Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The (very) religious shall inherit the earth

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.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 2:02 am

When I saw the cube reference, I thought Rod was referring to the Kaaba, and got confused. But now U see that the “cube” is that modernist building in France (which I think is rather cool).

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posted April 3, 2010 at 2:13 am

I think of these two points every time this issue comes up, and as long as I’m first poster I might as well drop them here:
1) The notion that the prominence of one demographic in terms of population share will necessarily result in prominence in any other terms seems a blatant misreading of history.
2) It’s awfully lazy to assume that every child born to a sect member will become a sect member. For one thing, this thesis does an even worse job of explaining the 20th century even worse than the secularization thesis.
The article at least addresses this, if only to demur that secularism infrequently converts people committed to another religion, but how much of this comes down to the fact that, atheism hasn’t had a missionary apparatus capable of devoting energy to conversion and winning over the people who really care about the Big Questions?
(I recall studies of missionaries from multiple religions that established that conversion rate was almost directly tied to time and money spent, and if the actual content of the religion had any influence on its appeal, it was undetectible in the aggregate.)
And isn’t that exactly what the dawning “New Humanism” is – an institutionalization of atheism that includes a commitment to active proselytism?

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posted April 3, 2010 at 6:42 am

Re: The article at least addresses this, if only to demur that secularism infrequently converts people committed to another religion
But then how do we explain the rise of secularism in our own time? Take any unbelieving person and look back through his family tree. It’s almost certain that you will find plenty of religious people in his ancestry.
And if we are to accept the notion that religion, and not just at the level of religiosity but adherence to a specific set of beliefs, is somehow genetic then doesn’t this make a mock of faith, conversion and the notion of free will?

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posted April 3, 2010 at 9:16 am

I agree with Jon and Senescent. If the thesis was true then the Enlightment would never have happened.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 9:51 am

It’s hard to make future projections like this. I could just as easily imagine that kids growing up in pervasive fundamentalism would jump ship as soon as they could, to get away from that intellectually stifling and personally repressive environment. Time will tell.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 10:00 am

“To understand them, Kaufmann argues, we need to look at the older forms they are self-consciously aping”.
I live in the fourth largest Amish community in the world. Demographically, it is through the roof, as is assured by this author.
However, by the standards in literature, education, media- they are not understood. “Strong boundaries to the outside” is a paradigm paralysis in a scientific sense. Our “looks” at this sect have been parochial, in the limited or narrow sense, indeed since we have thought of them as such. What we don’t know about Amish culture staggers when compared to what we know. How many are rich, or middle class or poor; what sports do they like and why; what percentage are homosexual; in what do they invest; how many send children to public or private school when both are readily available; how far do they travel(hypothesis, much further than you think-how about from Ohio to Paraguay). On the very basic level of their faith(now we’re getting down to where they live), do you know if they consider Baptism an ordinance or a sacrament?
So the premise is- to understand the future of the West, we have to understand the older sect type. I concur on two levels. First, the future includes religion more than secular humanism wishes or believes. Secondly, if to understand you mean to better understand than up until now.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 10:30 am

Yeah, I saw “Idiocracy” too.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 10:46 am

“And that is the real problem: not immigration, nor Muslim immigration, but the lack of conviction in a progressive, secular, humanist project.”
This is the most absurd of all the absurd Leftist notions: their constant whining that “if we could only get a tiny bit of communication, if we could only find just one miniature channel to get our message across, we’re sure all the people would go along.”
You totalitarian monsters, you have 100% of the schools, 100% of the universities, 99% of the cultural institutions, 99% of the federal courts, 95% of the churches, 90% of the government, 95% of the media. In America, you have a more constant and more all-penetrating blast of “progressive, secular revival” than the Soviets ever had. And you’ve done an extremely good job of spreading your message.
QUIT WHINING!!!!!!!!! You have triumphed. At least have the good sense to celebrate your triumph.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 12:12 pm

“You can’t imagine the government taking up arms against a religious sect today. ”
Um… David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, anyone…
(Obvious disclaimer: I am not a fan of either Koresh or his followers. But to be certain the government is largely responsible for the catastrophe.)

