Population and Religion

This section was kindly set up and written for us by John McKeown

Eric Kaufmann: ‘Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century’ (Profile, 2010)Shall the religious inherit the earth

The title is misleading but Kaufmann clarifies “this book argues that religious fundamentalists are on course to take over the world by demography”. The demographic dividing line is not between secular and religious, but cuts across each religion because, as Pope Francis has said, fundamentalism is “a disease of all religions”. Kaufmann warns that fundamentalist groups have high birth rates, are growing in number, and some are advocating endogenous growth as a strategy. The book’s chapters introduce examples: Mormons and Quiverfull in the USA, Salafists in the Islamic world, and Haredi in Israel. Kaufmann’s illuminating work has done more than any other to highlight the role of fundamentalism in global demography.


Alon Tal: ‘Be Fruitful and Multiply: Jewish Procreation and Ultra-Orthodox Fertility’, chapter 7 of The Land is Full: Addressing Overpopulation in Israel (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).theLandIsFull

Haredi is a generic term for diverse Ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups. In the state of Israel, other kinds of Jews (Orthodox and ‘secular’) have a birth rate (2.6 in 2012) slightly higher than other countries with similar economic development. Longstanding reasons for that are a desire to replenish after the Holocaust, and fear of Arab demographic increase. However, the Haredi are distinctive and Tal explains the religious ideas driving that. Back in the 1960s the Haredi birth rate was similar to other Israeli Jews, but in the 1970s it diverged and in 2003 it was 7.6 children per woman. Since then it has declined slightly to 6.5 but remains higher in Israel than elsewhere: in North America the Haredi birth rate is 4.1 per woman. Religion affects fertility in two ways. Directly, ‘be fruitful’ is read as commanding men to reproduce. Indirectly, religious political parties in Israel in the 1970s won state subsidy for full-time Torah study: now half of Haredi men receive lifelong stipends and devote themselves to being fathers. Alon Tal identifies latent features of Haredi belief offering hope: the command applies only to men, so women can use contraceptives. Also in time of famine or other crisis reproduction may be limited, but currently most Haredi leaders do not regard ecological problems as such a crisis.


The Changing Global Religious Landscape, 2017.

The Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life is a leading producer of survey data and methodologically rigorous analysis with a focus on the USA but a global scope. This report includes data on births by religion of mother in each country, and combined with age structure, death rates, and estimates of adult switching between religions, they provide forecasts of the number of people affiliated to each religion up to 2060.

John McKeown: ‘God’s Babies: Natalism and Bible Interpretation in Modern America’ (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014)God's babies

Diverse Christian ideas about reproduction are explored here. Some U.S. Protestants are natalists, believing that efforts to beget numerous offspring are mandated by the Old Testament. This book unpacks the ancient context of the Bible verses quoted by natalists, and offers different interpretations. Challenging the assumption that religion normally promotes big families, it finds exceptions among early Christians who preferred spiritual growth to biological fecundity.


Robert McClory: ‘Turning Point: The Inside Story of the Papal Birth Control Commission and How Humanae Vitae Changed the Life of Patty Crowley and the Future of the Church’ (New York: Crossroad, 1997)Turning Point

Vatican II (1962-65), the most recent global Council of the Catholic church, did not discuss artificial contraception because Pope John XXIII had already assigned that issue to a special Papal Commission whose membership was around half laity, including a few women. In 1966 the Commission voted overwhelmingly to commend reform. But some dissenting Cardinals persuaded the Pope (by then Paul VI) to ignore the Papal Commission’s recommendation, and instead the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae appeared.


C. Bell and R. White: ‘Creation Care and the Gospel: Reconsidering the Mission of the Church’ (Hendrickson 2016)creation care

A recent book, arising from an international conference on environmental issues organised by the Lausanne Movement, includes a chapter on population and family planning by John McKeown. An early preprint draft of that chapter is accessible here>>