Interview with Eric Kaufmann, Author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? March 19, 2010

Interview with Eric Kaufmann, Author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

Religious fundamentalists have a lot of babies.

They don’t even have to be fundies. I mean, there’s clearly something in holy water that makes a Catholic woman’s uterus extra-powerful.

Last year, I shared an excerpt from Kathryn Joyce‘s book Quiverfull that really haunted me. It described a patriarch’s long-term plans for his family:

One of Geoffrey Botkin’s catchiest contributions to patriarchy is his branding of the dominion vision in his “two-hundred-year plan for multigenerational faithfulness”: a concept that started as an Excel spreadsheet he put together stretching from his marriage in 1980 to his projected death, in 2038, to the culmination of his vision in 2180. It has since become a cornerstone of the Vision Forum message and the focus of a new three-day ministry conference teaching Vision Forum followers to emulate Botkin’s ambitious plan.

Botkin’s personal plan plots major family accomplishments on his Excel sheet — both completed and those they aim for, such as books published, films made, churches planted — and priorities are set out for the family that will unfold over the course of generations: a thorough listing of goals set down for generations of children yet unborn. The generations themselves are projected as well: Botkin’s sons (still unmarried) are listed with their projected marriage dates, the projected births and number of their children, and their projected deaths. His grandsons and great-grandsons are charted as well until two hundred years’ worth of Botkin heirs and accomplishments have accumulated. At the end of his two-hundred-year plan, Botkins estimates that he’ll have been the patriarch of some 186,000 male descendants, all of whom, he is confident, will begin their own two-hundred-year plans modeled on Botkin’s ideals…

(p. 229)

Scary, no?

Eric Kaufmann has been thinking about this problem for a while now. He believes that religious fundamentalists will grow/breed even more rapidly this century — especially in the West.

The new book explaining his theory is called Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century.

A recent article about the book in the Telegraph (UK) carried the headline: “Atheism is doomed: the contraceptive Pill is secularism’s cyanide tablet.”


Kaufmann graciously agreed to do an interview for this site.

In it, I ask him whether atheists should be having more babies (because I’d *totally* volunteer to help out), whether his thesis is wrong because studies show increases in the percentage of non-religious people (at least in the US), and whether this religious baby-making trend will change in the future:

How did you become so interested in this topic?

My background is in studies of national identity and ethnic conflict. In my previous books, I focused on Canada, the United States and Northern Ireland. In all cases, the changing ethnic makeup of the population is a major issue and has at different times contributed to ethnic conflict. Having lived much of my life in Vancouver and London, I have always been aware of rapid ethnic change. Having said this, assimilation has the power to break down ethnic differences. But with religion, the assimilation process requires secularisation, which is not so automatic. In the US, for example, the pot melted Catholics and Jews with Protestants, but the division between fundamentalists of all religions and seculars remained, and has solidified into the battle lines of the so-called ‘culture wars’.

Why do fundamentalists have so many babies? Is this a relatively recent trend?

Fundamentalists have large families because they believe in traditional gender roles, pronatalism (‘go forth and multiply’) and the subordination of individualism to the needs of the religious community.

Is it recent? Yes. First, when we all lived on the land, had no contraception and poor medicine and sanitation, most people — pious or otherwise — needed to have large families to survive. Now, family size has been freed from material constraints by urbanisation, modern medicine and contraception. So values come to the fore, and seculars express their values in smaller families while fundamentalists resist the trend. Fundamentalists don’t actually have more kids than they used to, but nearly all survive, and their relative advantage over others grows. It’s also worth mentioning that fundamentalism is a modern (post-1850 or post-1900) trend: a reaction against secularism or secularised (read: moderate) religion that has become more intense since the 1960s sexual revolution.

Are fundamentalists concerned with the prospect of an overpopulated earth?

No — they feel God will provide and consider such concerns ‘anti-people’.

Is there any way to convince fundamentalists to have fewer children? Do you think the trend will change in the future?

