The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on June 29, 2011
Why do Godders have so many kids?

Demography has very probably been a factor in religious history all along. The Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language (a favorite book of mine) tells us that our word “proletarian” derives from the Latin proles, ”offspring”: A proletarius was “a citizen of the lowest class, useful only by producing children.” One may modify this rather unsentimental description by saying that children were just about the only cherished possession of people in this class. Insofar as many intense religious movements, at least initially, appealed to poor people, this naturally gave a demographic benefit to religion. The historian Philip Jenkins has been influential in his description of the massive demographic shift of contemporary Christianity from Europe and North America to the developing societies. Todd Johnson and his associates have labored for years to produce the Atlas of Global Christianity (2009), with a wealth of demographic data. A useful summary of the demography/religion connection is provided by a book just published, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann (who teaches politics at Birkbeck College, University of London). Despite the jaunty title of his book, Kaufmann is a careful scholar, not given to wild speculation. But he answers the question in the title with a cautious yes.

Social scientists frequently make predictions. Most of these turn out to be wrong. When demographers make predictions, they have one advantage: barring some catastrophic intervening events, such as epidemics, natural disasters, genocide, the demographic future is already present. To see this future, one just has to visit maternity wards and primary schools. Kaufmann makes ample use of this advantage.

The overall picture is quite clear: the more intensely religious have more children. It helps if such intensely religious groups are physically concentrated and thus protected from outside influences. Thus, while the United States is a strongly religious society, there are also strong pluralistic forces that tend to moderate religious intensity. Therefore, high fertility is not enough for fundamentalists to proliferate; they must also have a high retention rate. Some succeed in this very well. Old Order Amish still tend to congregate in rigorously segregated communities. They numbered about 5,000 in 1900; they number close to 250,000 today. Conversions to this religion are very rare. The retention rate is very high. (One can see why. If you have spent your childhood riding around in horse-drawn buggies, wearing 18th-century clothes and speaking Pennsylvania Dutch, apostasy would be a difficult option.) Mormons, of course, are much less concentrated physically. But they do have a homeland, where they are more intensely present than anywhere else. In 1920 Mormons were 60% of the population of Utah; today they are over 75% —this despite large migration of non-Mormons into the state. Unlike the Amish, Mormons successfully convert, especially outside the United States (of the estimated 12 million Mormons in the world, 6 million are in other countries). But Mormons also exhibit the two demographic positives of high fertility and high retention.

Ron Inglehart and Pippa Norris, who have done many cross-national surveys of changing values, claim that religion declines with rising affluence. In that case, there would be a race between religion and high fertility on one hand, and socio-economic development on the other hand. I have some doubts about this. As the Mormon example indicates, intense religion and high fertility seem capable of surviving a good deal of affluence. Be this as it may, there is little doubt about a global correlation between intense religion and high fertility. American Evangelicals are proud of having “a full quiver” of children as compared with their non-Evangelical neighbors, and there is even a Quiverfull movement advocating this procreative enthusiasm on Biblical grounds. The Catholic church in the United States would be in much worse demographic shape, were it not for the healthy influx of pious Latino Catholics (despite the inroads of Protestantism in that population). The Muslim world is an outstanding case of high fertility, which seems to survive in America—Muslims are projected to overtake Jews in 2020. In Muslim-majority countries radical Islamists, compared with their more  moderate coreligionists, have a Quiverfull profile of their own.

The most dramatic case in Kaufmann’s book is Judaism—in Israel, in the United States, and probably in Europe. The title of one of his chapters is “The Haredisation of the Jewish World”. Haredim (from the Hebrew haredi/”one who trembles”—presumably from awe) have phenomenally high fertility and retention. The demographic future of Israel will be shaped by low fertility among secular Jews, declining fertility among Israeli Arabs, and exuberant fertility among Haredim. The latter are now projected to be a majority of Israeli Jews as of 2050. This future is already clearly visible in primary schools today. Even more surprisingly, Haredim are estimated to be a majority of American Jews, also by 2050.

Why do Godders (aka intensely religious people) have so many children?

One has to be careful before one attempts any explanation that would apply throughout the world. Most pregnancies anywhere are unplanned, the unintended consequences of sexual activity. This, of course, is especially the case where contraceptive resources are unavailable. And in places where there is high infant mortality, it is only rational to have many children in the hope that some will survive. What, I think, needs special explanation is intended parenting among people who have ready access to contraception (and, if that fails, abortion), and who may have every expectation that their children will grow up into adulthood. This is a stipulation that pertains to most people above the underclass in developed societies. As I write the next paragraph, I am thinking of reasonably affluent, college-educated, American Evangelicals I know.

