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Demography and the Future of Secularism

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 10, 2012 09:45 AM

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Fifty years from now, will Western societies be more religious, or more secular? Many informed observers cite survey data which shows that Americans and Europeans are moving away from organized religion; the future, they say, will be a secular one.

In a new essay in The American -- the online journal of the conservative American Enterprise Institute -- demographer Eric Kaufmann argues against that narrative. The move away from religion, he says, needs to be put in a "demographic context." It might be true that many Americans self-identify as having "no" religion, but it's also true that "values have polarized people and increasingly determine family size." Across the world, "population change is reversing secularism and shifting the center of gravity of entire societies in a conservative religious direction." The same will be true here in the United States, where religious families have more children than non-religious ones.

Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar may represent our demographic future. Photo by Jim Bob Duggar.

It's easy to underestimate the role that population change can have in social change, Kaufmann says, but it can have a huge role, especially when differences in values drive differences in fertility. The rise of Jewish orthodoxy in Israel and around the world is one good example:

The combination of religious polarization and demographic upheaval is especially stark among Jews. They began to secularize in large numbers in the 19th century, and Orthodoxy emerged to combat this trend. The temperature of Jewish fundamentalism increased sharply after the horrors of World War II, and an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community emerged, segregating itself from other Jews. Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the largely secular Zionist leadership assumed that the black-hatted, sidelocked Haredim were a relic of history. They gave the ultra-Orthodox an exemption from the draft, subsidies to study at yeshiva, and other religious privileges to make sure their anti-Zionism didn't dissuade the Great Powers from establishing a home for the Jews in Palestine. In 1948, there were only 400 Israeli Jews with military exemptions, many of which were not used. By 2007, that number had soared to 55,000. Meanwhile, the fringe of ultra-Orthodox pupils in Israel's Jewish primary schools in 1960 has ballooned: they now comprise a third of the Jewish first grade class. They are gaining power: in Jerusalem, Haredim rioted in late December, demanding the right to segregate women on buses, and have already elected the city's first Haredi mayor. Outside Israel, work by Joshua Comenetz and Yaakov Wise reveals that the ultra-Orthodox may form a majority of observant American and British Jews by 2050.

In the United States, Republicans have a similar values-driven fertility advantage -- an advantage, Kaufmann argues, which will outweigh the Democratic advantage of increased immigration, in part because many immigrants are conservative on social issues and maximalist in their family planning. He quotes policy analyst Philip Longman, of the New American Foundation, who points out that "In Seattle, there are nearly 45 percent more dogs than children. In Salt Lake City, there are nearly 19 percent more kids than dogs.”

Democrats have been trumpeting their demographic advantage for a while now, and the conservative counterattack has been inevitable. I eagerly await more developments. There's much more at The American.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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