I think there are different species of fundamentalist. The more open ones, such as pentecostalists or neo-evangelicals, are only slightly above average when it comes to fertility. So it is really the closed fundamentalists, like the ultra-Orthodox Jews, Salafi Muslims, or even many Mormons and neo-Calvinist Protestants, that one has to worry about. And here I think there is an explicit determination to set one’s face against modernity. So fertility is unlikely to fall. This is something quite different from, say, traditional Catholic or Muslim fertility, both of which were high for ethnocultural reasons but have fallen with integration into mainstream society. I think one can try and lean on fundamentalists by flagging up an ethic of planetary and civic responsibility, but this will probably fall on deaf ears.

Is this trend occurring in certain parts of the world only? Where? Within certain faiths? Which ones?

The trend is more advanced in the developed world, where urbanisation, contraception and modern medicine have reached their height. The pattern is most immediate and intense within Judaism where the ultra-Orthodox are already a significant share (over 10 percent) of the population and have three or four times as many children as liberals and seculars. But even within Christianity and Islam, fundamentalists have twice the family size of seculars.

Do most of the children born into these religious families remain in the faith?

Yes. First off, stronger religions retain members more effectively than moderate faiths because when you leave a fundamentalist religion, you leave your entire life — family, friends, leisure — behind, not just one compartment. Moreover, retention rates have been rising as fundamentalists have become better organised and began to harness modern technologies of communications, media and record keeping, which help weave a whole world around their members. I use the analogy of nations, which became institutionalised into our contemporary system of nation-states with the delineation of borders, maps, censuses and bureaucracies. That gave them better retention and fixity. So too with fundamentalist religious sects.

Are atheists having fewer babies than “average” or are we simply not keeping up with the religious?

I think the evidence is pretty clear that atheists have spearheaded the trend toward below-2.1 children which is now universal in the developed world. So it’s a case of everyone having fewer, but the relative gap between religious and secular widening. When the religious have 2 and atheists 1, that’s a 100 percent advantage. 4 versus 3, which might have been the case a generation or two ago, is only a 25 percent advantage.

This trend of “quiverfull” Christian families and large Catholic families (to name a couple) has been around for a while… And yet, the percentages of non-religious people keep increasing according to recent polls. Does that contradict your thesis?

No. The composition of a population is always a product of the relative pace of secularisation and religious growth. I use the analogy of a treadmill. Seculars are running on a treadmill that is tilting up and moving against them because of their low fertility and immigration. The religious — notably fundamentalists — are standing still or walking backward, but their treadmill is pushing them forward and tilting downhill. So in Europe in the late twentieth century, seculars were running fast enough to overcome their demographic disadvantage and overtook the faithful. But today, secularism is slowing down outside England and Catholic Europe, and is facing a more difficult incline from the treadmill of demography. London is a good example: it is more religious now than 20 years ago despite secularisation, simply because of religious immigration and fertility.

Should atheists start having more babies?

Tough question. My instinctive answer would be ‘yes’, but this would only be effective if immigration were reduced and religious fundamentalists responded to calls for smaller families, which is unlikely. There is also the matter of global warming to worry about — we don’t want a population footrace with fundamentalism. So in the end, the most promising course is to somehow attract more people away from fundamentalist religion, no easy task.

What information do you hope readers take from your book?

I’m interested in generating a debate about the impact of our global demographic turmoil, what Jack Goldstone recently termed the ‘New Population Bomb’, on the ideological direction of our societies. Most people assume that events, policy debates and cultural currents are the main influence on where our societies go. Francis Fukuyama assumes that the end of the Cold War, the failure of socialism and the spread of liberal-democratic values will lead to an ‘End of History’. I don’t discount culture and politics, but in a post-ideological, post-heroic age, slower-moving forces such as demography can come to the fore and generate powerful social changes.

Kaufmann’s book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century will be published next week.

"The way republican politics are going these days, that means the winner is worse than ..."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."
"It would have been more convincing if he used then rather than than."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Interesting discussion.

    My personal theory is that fundamentalists have basically realized they can no longer win on the merits of their ideology anymore, so they will now compete by trying to outbreed everyone with conflicting ideas.