I will venture a hypothesis. Religion has always given its adherents a sense of living in a meaningful universe. This protects individuals from what sociologists call anomie—a condition of disorder and meaninglessness. Religion, by the same token, gives a strong sense of identity and confidence in the future. More than anything else that human beings may do, the willingness of becoming a parent requires a good measure of confidence in the future. Mind you, this is not an argument for the truth of religion. Illusions may also bestow meaning and confidence. But my hypothesis offers an explanation for the ubiquity and persistence of religion.

I am not sure whether this function of religion works in the same way in the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as in the religions to the east of the Muslim world, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. It probably does. For a believing Jew, Christian or Muslim, the future of the world, his own future, and that of his children lies in the hands of a compassionate God. Every mother, of any faith or of no faith at all, will get up in the night to comfort a crying child. She may not speak. Her presence and her holding the child may be enough comfort. If she does speak, it is likely to be some variation of saying “everything is all right” or “everything will be all right”. This may well be true at the moment. In a purely secular perspective, these formulas are finally not true. The mother, the child, and everyone and everything they care about are fated to perish. Religious faith gives a cosmic validation to the mother’s comforting words. It is no accident that the most famous lines of Julian of Norwich, that elusive medieval mystic, are reminiscent of a lullaby: “And all will be well. And all will be well. And every manner of thing will be well”.

  • WigWag

    Why are “Godders” more fecund then their more secular neighbors? My hypothesis would be that there is a correlation between the intensity of religious fervor and the desire for sons over daughters.

    This is clearly true of Muslims and may very well be true of Haredi Jews as well. I’ve also perused a study by Almond and Edlund of Columbia University which analyzed fertility amongst Asian immigrants to Canada. They noted that observant Christians and Muslims were significantly more likely to have an additional child if the gender of the preceding child was female.

    Given the inverse relationship between the intensity of religiosity and economic status, it is easy to understand why the devout poor prefer males to females and why they would continue having children until they have “acquired” as many sons as they feel they need.

    But I can’t help but wonder whether the subordinate role routinely assigned to women by religious Jews, Christians and Muslims also plays a role in the desire for the devout to keep having children until they are satisfied that they have enough sons. In short what I am suggesting is, that in the minds of a significant number of devout followers of any of the major religions, the birth of a daughter is considered a “failure” that requires a “do-over.”

    My explanation for the fecundity of the devout is far less optimistic than Professor Berger’s thesis that religious people have more children because they are more hopeful about the future. Sadly, I have a sneaking suspicion that my hypothesis hits closer to the mark.

  • ARH

    Any thought about the correlation between fervent religious belief and the traditional male over female family hierarchy? If the couple is more religious, there may not be as much competition for a woman’s time between education and career on one hand, and the effort necessary to raise higher numbers of children on the other. Given a finite amount of time in life, perhaps a secular couple simply puts more relative emphasis on the woman’s non-domestic skills.

    Also, I would speculate that higher religious feelings lead to a higher probability of remaining chaste until marriage. Might young religious people, given the same hormone drive as their secular counterparts, be more apt to race to the alter than those same secular peers? Perhaps earlier marriages leads to early first childbirth, and corresponding higher numbers of children over the course of a woman’s set reproductive life?

    I’m not sure if either of these make sense; if they do, if they are material; and if material, if they cross over to different religions or geographic areas. Just some thoughts that popped in my head after reading Dr. Berger’s essay – which is why I read the blog in the first place.

  • redneckgrammarcop

    There must be some ulterior motive around here––I just know it. They can’t really believe all this nonsense about God, can they? Haven’t these people heard about science, history, and sociology? Ah, well, poor simpletons. I suppose we’ll have to propose legislation in congress to enforce “family planning”. If that doesn’t work we’ll have to force a law suit to the supreme court to establish binding legal precedence. If that doesn’t work I’m sure we can create another regulatory bureau with executive authority to bypass the whole system and impose our ideology on these people directly.

  • Mahon

    Religious people are more optimistic, and they are also less self-centered. They view well-raised children as contributions to the faith and the nation, and will prioritize this over alternative uses of time and money. They see three kids doing well at State University as every bit as good as one designer child at Harvard, and they see additional human beings as societal assets rather than liabilities. And they’re right.

  • redneckgrammarcop

    “Most pregnancies anywhere are unplanned, the unintended consequences of sexual activity.”

