Monday, September 14, 2009

The pieces don't seem to fit.

Right-wing Catholic writer, Mary Eberstadt, has tried to explain the rise of secularization in the West. And she tries to do it and promote a Catholic view of things at the same time. Having babies is important, it is the only justification for sex, according to the Catholic sect. She argues that secularization of a society follows the decline in population growth. As people stop having more and more babies they cease to be religious.

Because families are smaller today than they used to be that is promoting a change in beliefs. Her evidence, in my opinion, is pretty flimsy. She also assumes that a smaller family is a "decline of the family." Big Catholic families ("every little sperm is sacred" - see video below for fun) would be described as a successful family. Having fewer children is not the decline of the family. It is just smaller families. People stil have families. Even just a couple who love each other are a family. But the Catholics are quite obsessive about reproducing—odd since their priests are so bad at it—though not for a lack of trying in some case. But altar boys just don't get pregnant.

Eberstadt theorizes that family sizes fell in Europe and then religion declined as a result. And, this is pretty much true. But corrallation is not causation. She says: "In France, for example — where secularism has been a ferocious social and political force for centuries — people generally stopped having babies much sooner than they did elsewhere on the Continent."

So, she assumes the one causes the other. And then to prove it says: "Once we allow that family decline is at least partly responsible for religious decline, we can do a better job of explaining the 'exceptions' in the literature than does secularization theory itself. Specifically, we can explain the largest problem that has bedeviled the theory all along: i.e., the difference in religiousity between Europe and the United States."

This is Eberstadt's proof. Since the U.S. is more religious and has higher birth rates than Europe then "changes in marrying and having babies are helping to drive changes in religiosity..." She claims that: "While fertility has plummeted in most of the rest of the industrialized world, to take one example, in the United States it remains the same, even registering a slight increase."

According to the The World Factbook, compiled by the CIA the fertility rate, that is the average number of children that a woman will give birth to in her lifetime, is 2.05 for the United States. For the "secular" French it is 1.98. The difference is rather small. So the drop in French fertility rates, as compared to the U.S. is all of 0.07. Basically that means for every 1 million American women there are 2,050,000 births and for every 1 million French women there are 1.980,000 births. Is a birth difference of just 70,000 per million women enough to drive the French to secularism while Americans are religious?

It is also curious, if the CIA numbers are correct, why cultures that are far more secular than the United States can have higher fertility rates? For instance, Greenland, a Danish outpost, has a birth rate of 2.19. The difference between Greenland and the United States is much greater than the difference between the United States and France (0.14 vs 0.07). If family size drives religiosity to some degree then we would have to presume that Greenland is even more religious than the United States. Unfortunately, for the theory, that isn't the case.

Another example is New Zealand. The fertility rate in New Zealand is 2.1, which is higher than in the United States. But church attendance in New Zealand is on levels well below the United States. Only 7.5% of the Kiwis are in church on any given Sunday. While surveys in the United States show about 20% of the population as saying they have "no religion," the New Zealand census showed that 32% of Kiwis claim to have no religion. Higher birth rates and higher secularization.

Eberstadt attempted to explain why the United States is the exception in religious trends around the world. She assumes that is the case. I don't think so. Religion is on the decline in the United States EVEN as birth rates remain steady or, as Eberstadt claimed "even registering a slight increase." She tries to explain exceptions to one theory and offers another that has even more exceptions that need explaining.

Take Cyprus as another example. Cypriots tend to be more religious than Americans. The percentage of Cypriots who claim to be members of Greek Orthodox church is greater than the number of Americans who claim to be Christian. Yet their birth rates are very low in comparison, just 1.77.

If Eberstadt's family-driving-religion theory made sense then the following ought to be true:
• Greenland ought to be more religious than the United States. In fact, it is less religious.

• New Zealand ought to be more religious than the United States. In fact, it too is less religious.

• Cyprus ought to be less religious than the United States but instead is more religous.

Now let us look at actual trends in the United States, trends that run counter to Eberstandt's theory.

Eberstadt notes that the U.S. has relatively higher birth rates compared to the rest of the West. She assumes religion causes that. Yet Americans today are far less religious than they were just a few years ago. The number of Americans who classify themselves as non-believers has doubled in recent years even as the birth rate has not declined, as would be expected if Eberstadt is correct. The most recent American Religous Identification Survey shows that currently 70% of Americans say they are Christian. In 1990 it was 86%. That is a substantial drop in a very short time that clearly is unrelated to birth rates. The Survey says: "The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not coe from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion."

The Survey said, in a press statement:
The percentage of Americans claiming no religion, which jumped from 8.2 in 1990 to 14.2 in 2001, had now increased to 15 percent. …Northern New England has now taken over the Pacific Northwest as the least religious section of the county, with Vermont, at 34 percent “Nones,’ leading all other states by a full 9 points. Ariela Keyser who helped conduct the survey said: “The Nones are the only group to have grown in every state of the union.”
The Survey says that statistical analysis indicates that a lot of people who decline to answer questions abour religion are more likely in the "None" category. They write, "we can observe that in 2008 one in five adults does not identify with a religion of any kind compared with one in ten in 1990." Clearly the secularization process is taking place in the United States, and at a relatively rapid pace, while birth rates are not declining. This ought not be happening if Eberstadt's theory makes sense. I conclude it doesn't.

Oddly Albert Mohler, comes to the defense of Eberstadt's theory. He says: "Mary Eberstadt is also surely right." He says that American "exceptionalism" is evidence of it. Southern Baptist Mohler is actually contradicting himself. In his own blog he previous claimed that "The worldview of most Americans is now thoroughly secularized..." He claimed the church was displaced as is "characteristic of the process of secularization which has now so thoroughly alterned the landscape of American culture." He goes as far as saying that America is a "post-Christian" nation. But if America is a post-Christian nation, as Mohler claimed, then Eberstadt's theory is wrong.

Poor Rev. Mohler, whatever you think of his theology, his logic is piss poor. He wants America to be the exception to the general theory and thus highly religious in one case. But in another case he claims religion has been displaced and America is now "post-Christian." I'm not surprised he has said contradictory things. His motives were different in each case. The artilce on "post-Christian" America was the typical doom and gloom you hear from fundamentalists. His cheerleading for Eberstadt's theory however, had a different agenda.

As Mohler sees it, and perhaps as Eberstadt does as well, this theory supposedly proved "the importance of preserving family structure and high rates of childbirth in light of spiritual commitments." When fundamentalist talk about "preserving family" you know that an old-fashioned gay bashing isn't far behind.

As Mohler wrote himself, America has entered a "post-Christian" era. Apparently he thinks America is still the "exception" to secularization while being a shining example of secularization simultaneously. It is one thing, and it's complete opposite, at the same time. In other words: A is not A. Now you know why I say he is poor at logic.

Both Mohler and Eberstadt have religious agendas. That's fine. We know they have them. But I think it is clear that they are trying to interpret reality to fit with their religion. Unfortunately for them reality doesn't work that way. It is what it is. Perhaps in Mohler's mind A can be non-A but in the real world A is A.

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