    For that to work, they’ll have to make sure to keep their children isolated from the outside world, so they don’t get infected with the “wrong” ideas, but stay pure to their parents’ ideals.

    However, I think that keeping up the isolation is only going to get harder in our current society, not easier.

  • The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
    Gang aft agley,
    An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
    For promis’d joy!
    Robert Burns, To A Mouse

  • Christophe Thill

    It’s a mighty big bet on the future this Botkin guy is taking. All his descendants are supposed to think like him, and to be willing to contribute to his plan. He shouldn’t go that far. He should start by asking whether his sons will really be the obedient little breeders he wants them to be, or whether they’ll just storm out of this crazy family and pursue personal goals.

  • I can’t help but be reminded of the Enlightenment, when enlightened thinkers really believed that religion was on its way out for good and that secular values were winning the day… and then look what happened.

    Despite the growing acceptance of atheism and the positive looking numbers as far as our growth goes, the exponential rise of muslims in Europe and evangelicals in the US makes me very, very worried for our future. I don’t want to believe it, but I think we may actually be seeing the pendulum about to swing against us.

  • Sue D. Nymme

    I’m not worried. Fundies and Catholics have always encouraged large families, and yet fundamentalism and Catholicism are on the decline, and atheism is on the rise.

    I was raised Christian and am now an atheist. I have many friends in the same boat.

    Much more troublesome, in my opinion, are politically active fundies who want to make their teaching the rule of law, and to control the education system (see the recent Texas BOE flap).

  • Angie

    All this concern about fundamentalist versus nonbeliever breeding habits hinges on the assumption that offspring will hold the same religious views as their parents. This is clearly a shaky assumption, as many people adopt belief systems that are different from their parents. (Kudos to Christophe for pointing this out.)

    I’m with Sue on this one. Instead of fretting over breeding habits, let’s focus on defending secularism and challenging fundamentalist in society.

  • “Scary, no?”

    Not really. Not any scarier than a projected future where New York City is a glowing pit with a black hole where Central Park used to be.

    Such a project as Botkin’s is a pathetic attempt to project control and power far out of his reach.

    After all, people such as Botkin cannot cope with a world unless they can control it. Pitiful, but not scary.

    Nehemiah Scudder–now there’s a scary guy.

  • Miko

    Wow. Sounds like something straight out of the white nationalist hate book. Ooh. All those scary immigrants. I’d better cling to my no-gods and guns.

  • JulietEcho

    While moderate/mainstream and liberal Christians don’t indoctrinate their children (or don’t indoctrinate them thoroughly enough that it sticks), leaving them room to leave their faith as adults, the fundamentalists have, as Kaufmann points out, gotten better at retention.

    The brainwashing is intense, and I know first-hand how unlikely it is that a child can escape growing up to be anything other than what the parents have programmed them to be in these situations.

    I don’t know that the fundamentalists in the US comprise enough of the population that we should worry about them “outbreeding” everyone else, but the argument along the lines of “well, those kids won’t think like their parents” is mostly dead wrong.

  • plutosdad

    Did his research normalize for income? People say they have more kids, but my own experience (anecdotal) is the poor white trash kind are the ones with 4-5 kids per couple, and wealthier ones have 2-3 at most. And while I’ve read research saying things like conservatives have more kids than liberals, and some states have more, I wonder also the relative income of the average person in those states.

    Honestly I laughed at Botkin. How many parents had plans for their children and their children went completely opposite? “My child will be smart / good at sports/take over the family business/etc” In fact the more of a child’s life the parent tries to plan out I bet the more the kids rebel.

  • A positive first step against this problem would be to stop the government from paying people to have children. No more tax deductions, child-care credits, etc. But since we seem unable to measure economic health except in terms of growth (and that means population growth), and since most Americans think the government only pays welfare mothers to have kids, that’s unlikely to happen.

    Also, don’t watch the Duggars or anything on the network that puts that freakshow on the air.

  • Scary, no?

    Ridiculous, yes.