    This statement indicates the fallacious supposition that man is free not only to impose his own intentions on an act, but that his doing so alters the very nature of the act, which is absurd. Man’s sexual act has being in itself through nature but apart from man’s intentions––this is especially clear when the parties involved are ignorant of this fact.
    Say, for example, a man discovers potassium cyanide in a cup of cool aid. He’s really thirsty and there’s no water available. Does his intention to merely quench his thirst alter the nature of the potassium cyanide? Sadly for the thirsting man, no.
    It is our responsibility to conform our behavior to the nature of things when it is impossible to conform the nature of things to our behavior.

  • YK

    As a Haredi Jew, I’ll give you one reason why we tend to have a lot of kids. Our religion strongly encourages us to do so.

    Our religion regards the bearing and raising of children–all children, regardless of gender, and whether healthy or sick–as something of very great importance. It teaches us to regard having a child, and raising that child to live their life as a devoutly religious Jew, as success in life, and having many children, and so raising them, to be very great success in life.

    So we don’t have kids until we have enough sons, then stop. We have kids till G-d doesn’t give us any more.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Reply to WigWag and ARH:

    WIGWAG: Your counterhypothesis that the religiously fervent have a greater desire for male children may reflect cognitive dissonance rather than empirical reality.

    Unlike Evangelicalism, Pentecostalism ordains women ministers and has a long history of women in leadership (Amy Semple MacPherson, etc.). And as any demographer will tell you Pentecostalism is the fastest growing religion in the world due to both child births and conversions.

    As Professor Berger’s book “Many Globalizations” reports, Pentecostalism softens “machisimo” wherever it spreads, resulting in better treatment and higher status of women.

    Go to any Pentecostal (not Evangelical) church and you will see first hand the greater role of women and thus the greater desire to have female children.

    You can find many sources online to document this fact. Here is one: http://www.regent.edu/acad/schdiv/newsandevents/women_res/women_colloquium.shtml

    ARH: Your guess that more fervent religious women bear more children because they still adhere to a rigid male hierarchy within the family is not born out empirically either.

    Where Pentecostalism is spreading the most in South America and Africa is where there is also rampant modernization. In fact, following observations made long ago by sociologist Max Weber, Protestant Christianity, especially Pentecostalism, is the cultural carrier of modernization. This has lessened the traditional male family hierarchy. And by the way, in many traditional countries families are matriarchal, even in Muslim countries such as Turkey.

    My guess is that you will not believe what I have written or misperceive it as some form of macho rebuttal. Go to a Pentecostal church and see for yourself.

    Best to both,

  • YK

    Speaking as a Haredi Jew, the reason we have a lot of kids is simple–our religion strongly encourages us to do so. Both genders, as many as G-d will give us.

  • Fred

    Wayne, I agree with much of what you say, but most traditional cultures are not matriarchal (women hold power) but matralineal (family name, religion, etc. are passed down through the maternal line). Men still hold the political and economic power in those societies. In fact, one reason they are matralineal is a certain misogyny, a mistrust that women’s children are, in fact, the children of the men they claim are the fathers.

  • Leah

    Why don’t you ask a “godder”?
    The assumption that they prefer boys over girls is condescending and presumptuous.

  • Mary Wilbur

    Your reference to religious believers as “godders” is extremely condescending if not outright bigoted. I am not religious myself but I respect those who are. Haredi Jews, Evangelical Christians, traditional Catholics, and Mormons have more children than secular people or secularized religions such as “mainline” Protestants because they, like YK states on behalf of Haredi Jews, are encouraged by their religious beliefs to have large families and their opposition to artificial birth control and abortion. Islam may prefer boys to girls but as far as I know they don’t have sonograms during pregnancy in order to identify the sex of their child so they can abort the girls. This practice is widespread in India where the majority of the people are Hindus.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    if “godders” have lots of kids, why does the pious country of Iran have zero population growth (fertility rate 2.0)? or that “pious” countries like the Philippines, India and Bengldesh have dropped their fertility rate to 2.9 and are rapidly approaching the ZPG rate too.

    and by saying “Asian immigrants” prefer boys, you are mixing up Hindu Indians, Muslim Pakistanis, atheistic Chinese, Buddhist Koreans and Filipino Catholics. The rate of sex selection abortion is not the same in these groups.

    Finally, the word “godder” is an insult, on the same level as “k___” or “n——–”

    Presumably ridiculing people of faith is now PC in some circles.

  • eric

    Actually, the very term “godder” is condescending and presumptuous. Liberals abort their children, religious folk do not. Religious people know that well-raised children create great nations, and if God blesses you with several, all the better. I suppose it depends on the values of the religion in question, but atheists hardly believe in “go forth and multiply” right?

