Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Atheists an endangered species?

Organised religion seems to be in rapid decline in Ireland, as the Catholic Church blunders from one scandal to the next and younger generations appear increasingly disinterested. Catholicism sometimes looks like a dying belief system here.

There's a catch, though, something inherent to religion which could turn the tables and devastate the nonreligious population: atheists don't tend to reproduce much.

This 2008 study in the Demographic Research journal shows that religiosity - the strength of an individual's religious beliefs regardless of denomination - directly correlates with fertility. Very religious people have more babies than less religious people.
"I find even after controlling religious denomination and demographic and socioeconomic factors, the importance of religious beliefs still exhibits a graded association with fertility in the United States.... This substantially positive effect of religious beliefs on fertility must have something to do with the role of religion in guiding human behavior in terms of the issues of sexuality, cohabitation, marriage, and the function of family."
On the face of it, this seems rather obvious, when religions like Catholicism oppose contraception use and abortion. Its consequences, though, are dramatic.

Over the last few decades many individuals raised in Catholicism have abandoned the religion, or at least taken a sceptical view of its teachings on family and sexuality. This means there are two processes at work here. One is the tendency for children of religious people to abandon or alter their religion. The other is the tendency for strictly religious people to have large families. The first force is reducing the religious population, the second is increasing it.

In Israel the high fertility of ultra-Orthodox Jews is causing their population to grow three times faster than other Israelis. By 2009 a third of Israeli kindergartners were taught in ultra-Orthodox schools, up from 26% in 2001. The population of the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit grew six times faster than Tel Aviv grew in 2007 and ultra-Orthodox Jews are expected to grow from 16% of Israel's population in 2007 to 23% in 2025.

This demographic shift in Israel is happening because most Israelis don't bother with large families, but the ultra-Orthodox still do. It will be interesting to see how this affects Israeli culture and politics in the near future.

Anyway the same is true for Ireland. The media today may complacently write off the future of religion here but the future could be quite different if highly religious people continue to out-breed the rest - we may see a gradual rejection of our new liberal consensus as the conservative religious population grows once more.


  1. Since religion and atheism are both memes, the real key to predicting their future evolution -- ignoring catastrophic unpredictable events like new technologies -- is to look at the mechanisms by which memes are promulgated. If schools teach rationality and science, you're bound for more atheism. If schools teach religion, you're bound for war.

    (cf: Israeli ultra-orthodox communities and their close link to the "settler" movement; similar close ties between American evangelism and hard-right militancy; the entire Islamic world)

  2. Thanks Confanity, I think there's a lot of truth to that. Apart from schools and parents, a child's exposure to mass media and to peers of different shades of religiosity will impact their emerging belief system too.

    Though I don't agree that schools can only teach science OR religion - so long as they are taught in seperate classrooms and not intertwined.

  3. Ah, when I said "teach" I meant in terms of broad worldviews. Naturally, a comprehensive education should be expected to include information and context on both religions (in social studies classes) and science (in... science classes). But schools also implicitly teach things like whether The Answer is always in the back of the book, how people can go about finding answers, or even whether the universe is inherently comprehensible to humans.

    Pardon my saying so on incomplete knowledge, but Catholicism seems rooted in mystery: there are things that only the priests know. Science is founded on the implicit belief that anyone can know anything with the proper data and the proper mental tools to process it.

  4. Interesting. When I was in school religion and science really didn't overlap much. The assumption seemed to be that science was how one gets at truth about the world. (But you should behave like a good Catholic anyway :P )

    We were taught Catholicism in religion classes, not social studies classes, but considering the collapsing numbers of churchgoers from my generation, I guess those lessons made little difference in the long run to most people.


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