    Anyone who think they can maintain control over their offspring as they move through generations is an authoritarian nutjob and more a threat to themselves than to society.

    The whole scenario seems far too simplistic. Does anyone have any statistic to back up the claim that fundamentalists are getting better at “retention”? The growing number of atheists I meet who claim to be ex-fundies seems to contradict the idea.

  • Hitodama

    I had always noticed that the ones who are really into the churches (Pastors, Deacons, etc) always seemed to have 14+ kids for some reason. Guess this explains it.

  • DGKnipfer

    Even if the fundies are good at retaining their kids in their faith this generation, each generation will have a massive and growing number of defections. This will become especially important and prominent as each generation becomes poorer and poorer due to their lagging educational standards.

  • AnonyMouse

    Fundies operate on a “zerg rush” method of reproduction. Always have. They have a ton of kids, and by the time those kids have grown up, maybe half of them will still be in the faith. The rest will have left for moral reasons (some edict in the church was too strict or crazy for their taste), lifestyle reasons (being gay or, less extremely, just marrying someone the church didn’t approve of), or because the church just didn’t give them what they wanted. Some of them leave for other churches, some become unchurched Christians, and some abandon the faith entirely.

    So the trick is not to have more kids but the fundies, but to educate them better. Give them appropriate inoculations against Christian woo, and they’ll be able to see for themselves that it isn’t worth their time when they’re offered the “Good News.”

    If you still want to have a ton of kids, go for it, but remember: you don’t have to endanger your own life or contribute to overpopulation. There are plenty of pre-owned kids who would be greatly benefited by a pair of intelligent, middle-class parents. (Assuming, of course, that they let atheists adopt in your area.)

  • Argentum

    Being patriarchal in the main, these progeny-obsessed fundamentalists seem to assume (or at least hope) that they will have more sons than daughters. That’s fine, but given their propensity to being bigots as well, they might be in for a surprise, according to recent research:

  • llewelly

    There are plenty of pre-owned kids who would be greatly benefited by a pair of intelligent, middle-class parents. (Assuming, of course, that they let atheists adopt in your area.)

    Unfortunately the ones who have been mistreated or have too much mileage are unpopular.

  • magetoo

    Does anyone have any statistic to back up the claim that fundamentalists are getting better at “retention”? The growing number of atheists I meet who claim to be ex-fundies seems to contradict the idea.
    That could mean both an increasing fraction of a static population, or a steady fraction of an increasing population (or several other combinations). So yes, some statistics would be helpful.

  • magetoo

    Well, that’ll teach me not to disable (cookies and) the editing function. Hopefully it’s still obvious what is the quote and what isn’t.

  • Richard P.

    “At the end of his two-hundred-year plan, Botkins estimates that he’ll have been the patriarch of some 186,000 male descendants, all of whom, he is confident, will begin their own two-hundred-year plans”

    One thing I feel he should get credit for is having a vision. With the human life so short. We really do suffer from short sightedness. Never really considering the long term effects of our actions. I think if we all could adapt to a two hundred year plan looking at the consequences of what we do on the long term, the world would look much different.

    This is a fundamental problem with chritianity, with jebuses returning just around the corner, who cares what happens in the long term??
    I am surprised it was a christian that came up with the idea. Kinda flies in the face of their beliefs, I would think.

  • I agree with Sue, as well. It matters less to me what people do in their private lives than what fundamental people with influence try to do with MY life. It would be best if we could simply make sure that influential fundamentalist individuals could not use their fundie beliefs to influence laws and public policy and such. (Easier said than done, I know.)

  • Demonhype

    I think it’s absurd to predict such dire futures based on a single aspect of society and culture by itself.

    For example, plutosdad’s comment about normalizing for income and the relationship between income and birth rate.

    There is also the heightening visibility of the atheist community which, to the best of my knowledge, is fairly unprecedented and has an effect of destroying the vile myths about atheism in the larger society. Possibly, the liberal and moderate Christians will feel more kinship to atheists eventually than to a baby-factory fanatic. Though anecdotal, it seems to me that I’m already seeing more of this over the years–a growing incidence of liberal and moderate religious who are willing to be honest and fair about atheists and are becoming disgusted with the fanatics. This could have the effect of neutralizing a lot of the larger social and political effect that the fundie baby-factory strategy is likely reaching for.

