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BOOK REVIEW
Faith, fertility and American dominance
The Empty Cradle by Phillip Longman

Reviewed by Spengler

Rapid aging followed by depopulation on a scale not seen since the collapse of the Roman Empire threatens the modern world, writes Phillip Longman, an American journalist. Buried inside his book is the startling forecast that America's evangelical Christians will breed themselves into a position of global dominance. That idea horrifies Longman, who spends most of his pages hatching schemes to prevent this from happening.

In Longman's view, modernity itself is to blame for the population debacle. "Those who reject modernity," he argues, "seem to have an evolutionary advantage, whether they are clean-living Mormons, or Muslims who remain committed to large families."

Having looked into the abyss, Longman proposes to save modernity from itself through tax incentives favoring larger families, an unconvincing approach. But he at least has taken the trouble to notice that modernity is consuming itself. A few sound bites give the gist:
Germany could easily lose the equivalent of the current population of East Germany over the next half-century. Russia's population is already decreasing by three-quarters of a million a year. Japan's population meanwhile is expected to fall by as much as one-third.

By mid-[21st]-century, China could easily be losing 20-30% of its population per generation.

Fertility rates are falling faster in the Middle East than anywhere else on Earth, and as a result the region's population is aging at an unprecedented rate. It took 50 years for the United States to go from a median age of 30 to today's 35. By contrast, during the first 50 years of the 21st century, Algeria will increase its median age from 21.7 to 40.

With deaths exceeding births by well over half, current projections show Russian population will fall by 29% by 2050.
Longman cannot make up his mind as to whether economic disincentives or existential despair account for collapsing birthrates. He offers an economic explanation as follows: In traditional society children were an asset, a source of cheap farm labor in the present and the equivalent of a pension later on. In the modern world, children are a cost. Because parents and non-parents both will receive pensions paid by the next generation, no individual has an incentive to make sacrifices to bring the next generation into the world. In the absence of economic incentives to reproduce, "Faith is increasingly necessary as a motive to have children."

Longman contemplates the future with trepidation:
... Where will the children of the future come from? They will come disproportionately from people who are at odds with the modern environment ... or who, out of fundamentalist or chauvinistic conviction, reject the game altogether.
And again:
This much is sure: The uneducated have far more children than the educated, and the religiously minded generally have bigger families than do secularists. In the United States, for example, fully 47% of people who attend church weekly say that the ideal family size is three or more children, as opposed to only 27% of those who seldom attend church.
Longman is right about the correlation between faith and fertility, but wrong about the cause. Mortal existence is intolerable without the promise of immortality. Animals breed and foster their young out of instinct; humankind does so in the hope that something of our mortal existence will survive us in the continuation of our culture and the remembrance of our children. Longman believes that the religious continue to reproduce because the Bible or Koran so instructs them. Religion in the broad sense means hope of immortality. By reducing culture to a hedonist's shopping basket of amusements, modernity destroys the individual's hope for immortality, and with it his incentive to create a new generation of humans.

On this point I wrote last year (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003):
Suicidal behavior is common among (for example) stone-age tribes who have encountered the modern world. One can extend this example to Tamil or Arab suicide bombers (see Live and let die, Asia Times Online, April 13, 2002). But the Europeans are the modern world. Have the Europeans taken to heart existentialism's complaint that man is alone in a chaotic universe in which life has no ultimate meaning, and that man responds to the anxiety about death by embracing death ... it bears on a parallel development, that is, the death of European Christianity. Fifty-three percent of Americans say that religion is very important in their lives, compared with 16%, 14% and 13% respectively of the British, French and Germans, according to a 1997 University of Michigan survey.
The implications of this trend appall Longman, who warns, "Such a trend, if sustained, would drive human culture off its current market-driven, individualistic, modernist course, and gradually create an anti-market culture dominated by fundamentalist values." This conclusion appears driven by prejudice. One may deplore or admire US evangelicals, but it is hard to argue that they will create an "anti-market culture". No one admires free enterprise more than American Christians, and one might conjecture that the growing proliferation of their denominations in Asia, Africa and Latin America will lend impetus to capitalist development.

The United States will adjust painfully to its aging population, argues Longman, and the concomitant aging of the countries whence the US now recruits immigrants will make it harder to compensate for declining native fertility. What worries him most, however, is that rising fertility among US evangelicals will shift the balance of power towards the religious.
Seem far-fetched? Not since the fall of the Roman Empire has the world ever experienced anything on the scale of today's loss of fertility. As sociologist [and Christian apologist] Rodney Stark demonstrates ... at that time Christians had marginally higher birthrates than pagans ... They also had better life expectancy ...The resulting demographic advantage, Stark argues, slowly transformed a marginal Jesus movement into the dominant cultural force of the Western world, as Christian communities gradually outbred and outlived their pagan counterparts. Demographic conditions today suggest that a culture transformation of similar proportions may be in store if secularists increasingly avoid the growing economic cost of raising children, while fundamentalists of all stripes do not.
It costs today's US middle-class family more than US$1 million to raise a university-educated child, including more than $800,000 in lost wages, according to a study cited by Longman. He proposes tax incentives to families with children, but these seem tiny next to the costs. The reader must fall back on his argument that faith, not pecuniary calculation, will motivate today's prospective parents. The reproductive power of an increasingly Christian United States will enhance the strategic position of the US over the next two generations, leaving infertile Western Europe to sink slowly into insignificance.

The Empty Cradle by Phillip Longman (Basic Books; New York, 2004). ISBN: 0465050506; 240 pages, US$26.

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Sep 8, 2004






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