  • James

    As YK says, My religion strongly encourages us to do so.” Where is the mystery in that? As a Evangelical Christian I read The Old Testament passage as more a command than encouragement: Genisis 1:22 “Be fruitful and increase in numbers.” Also the tone of the Bible is children are a blessing, joy producing, satisfying, produce happiness, contentment, fullfillment, is admirable, is purposeful and it is important to God. Counter this with the secular world’s notion of children as a burden, unwanted, in the way, financially taxing, career destroying, and seen as unsuccessful. Unwanted children create poverty and because they are poverty striken they are prison bound. Where is the joy in that?

    Finally, maybe Godders are not having more children – it appears they are – because others are not having children. This would be based on world view. Godders believe man is insignificant to the natural world and to God’s infinite plan. They believe God is in control of the universe and they can do nothing without God. Because they want to be in relationship with God they follow God’s commands which includes them having children. None Godders believe man is the most diruptive species on the planet and so overpopulation is going to cause drastic effects to the earth’s environment – so they do their part by not having children. So in observation we see this disparity in the physical world.
    There is another effect called the “Roe effect” coined from James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal that goes something like this: as secular women abort their children and are unable to pass on their values and beliefs to their offspring – they will begin to be underrepresented in the population; while Godders continue to procriate they will begin to produce offspring which believe in the values and beliefs of their parents i.e. producing children and creating an overrepresentation in the population. So we will begin to see people wondering why – through their eyes – there is this resurgence of Godders having children when in fact it is the decline of the secular world through attrition which is creating this awareness of children from Godders.

  • cls

    Mr. Berger makes assumptions I dispute. He claims Mormonism is successfully recruiting and has a high retention rate of the young born into Mormon families. Yet religious surveys of Americans show NO growth at all among the Mormons. Their numbers have stayed at a relative 1.5% of the population. And Berger claims they make up 75% of Utah now, the Salt Lake Tribune says that according to 2004 stats “Utah is now 62.4 percent LDS with every county showing a decrease.” This includes Mormons who abandoned the church or have no connections to it anymore. They estimate that only 41.% “percent of Utahns are church-going Mormons.”

    Instead of looking at the actual figures on the ground Mr. Berger seems willing to accept Mormon PR as the gospel truth. In reality the church has been hiding its decline and fudging their membership numbers for some time, both in the US and abroad. At best, in spite of their higher birth rates and efforts to recruit new members, membership has not moved for the last couple of decades. And considering how many ex-Mormons are still listed by the church as members, there is every reason to suspect the numbers have declined.

  • Jim.

    Or, you could look at it from the opposite point of view — why do people who have a more “modern” philosophy so abjectly fail to have enough children to maintain their populations?

    The fact is that modern times’ ethic of novelty — make up your own philosophy as you go, taking only what you like from previous generations — leaves things out.

    And it doesn’t just miss things like the fact that humans innately prefer tonal music. It leaves out big things, like having families (before it’s too late, biologically) and the importance of paying your own way. It leaves out Duty, Honor, Valor. To paraphrase CS Lewis, it abolishes Man.

    The fact is, the devout are normal humans. Make-it-up-as-you-go skeptics are a failed experiment, destined to be an example of how NOT to live life.

  • ARH

    Wayne,

    No perceived macho rebuttal on my side. I hadn’t even done a brief Google search for empirical evidence before posting, but took a chance at speculation anyway.

    I’m a strong believer in incentives shaping our long term behavior and social structures. While some perceive cultural decay, or lower overall birth rates to be products of choice, or a willful turning away from a moral or spiritual center, I believe these trends to be a product of modernity. Social Security, lower youth mortality rates, mechanization of housework, higher economic prospects for the strength of a mind vs. the strength of a back, and higher opportunity costs associated with multiple children have incentivized couples to have less children. Modern wealth, and the activist government it can afford, have reduced the economic hardships that, along with biological necessity, have formed what we call the traditional family.

    As such, I postulated that couples with a less structured male/female hierarchy may have more opportunity cost associated with the woman staying home to raise a second, third, or fourth child, than their religions counterparts. This isn’t to suggest a negative correlation exists between the pious and the prosperous, but even without empiracle evidence, I believe my reasoning to be fairly sound.

    That said, I don’t take offense to disagreement, or even being wrong. I just enjoy the thought process that comes along with this blog.

    Regards,

    ARH

  • Armando

    “why does the pious country of Iran have zero population growth (fertility rate 2.0)?”

    I think the deal with Iran is that much of their child-bearing population in the 1980s was killed off during the Iran-Iraq War. I forget where I read that, but that would be my best guest.