    And another result of higher atheist visibility could be that people raised fundie are more aware of possibilites and have more places to land. I don’t doubt that fundies have some great success at retention, given that a walk away from the faith means losing your friends, family, and support. But that doesn’t say as much about retention of belief as much as retention of outward adherence. There are probably more potential unbelievers in there than anyone realizes due to this very real-world penalization for defectors. The higher visibility of atheists means more of the deconversion stories are available, which can make people feel less alone and also make potential deconverts braver about coming out as they see more former fundies who have made the change, possibly even lost their families, but ended up with something greater in the end. It’s always easier to make such a hard decision when you can see people who have done it themselves and their lives have gone on–kind of like the whole cancer support group thing, where there are increasing testimonials where someone who has been diagnosed can see the stories of others who have beat the disease and their lives have gone on. That can be extremely powerful, which is why so many religio-tards are so frantic to shut the atheists up–after all, if atheists can feel free to openly tell their stories then the religious leaders no longer control the discussion–the opposition now has their own platform, and they are not showing themselves to be the demons or drug-addicted failures without Christ that the clergy has insisted is the inevitable result of non-faith. There are also more open meetups, organization, charities, and other such things and there is talk of providing even more social support networks to replace the friends/church/support loss.

    There’s also the internet. Interaction with all sorts of people with relative anonymity. It’s like the Ask Richard column on this very blog. Fundies can get into atheist sites and start preaching and condemning, but fundies with doubts can also get in and explore forbidden content with an unprecedented level of anonymity, and since fundie religions generally punish those who ask uncomfortable questions (shutting down such questions is a major part of successful retention technique, after all), there are few alternate possibilities besides the internet search that won’t get them immediately outed.

    I know, none of this is researched, but this is just a handful of aspects that could fudge the straight “they have more babies therefore they will win” reasoning. It just seems to me that such predictions are iffy at best even if you consider more than one thread, because you can never perfectly predict how the various cutural and societal aspects and trends will react among themselves.

  • Demonhype


    You see, I’m actually more inclined towards adoption, and especially towards older kids, and that’s partiall because of what you just mentioned. I dont’ want a baby because I don’t think I could handle it–I’m way too high strung. I’d rather have an older kid who can talk and understand me. I’m afraid I could never regard a baby as anything other than a squalling irritating little maggot until it got older.

    Mistreated kids? That’s my mom’s biggest concern, or it was when I mentioned that I favor adoption. It depends on the results of the mistreatment, I guess. If the kid has especially violent tendencies or is lighting things on fire or something like that, I probably wouldn’t be the one to handle it. If the kid is just withdrawn in some way, or something less outwardly destructive, I think I could handle that. The former kid might need much more psycological (or even psychiatrical) care and consideration that I am neither qualified nor prepared for. The latter might still need therapy, but my being a loving and dedicated mother might be enough besides that to help him/her move on.

    My mother wasn’t perfect–no one is, really–but I always knew that she’d support me unquestioningly if I needed her, and that she loved me and cared about what happened to me. It’s terrible that there are kids who don’t have that. Kids need stability and support–emotional and psychological as well as physical–and if you are unprepared to give that to your kids then you have no business having kids.

    Sorry for the OT.

  • You’re aware that Muslims are easily the most fecund of any reliigous cohort? That’s who we should be most worried about.

  • I’m not worried about it. The same media they are organizing to work for them will also work against them, as more resources for those who leave fundamentalist lifestyles become more prevalent.

  • sophia b

    dear men discussing my duty to have kids to help atheism out: get stuffed

    You want more secular kids, you can start by making our schools better. Then you can give women the ability to have careers and kids without being harassed (paid parental leave etc) and you can start being more involved with your children in general and doing more of the childcare.