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posted April 3, 2010 at 1:33 pm

This seems to be a consistent theme of yours, and while I understand why from an ideological point of view you might find it appealing, there’s really nothing to it. I’d really recommend you read a little bit about population ecology (not saying that you are uneducated by any means; you certainly know more about literature and the social sciences than me).
No species- plant, animal, or human- has birth rates that are constant over time. Birth rates and death rates fluctuate constantly over time in response to the environment- sometimes the birth rate is higher and you get transient increase, sometimes the birth rate is lower and you get transient decrease, but over the long run neither can be much greater than the other, or you get either overpopulation or extinction. Once upon a time Africa had the lowest net population growth rate in the world, and China had one of the highest. There was a time when Ireland had the lowest birth rate in Europe, today it has one of the higher ones. In our own time we have seen birth rates drop very precipitously all over the world- in Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and secularist countries alike. The thesis that Mormons, Amich and Orthodox Jews are going to take over the world rests on the assumption that birth rates are going to stay constant in the medium term, which is never a safe assumption even when it comes to animals, and is _surely_ not a safe assumption when it comes to humans who can voluntarily change their behaviour.
Should countries like Russia, Japan and Italy be trying to revitalise their birth rates? Well, yes they should. But none of that adds up to ‘Amish and Muslims will inherit the earth’.
Have a joyous Easter Vigil tonight; I’m praying for your sister.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 3:28 pm

The point is about the sect type of Protestantism, which is profoundly different from any other Abrahamic religion. It is not
fundamentalist and is not alien to doubt. The talk about the Amish sect is only about going back to the beginnings of this type.
Here you have a coming to fore of a type of thinking which, during the Cartesian, Hegelian, and bourgeois rationalism, has been a subdominant tradition in modern European thought. The Protestant era has reached its limits, but not the protestant principle. And it is extant in the sect type.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 4:30 pm

Well, it’s nice that Kaufmann confirms that this is, as I’ve suspected, a line of argument with a weak basis largely employed to annoy liberals.
Mormons are apparently stagnant in numbers in the U.S. already despite their birthrate. More generally, to look over how such groups have prospered, it seems to take a rather substantial amount of special privileges, subsidies, and diminished applied ethical standards/scrutiny for such groups to persist or thrive beyond a certain size. Government favoritism and/or rural isolation that permits local social, political, and economic monopoly seem to be crucial.
My major concern about these groups is that they, and ‘natalism’ doctrine, perhaps originate with and probably disproportionately attract people with type 2 bipolar disorder. This being hereditary, and one of the few conditions whose afflicteds are commonly more sexually active and sexually compulsive than those who are not, they will procreate more than the others and the proportion of afflicted and genetic carriers will grow within the group. This might explain why these kinds of groups either disintegrate outright or tend to obsess about sexual mores, yet eventually descend into sexual abuses and sexual scandal from which they can’t seem to extricate themselves.
BD 2:
[Note from Rod: To your ad hominem point, according to the New Humanist article, Kaufmann self-identifies as a liberal. — RD]

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posted April 3, 2010 at 7:59 pm

I don’t know enough about communities of inward turning, large family groups. How do they avoid having their large families become burdens on us taxpayers, if calamity befalls the wage earning parent? Is there a community support mechanism which takes care of that? How does that work? Does only one parent usually act as wage earner? Are there stay at home Dads who watch the many children they choose to have while the Moms go to work? Or is it always the Dad who works? What happens if the Mom has a greater business orientation than the Dad, as was the case in my family? I come from a relatively small family and while my Dad was a good wage earner, my Mom worked part-time once I was in middle school (maybe it was just high school). Obviously, I have no direct experience with these inward oriented traditional communities and haven’t read much about them. So I’m curious about motivators and practical issues such as who is the stay at home, who works, and who steps in if a parent dies young.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 10:04 pm

I’m still a relative newcomer to Beliefnet, and yours is the blog I mostly read. Any good linkis for providing background on some of the issues I asked about would be welcome.
All my best to you and yours, especially to Ruthie, at Easter.

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posted April 3, 2010 at 11:48 pm

I’m going to take the long view here. Religion will become stronger in many places. And then, in another couple hundred years, in several of these areas there will be reform movements and liberalization and a renewed secular or at least critical movement in reaction to what will have become somewhat ossified and inflexible religious systems. These things come in cycles, near as I can tell. This has happened within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, at least, a couple of times already.

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posted April 4, 2010 at 10:03 am

Re: But to be certain the government is largely responsible for the catastrophe
The government badly bungled the business, that is true. But a reality check is in order: if the police came to your door wantting to question you on possibly serious charges would you barricade yourself in and start shooting at them? Or would you cooperate, even if the charges were groundless and outrageous?
Koresh himself bears a huge part of the blame for what happened.
The odious Fred Phelps has certainly figured how a small cult can defy the system: not with bullets but with lawyers.

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posted April 4, 2010 at 10:35 am

The failure of secular humanism is not due to its selfishness but it not being selfish enough. Like Christianity, its ethics rest on the principle of self-sacrifice. The only difference is that the collector of humanist sacrifice is society instead of god. A proper ethics is based on rational egoism: one should live for oneself neither giving nor receiving sacrifice.

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