Fertility, Faith, and a Secular America?

Oct 23, 2019 by

by Philip Jenkins, The Gospel Coalition:

This past year, fertility rates in the United States fell to a historic low, with the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) standing at 1.7 (that statistic refers to the number of children a typical woman will bear during her lifetime)…

…Present demographic trends in the United States are the best indicator yet of an impending secular shift of historic proportions, even a transition to West European conditions…

…That European precedent demands our attention. In the 1950s, European rates ran at high baby-boom rates, around 3.0 children per woman, or more. From the mid-1960s, sharp falls became evident, first in Protestant countries—notably in Scandinavia—and then in Catholic lands. By the 1980s, some European countries were pushing rates to unprecedented lows of 1.3 or lower, although they have subsequently rebounded somewhat. A typical European country today has a TFR around 1.7 to 1.8—roughly equal to the United States.

That fertility drop coincided perfectly with a well-known and much-studied move away from institutional religion, which in some countries amounted to something like evaporation. That drop also coincided with a tectonic shift in public morality, as referenda resulted in the legalization of once unthinkable innovations: the legalization of contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia.

Reeling from repeated defeats, the churches suffered a disastrous fall in their prestige and popularity. By all standard measures—church attendance, clerical vocations, even a willingness to identify as Christian—many European countries became radically secularized.

To say two trends coincided doesn’t necessarily imply they’re connected; anyone who’s ever taken an introductory statistics course knows about the problems of distinguishing between correlation and causation. Still, the European experience does strongly suggest an intimate linkage between fertility and faith, although we can argue about the direction of change.

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