn't our game, but the opponent's -- and that opponent was the U.S.

In both cases, there was the outbreak of civility, friendliness and accomodation in and around the country (though in 1992 the effect was a bit more localized in Toronto).

In 1972, when the last game was played in Russia with the eight-game series tied 3-3-1, whole sectors of the country simply stopped. People were given the day off to watch the game, and in schools and factories that remained open during the game, portable TV's were brought in and hooked up so that students and workers wouldn't miss a shot. Everybody was looking out to make sure that everybody who wanted to see that last game had access to a TV.

In 1992, bums did far better than normal in collecting alms in and around the Skydome after each Blue Jays victory -- and to the consternation of pessimists everywhere, not one crime was committed or reported (that I know of) in the huge 100,000+ impromptu party that took place up and down Yonge Street after the win.

I was only four years old in 1972, so I missed out on the experience... but I remember how it affected everyone around me. In 1992, I was every bit the ravenous Blue Jays fan, enjoying each piece of payback in that series -- from the glorious conquest of Dennis Eckersley for five unanswered runs en route to an extra-innings victory in Game 4 of the ALCS against the hated Oakland A's (avenging the five-game loss to them in 1990), to the near religious experience of Ed Sprague's two-run shot in the top of the ninth to erase Atlanta's ill-gotten gains (via an atrocious bad call at the plate) in Game 2 of the World Series. The whole city was electric for that entire two weeks.

It is an amazing and profound thing to experience, even when the "common value" at stake is something that otherwise is not necessarily rational or even that much of a big deal.

Even just seeing the effects on others can be profoundly seductive -- or frightening -- for those who are not particularly animated by the supposed value in question. To be sane and alone amidst the febrile atmosphere of 1930's Germany, one of the megachurch "masses" in a domed stadium, or some of Barack Obama's supporter rallies, is something I hope I never experience.

Gus Van Horn said...

And the fact that most people, including scientists who study emotions, do not understand the relationship between reason, values, and emotions, certainly makes a "brotherhood of values" convenient cover for politicians with irrational objectives to take advantage of the phenomenon.