    Also doesn’t it begin to bother you when you want to keep the poor religious immigrants out cause that’ll ruin your perfect society? Shouldn’t being on the side of the british national party and the likes make you stop and think?

  • Richard Wade

    Botkin’s sons (still unmarried) are listed with their projected marriage dates, the projected births and number of their children, and their projected deaths.

    Man, I feel sorry for that fruitcake’s sons. If they have the testicles that they’re “projected” to use siring all those offspring, they’ll be chafing at the arrogant notion of Daddy laying out every step of their lives for them. In 10 years, he’ll be lucky if all of them haven’t told him to take his “vision” and stick it where only a sigmoidoscope can see.

    Each new generation grows up in a world with far greater differences than the differences the previous generation faced. The cultural gaps between generations are widening exponentially. To try to “project” what one’s progeny will do to further your own agenda is deeply absurd and futile.

    The quickest way to make a fool of yourself is to speak in the future tense.

  • Michael

    This is a slightly shortsighted view of horizonal propogation of religion. Atheism is obviously weaker when it comes to spreading the word via uterus. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on vertical propogation (brainwashing) as heavily as the repressed.

    Where christianity in the west maybe be like a genetic virus, slowly but powerfully swelling down generations, Atheism is (I think) better suited for propogation horizontally. You can infect through the ears and the mouth and the eyes more easily.

  • aj

    I come from a long line of Mormon fundies (I grew up in the Warren Jeffs group), all of whom breed like rabbits (my dad had 40 children over the course of his life), and this guy’s analysis is way off base.

    I know hundreds, literally, hundreds of people who have grown up in fundamentalist households. Maybe half or so remained fundamentalist in their thinking. These kids start to have social lives, play video games, watch movies, and do all the other things that draw people out of the fundamentalist cocoon. Coupled with the rise of the internet and the state’s continued fight against religious homeschooling (thank cthulhu for that one), fundamentalist groups’ retention will decrease.

    The guy makes the claim that fundamentalist groups have new methods of organization and communication that help increase retention. It is possible that that is true. But if these groups hope to sustain, they had better remain pretty insular, like the Amish. It has been my experience that the more politicized a group gets, the more their followers will drop away. As the group politicizes, people throughout the world start scrutinizing its activities and taking action against it. It becomes easier to leave, and attempts to ostracize the apostates will usually result in political infighting erupting within the church. This is what happened with the Warren Jeffs group. Give the group twenty years or so, and they will be but a shadow of what they once were.

  • Houndies

    This guy sounds like a classic cult leader. I wonder what will happen to his plan when genetics take over and some of the kiddies and grandkiddies are born. He might have a son or daughter who is gay, maybe a daughter or two that cannot reproduce or a son that cannot reproduce. He may have a child with a physical challenge. He’s probably never considered these things because he thinks because his plan is so extensive and divinely inspired god will see it to fruitition. He’s sounds nuttso to me.

  • KarateMonkey

    I recently finished reading a The Means of Reproduction (Great book by the way. I learned a ton.)

    The final chapter is somewhat relevant to this discussion. The author talks about fears of a “birth strike” in the developed world leading to a demographic invasion by Muslim hordes. She makes the very interesting point that most of the fear mongers would point to countries like Poland as a model. It’s very religious. They are strictly anti-abortion, and they do everything they can to encourage mothers to stay home.

    Poland has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe. 1.27 children per woman in 2006. The highest birthrates belonged to France, Norway and Sweden.

    While higher birthrates are associated with lower status for women in the developing world, in the modern industrialized world gender inequality is associated with lower birthrates. The Muslim immigrants everyone is afraid of, their birthrate is falling too. Even in Iran the birthrate is dropping. In 2008 the it was 1.71 children per woman.

  • I just want to say I enjoy the comment about the super uterus of the Catholic. It kinda gives me an idea for a superhero…

  • After reading Joyce’s “Quiverfull” on and off for several months now, I’m finally almost finished with it. I thought the militaristic descriptions were especially frightful, like “spiritual warfare”, and “arming children to fight God’s battle”.

error: Content is protected !!