So says political scientist Eric Kaufmann, in his new book on religion and demography, which goes into territory Philip Longman trod several years back in “The Empty Cradle.” In New Humanist’s worrying (to them) feature on Kaufmann’s work, the interviewer asks Kaufmann to explain his view that contemporary secular liberalism contains within it the seeds of its own destruction at the hands of fundamentalists. Kaufmann answers:
“I think in three ways. Firstly secular liberalism is individualistic, and therefore it goes hand in hand with delayed child bearing and lower fertility rates. Now you might say this is very good for the planet, but if you compare these rates with those who self-consciously maintain or increase their fertility rates you can see that this leads to population change. Second there is what you might call multicultural toleration of religious fundamentalism. Compare today with what happened when the Mormons tried to establish a theocracy in Utah in 1857. The US government would not allow it, and went to war with the Mormons to prevent it. You can’t imagine the government taking up arms against a religious sect today. The environment of toleration that characterises the West today gives religious fundamentalism breathing room and a degree of protection.” And third? “We are in a post-ideological phase. In place of the big political ideas, the quasi-religious ideologies like Communism, we have the issue of which party manages the economy better. The draining away of liberal ideology creates a vacuum that fundamentalism can exploit. These three things put secularism, in my view, at a disadvantage.”
But what kind of fundamentalism is he talking about? The book covers a wide array of sects from Haredis in Jerusalem to Hutterites in Montana and Salifis in Manchester. Some of the American and Jewish sects are hundreds of years old, but others – like Quiverfull and Salifism – are relatively new. What do they have in common?
“I call them ‘endogenous growth sects’. The defining features are that they have strong boundaries to the outside, they try to live segregated from the rest of society, they practice ‘in’ marriage, they have high fertility rates and high retention of members – it’s grow-your-own-fundamentalism. The irony is that in terms of growth this is the most successful model for religion in Western secular societies. This is not true for the developing world, or for the Muslim world, but it is for the West.” The reason why Kaufmann covers both older forms of fundamentalism like the Amish and Hutterites, sects that are not likely to put the fear of God into secularists because they seem so passive, so withdrawn and uninterested in imposing their worldview on the rest of us, alongside more aggressive and self-consciously power-hungry forms of evangelical Christianity and Islamism is because, in his argument, the older sects provide the model of success that is now being followed by the newer ones. To understand them, Kaufmann argues, we need to look at the older forms they are self-consciously aping.
Benedict Option-style groups, in other words. Kaufmann notes that secularism is on the rise among Americans, and that Americans of moderate religious beliefs will disappear. Caspar Melville, the interviewer, cites Kenan Malik’s opinion that the way to combat fundamentalism is to have a secularist revival:
“What has eroded,” [Malik] argues, “is faith in the idea that it is possible to win peoples of different backgrounds to a common set of secular, humanist, enlightened values. And that is the real problem: not immigration, nor Muslim immigration, but the lack of conviction in a progressive, secular, humanist project.”
Good luck with trying to get people who want to have lots of babies to prefer the cube to the cathedral.