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Those Stories About Religious Groups Taking Over the World with Birth Rates Are for Suckers

Many have fallen sway to demographically data about cultural or religious birth rates -- here's why it's a fool's game.

"We are outraged and demoralized less by the impending end of our species, less even by our inability to prevent it, than by our failure to discover the cause .... For all our knowledge, our intelligence, our power, we can no longer do what the animals do without thought. No wonder we both worship and resent them." -- P.D. James, Children of Men

Who needs real-time terrors like catastrophic climate change? Religious authorities and viral YouTube videos alike are bemoaning waning faith-based power by blaming something much more boring, even for scientists.

Birth rates.

"Europe is dying," complained England's chief rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks at a religious conference earlier this month. "Europe today is the most secular region in the world ... the only region in the world experiencing population decline. Wherever you turn today the more religious the community, the larger on average are their families."

Sacks' merging of religious impotence and perhaps literal impotence, in the form of population decline, is but one of many offensive outbursts disguised as defensive indignation. It's also bad math: Europe is not the only region in the world experiencing population decline. According to the CIA's Factbook, Hong Kong and Japan are worse off, so much so that the latter explains that it could lose a quarter of its population by 2050. But Sacks can be slightly forgiven for his clumsy math, given that these numbers change annually. Which is to say, they are eminently easily to manipulate for the sake of solicitation.

The same cannot be said for one of the more egregious offenses on this subject, which has come in the form of a viral YouTube video called " Muslim Demographics." It has amassed over 11 million views since it was posted in March by an amateur videographer, ironically named FriendOfMuslim. "Islam will overwhelm Christendom unless Christians recognize the demographic realities, begin reproducing again, and share the gospel with Muslims," argued the YouTube auteur, who is allegedly from Lebanon, inciting explosive feedback, a BBC debunking and an eventual shutdown of comments to its YouTube page. But for all the BBC's efforts at correcting the questionable statistics of the video, the damage, so to speak, has already been done, long ago. And not just because the statistics, in themselves, are routinely questionable.

"They are trying to scare people," explained Carl Haub, senior demographer for the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), by phone to AlterNet. "As long as migrant groups aren't enormous, usually no one worries about it. It's once the culture starts changing that you get trouble."

That trouble has lately arrived as a full-frontal assault on demographic data, where cultural and religious polemicists alike have seized upon the murky numbers of population growth and decline to make their case for fortification and resurgence. But this is a demographic process that has been replicating for millennia, long before Genesis asked true believers to "be fruitful and multiply." But now instead of being cloaked in the righteous garb of faith, the crusaders' paranoia is white-coated in the lab jacket of birth-rate data. And the devil is in the details.

"The data it is politicized," added Haub, "because there is culture shock. But there are unhappy people on both sides of migration. It's a major cultural and climatic change for immigrants as well."

That human dimension of population migration gets lost in the raw numbers, which are nearly impossible to reliably find. While birth data is compiled by the PRB, Center for Disease Control's National Vital Statistics System, U.S. Census Bureau and many more, few filter the results by religion. The category is simply too problematic when applied globally, and sometimes politically irrelevant when applied locally.

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