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  • http://betty.tracyent.com Betty Sue Tracy

    Well in answer to the idea that religious people have babies until they get enough boys, my personal experience is quite different. I had a girl and then three boys. I then proceeded to have four more girls. I am expecting again and would be thrilled with another girl (or boy. Whatever:-) I simply choose to believe the Bible when it says children are a blessing.

    Now there might be a bit to the idea that it is less stressful on a family that already has a traditional stay-at-home-mom to have more children. We have found that it doesn’t really cost much to add another baby since we keep hand-me-downs and don’t believe each child needs an all new bedroom set and all the gadgets so many American babies have. We simply tuck them amongst the comotion and they grow up happy and loved.

  • EJB

    As a Catholic we are to have the children that God sees fit and to nurture them in our faith. Many have been turned by the secularist and use contraception and abortion. These are tempting fate when they go against God and his Church.

  • enness

    Sir, congratulations on making a simple matter absurdly complicated.

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  • Grace

    This orthodox catholic with 5children believes it is the right thing to do. For their father and I, for them, and for God. I have only 2 girls and would love more.
    My children are a source of constant joy. They are also good for our character. They keep us generous and focused on the right thigs. They keep us from thinking only of ourselves and our comforts and posessions.
    I feel awfully sorry for couples with one or two children. They have no idea what they are missing.

  • Mike

    My God created Life. Every indication is that He created Life to glorify him. In a universe full of bleak and dead chaos He shows his power in the frailness of Life. To live a Godly life is to cherish and adore Life as a means of showing our Love and Devotion to God. It’s really quite simple actually.

  • Bill Henry

    Is it possible that “Godders” might be happier people as a whole, with better and more prolific sex lives???? I put this forward as a possible explanation rather than an active desire for progeny.

    Most of the “Godders” I know with over 3 children are happy, well adjusted, and sexually engaged with their mates. They do not see children as a disease to be cured… or as a negative consequence derived from ignorance.

    They see family as the natural extension of a healthy, well rounded worldview.

    My 4 children are a blessing. And at 50 I have to say my sex life has never been better. Eat your hearts out “Humaners”

  • Beale

    I agree with James that the important question isn’t why the religious have so many children, but why the rest of us have so few. It wasn’t always that way.

    I see two related reasons. First, we live in an age where both social and governmental pressures discourage childbearing. tioedong asks why the pious country of Iran has such a low fertility rate; surely the fact that the dictatorial government of that country works agressively to achieve that very result has something to do with it.

    Secondly, our time is, with good reason, pessimistic about the prospects, if not for man as a species, at least for civilization.

    Certain religions likely do lead their believers to want sons specifically (I have read that the worst thing that can happen to a Hindu is not to have a son). But if a Christian complains of having daughters rather than sons, his faith answers along the lines of “Shut up and be grateful for the children God gives you”.

  • John Stephens

    The purpose of religion – any religion – is to answer the question “What is MY place in the Universe, and what should I do about it?”. The confidence this gives people makes them more confident about the future. And the ultimate expression of confidence in the future is to have and raise children. It’s that simple.

  • Tracy

    I am a Mormon–(Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints)–and I have 9 children and 16 grandchildren.

    Our doctrine teaches us that the spirits of the unborn already exist–living in heaven with God–and thus we do not “create” children–they already are–we just help to provide bodies for them and a way for them to be born on earth.

  • Peter

    “Religious people are more optimistic, and they are also less self-centered.”

    Perhaps that should read, “Religious people are encouraged, taught and helped to be more hopeful and less self centred.” I have 7 children but it is not my virtue that brought me more children. It is the children who teach ME not to be self centred.

  • http://www.capitalismv3.com Curt Doolittle

    A behavioral economist would argue that the reasons that religious people have more children vary based upon the era.

    The poor have generally been more religious and under agrarianism, children are valuable labor and retirement vehicles.

    In some religions, as a minority, the culture is to breed one’s ideas literally through human reproduction.

    In modern dogmatic christian circles, one can create an artificial environment in a home by having many children and basically isolate one’s self from the counter-propositions offered by the secular and market driven world. Which then recursively servesto make one’s faith more intense and exclusory. ie: it’s a way of creating an environment filled with confirmation bias and therefore intellectual comfort, because children are more pliable than are others outside the sect.

    The reality is that children are both no longer valuable for manual labor, and very expensive to raise under modern capitalism, which is why we are seeing a leveling of the world birth rate and a decrease in per-woman child bearing wherever development spreads. To the point where our ponzi-scheme social programs are in jeopardy.

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  • Gerald

    Could it be that religious people tend to value womanhood and motherhood differently than those who are not as religious?