News & Politics

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 Genesisasked 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.

"We don't collect information about religion, because most of the issues we ask about in our surveys refer to government policy on some level," explained Tom Edwards, spokesperson for the U.S. Census Bureau, by phone to AlterNet. "I'm not sure it quite fits into the scheme, if you will. There's not really a policy objective to asking people about their religion."

"Past surveys do contain demographic information but to this point, they've not been conducted in a way that would allow us to make projections about future populations of religious groups," added Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life spokesman Robert Mills via email. "The field of religion research is large. There may very well be a research organization or scholar that has this information and we're just not aware of it. You've managed to stump us!"

Edwards' assertion that the Census -- which has been lethally politicized by the recent death of its worker Bill Sparkman -- has no political need for such data perhaps comes as a surprise to religious adherents and others who consider demographics to be part of the faith-based arsenal. The political capital of the evangelical Christians that helped the Republicans into power after the turn of the century believe in no such separation of church and state, as we have come to learn. The express purpose of their cultural mandate is to use the demographical imperative of "be fruitful and multiply" to subjugate what they perceive to be the type of secular governance that gives even rabbis like Sir Jonathan Sacks nightmares of impotence. By enhancing procreation for the purpose of survival, adherents have found the science is perhaps strong than their solicitations.

"Demography is critical to explaining the rise of the religious right in America," wrote Erik Kaufman for Britain's contrarian Prospect Magazine in 2006. We may be bearing, he added, "witness not to spiritual revival, but to a religious reconquista based, ironically, on the nakedly this-worldly force of demography."

Confirming such assurances is harder than it sounds, which makes them much less reassuring. Simply put, the data is inherently inconclusive. It is imperiled by the cultural, religious and political divisions of its widely ranging regions, starting with our own.

"Since our birth data is collected from birth certificates we collect no data whatsoever about religion," explained the CDC's National Vital Statistics System public affairs officer Krystal Gatling via email.

"It's not really asked in industrailized nations, as it's considered to be an invasion of privacy," said Haub. "But in some developing countries, they don't take offense to it. If you go into a house in India, you often don't need to ask about religion. It's pretty obvious right off the bat. In developing countries, they still go to door to door. Most of our surveys here are now done by mail or by phone."

Haub's preferred resource for our purposes was USAID's Measure DHS project, which collects and disseminates data on fertility, child health, gender and more. But we were only able to crunch birth rates by religious affiliation in some regions, and none nearby. We found out that Indian Hindus averaged around 2.6 children per mother, spawning more than Christians at 2.4 but less than the much-feared Muslims at 3.4. That's much less than the 8.1 that "Muslim Demographics" claimed is currently infesting France, but probably more than America's respective rate. Building scenarios of power and paranoia around the data proved to be more exciting than the data itself, which is the point of exercises like "Muslim Demographics" or other natalist alarmism. That includes those who claim that the low birth rates of atheists will eventually remove them from geopolitical influence.

But politicizing demographics is a pointless game, if you're talking to demographers. Although what reliable statistics are available are about the birth of life, they are in the end lifeless numbers, playthings to be shaped by self-appointed futurists who see whatever they want to see in their religious and cultural endgames. They ignore reams of other data, including everything from mortality rates and the often low birth rates of many migrants ' homelands to policies on population control and more, to make their reactionary cases. They're loathe to share power and resources, and have no problem perverting inert data to paint a picture of imminent doom. But it's mostly smoke and mirrors, and is often easily countered.

"When I give presentations in Germany," Haub admitted, "they're often amazed to see that most of their migrants are reasonably well-educated and from lower fertility groups, averaging two children or less per mother. And let's remember, Benjamin Franklin used to call Germans things that were not close to politically correct."

In other words, takeover postponed. Reality and history have a way of expanding the focus, if not the discourse, of these type of prejudices. And when it comes to global immigration, the trends may be shifting in unpredictable directions.

"A lot of migrants are going home because of the economy," said Haub. "Meanwhile, Europe, which has an extremely low birth rate, is truly going to have a dearth of labor unless it gets its numbers up. Some in Japan are admitting that they have to change their attitudes toward foreigners. And as local economies develop, there will be much less desire to move."

And, circling back to catastrophic climate change, there are going to be even more unpredictable changes ahead. The London School of Economics recently reported that using contraception to fight climate change is nearly five times more valuable than low-carbon technology. Many of the regions experiencing explosive birth rates, much of them populated by Muslims and Christians, are in climate-sensitive areas in Africa, the Middle East and similarly compromised territories. Mother Nature, not Jesus or Mohammed, could end up solving the population endgame without any assistance from the natalists.

But whatever happens, falling sway to demographically convincing data about cultural or religious data is a sucker's game. The science is far from established. The data is malleable and inconclusive, while the argument is full of holes. Let's hope we're rewarded for our skepticism not with the infertile dystopia of P.D. James' Children of Men, but the optimistic science-hero futurism of Star Trek, where faith is assimilated as but one component of public and political life.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
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