Fertility and Faith
The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions
- ISBN: 9781481311311
- Published By: Baylor University Press
- Published: July 2020
How do shifting fertility trends in contemporary societies relate to shifting trends in religiosity worldwide? In Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions, Philip Jenkins argues that low-fertility societies typically correlate with low religiosity, whereas high-fertility societies typically remain highly religious. To support this claim, Jenkins uses secularization theory as an interpretative framework for his well-researched demographic data and the complex sociohistorical factors therein. He cautions against simplistic claims of causation, while testing his correlative demographic interpretations on various nations of Europe, North America, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Jenkins adapts the secularization theory by qualifying that the European-originated “demographic revolution” (27) cannot be reduced to a mere diffusion of “European or Western ways” (22) but can be seen as part of a complex web of interconnected economic and social trends worldwide. Jenkins presents his deductions both analytically and predictively by suggesting that, although imperfect, statistics of demographic change relating to drops in fertility on a global scale indicate new sets of social and religious landscapes in societies throughout the world now and, likely, in the future.
Jenkins supports his interpretations in two parts, concluding with implications that a “low-fertility world” (193) could have on religious institutions and people of faith. In chapter 1, Jenkins introduces Total Fertility Rate (TFR) as a widely used measuring tool for international comparisons of fertility. TFRs are highly significant to the spectrum of demands on government or familial support, resource scarcity or abundance, economic advance or decline, cultural expansion or extinction, and religious adherence.
In chapter 2, Jenkins suggests that as European nations increased in economic stability and wealth, the necessity for individuals to depend on families for support weakened. This coincided with decreased infant mortality rates, reducing the pressure for families to have higher quantities of children. Additionally, increased opportunities for women in education, employment, and earning power created social conditions in which delaying childbearing became more likely. Social and policy allowance for divorce, normalization in the use of contraception, laws regarding abortion, and same-sex marriage likewise contributed to shifting European fertility rates, with some countries falling below replacement level.
Jenkins builds on these European social trends in chapter 3, extrapolating links between fertility rates and Europe’s religious transformations. He does this by expounding on the secularization theory, differentiating “the political power and influence of religious institutions” from “actual religious practice and observance” (51). A key point in Jenkins’ overall argument is the claim that “secularization is a self-limiting process” (74). He highlights how immigrants—many of whom are younger, have larger families, and are typically more religious—are crucial for societies with low TFRs to remain stable economically. This leads the reader to the apex of his overall argument, chapter 4.
In chapter 4 Jenkins suggests that like Europe, religious institutions in Asia and Latin America will also be faced with (or are currently facing) crisis. According to Jenkins, similar themes such as improved accessibility to medical facilities for both infants and childbearing women, economic trends leading to employment opportunities, increased opportunities for education for women, and growing distrust in religious institutions can be seen in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and—to a lesser degree—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Jenkins’ turn to Latin America demonstrates an acknowledgment of the high fertility rates in many of its nations while arguing that these rates are also falling in tandem with areas that are experiencing economic development. Chapter 5 focuses on the United States as both high in fertility and high in religiosity. Jenkins reminds the reader how European ideologies and values shifted prior to critiques and disaffiliations with ecclesial structures and organized religion, suggesting that the United States may be in the early stages of similar ideological shifts before any European-like secularization takes hold.
In chapter 6 Jenkins demonstrates how Africa consists of various high-fertility and highly religious societies, making its populations generally younger. According to Jenkins, traditional views of women and family, use of contraception, infant mortality rates, distrust of government, and polygamy contribute to these higher fertility rates. Chapter 7 extends the discussion into a more nuanced look at Islam, its ideologies, and its expectations of women, emphasizing that in certain areas of the world “religion” is not about institutional affiliation but is a cultural identification. Nonetheless, Jenkins suggests that several Islamic nations may be nearing a rapid decline in religiosity, evidenced by their TFR trends, globalization, and the dissemination of ideologies regarding women.
Chapter 8 highlights populist governments that draw their rise of power from high-fertility groups within their nations by using Turkey, Russia, Israel, and India as examples. Jenkins concludes his argument in chapter 9, engaging the question of how the world’s religions can cope with such unprecedented changes in demographics. As the world continues to shift toward low-fertility societies, the role of religion and its features will change too.
Jenkins provides an important demographic analysis in historical perspective that uniquely contributes to multiple disciplines and is highly relevant for today’s shifting sociopolitical and religious landscapes worldwide. Of course, to extrapolate meaning from general trends and broad projections, certain essentialist claims can occur. Assumptions regarding secularization and economic advancement can become problematic at the local level, especially when religious belief is differentiated from institutional belonging. Further, part 1 accentuates the economic advancement and freedom-oriented aspirations of modern societies with falling TFRs as being in a religious crisis, whereas part 2 accentuates the economic turmoil and lack of Western-defined freedoms for women in high-fertility, high-religious societies. Although this was likely unintentional, readers could perceive this broad-stroke structure as having certain Western posthumanistic ideals latent within the argument’s design.
Jenkins makes a clear argument and supports it well with impressive demographic breadth and fascinating historical depth. His contribution is highly relevant and could be crucial to a multidisciplinary hermeneutic for approaching fluctuations in fertility rates—such that policy makers, theologians, students, and scholars of world religion might engage critically with TFR trends and projections worldwide.
Lisa Joy Fowler is a PhD student at Asbury Theological Seminary.Lisa Joy FowlerDate Of Review:January 29, 2022