Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Orthogonal musings on birthrates, religion

A man I knew recently passed on. I had the opportunity to speak to him at length less than 48 hours before he died, and the conversation will be etched in my mind for as long as my memory holds out. Although he was in his eighties, his mind was sharp (he died of lung cancer). Despite facing the end through slow suffocation, he showed no anxiety. He was ready to see a daughter who had died in infancy. A pious and secularly erudite man, he 'lectured' to me on multiple occasions on the Beatitudes, especially the Sermon on the Mount.

I bring this up because it illustrates a recurring theme: How beneficial or detrimental to an individual and to society is religious belief? That's a question with so many externalities and exceptions that a straightforward answer is lacking. I'm terrified of death a good sixty years out (or much longer, I hope), yet this friend was indifferent, even eager, just hours prior. I'm not religious. He was. So score one for religion? But that's hardly a trend. It just illustrates the shortcomings of one eschatological monomaniac.

On a national level, religiosity and IQ are, using data from a Pew survey, inversely correlated at .848. Domestically, religious belief and educational attainment are inversely related as well. But in the game of survival, 'fitness' doesn't necessarily entail the characteristics we conventionally deem desirable. The bald eagle is stronger, can fly higher, and has better eyesight than the red-tailed hawk. The peregrine falcon is faster and delivers a more crushing blow than the red-tail, but the red-tail thrives while the others recover from near extinction. Grizzlies are physically superior to black bears in every way, but the latter are everywhere and the former are nearly impossible to find. And the pitiable pious are reproducing, while the astute apostates are not.

The correlation between religiosity and fecundity at the national level (measured in total births per woman) is a statistically significant .714. The meek are inheriting the earth. Irreligious nations are moribund nations. Russians and Japanese are both dying faster than they're reproducing. All of the developed world, save the US (barely) and Israel, is on track not only to lose population 'market share' but to begin hemorraging population in absolute numbers as well.
It takes time for birth patterns to show up in terms of total population. This accentuates the problem, because by the time the problem becomes salient, fifty years of extra fecundity still leaves a smaller population than existed as the society first went over the precipice a half-century before. A simple hypothetical demonstrates.

Say there are 50 men and 50 women that dropped out of the sky as infants (total 100). Each live to 95 and give birth to one child (the women does) at age 30. Thus, after 30 years we have 150 people. Of those 50 newborns, 25 are men and 25 are women who will follow the same pattern. Thirty years later, we have 175 people total: 100 at age sixty, 50 at thirty, and 25 infants (population still growing).

Another 30 years, with the same birth cycles for our third generation (say 13 are women, 12 are men) and we now have 188 people total. But the age distribution is economically disastrous: 100 people are ninety, 50 are sixty, 25 are thirty, and 13 are infants. Supporting the people on top is smothering the younger generations, especially the 25 who are currnetly thirty years old.

The economic burden of supporting the senescent people makes it likely that they will have even fewer children than they did (relative to their parents). It's a vicious circle. This is where the West is today. Thirty years later the proportions are the same, but the population has finally started shrinking (because the largest first generation finally kicked the bucket): 50 people at ninety, 25 at sixty, 13 at thirty, and six infants (94 total people).

Now we are in free-fall. Thirty years later at the same births per woman, and we have only 47 people (25 at ninety, 13 at sixty, 6 at thirty, and 3 infants). If we do finally get our act (er, bodies) together, it takes generations for the momentum to actually shift. Let's say instead of plummeting, that last generation actually became thrice as fertile and had three kids per woman: 25 at ninety, 13 at sixty, 6 at thirty, and 9 infants (total 53). The next generation similarly has three children per woman: 13 at ninety, 6 at sixty, 9 at thirty, and 13 infants (total 41). Three generations into three-children women: 6 at ninety, 9 at sixty, 13 at thirty, and 20 infants (total 48). Four generations of birthing well above the replenishment rate, and we still have fewer people than we did at the height of the single-child generation.

At the height of Western dominance just before WWI, people of European ancestry comprised one-fourth of the world's population. At the dawn of the sexual revolution in the early sixties, they comprised one-sixth of it. Today, they make up one-tenth and that proportion continues to fall.

The religious also tend to be more nationalistic (anabaptists and Jehovah's Witnesses excluded), and the decline of Western religiosity has paralleled the decline in Western nationalism. A Pew survey of white evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, Catholics, and secularists found support for immigration restriction proceeded in the same order, with evangelicals least supportive of current immigration patterns and secularists the most supportive of them.

To the extent that religion has a causal effect on procreation and nationalism, it's difficult to see how to increase it without importing a low IQ third-world population. We need to find a way to glean the benefits associated with religiosity (fecundity and support for sovereignty) without assuming the baggage (lower economic productivity and lower IQs).

Could it be as simple as making the intelligent more pious? While the idea is abhorrent to the sharp, critical brains out there, I'm not aware of any evidence showing that religiosity has a detrimental effect on IQ, although that seems to be suggested when people point out strong inverse relationship between religiosity and IQ. Ownership of a seeing-eye dog is strongly related to the inability to drive a car. But obviously the dog doesn't render one unable to drive, nor does the inability of the owner to operate a vehicle say anything about the value of the dog.

I suspect religion is only a part of a larger cultural shift in which there is little pressure on people to get married and have children, and virtually no stigmatization if they refuse to. While Catholicism still condemns the pill, it's available nonetheless. An increasingly competitive globalized economy makes childrearing costly by diverting energy from business pursuits. A few places like France, Portugal and Russia have introduced economic incentives to entice their populations to have more children, but historically the results have been marginal because even with stipends to soften the blow of husbandry, children are still an economic liability. It's simply becoming less rational on the individual level to have children. But what is good for the individual can be disastrous for society (stealing/cheating, for example). The irrationality of religion probably negates the natural movement towards voluntary childlessness that seems to inevitably result from a world progressively open to 'selfish' pursuits, so many of which are more intriguing and less costly than raising kids.

Demographics become destiny. The US is staying afloat in the battle for replenishment by comprising its ethnic composition, trading skills and smarts for babies. The rest of the Occident is dying. Introducing market forces into the academic world should help. So would policies focused on making affordable family formation as conducive as possible, such as an end to wage-suppressing peasant labor and the instituting of a merit immigration system to raise the average native's standard of living.

(Politics and Religion)


Anonymous said...

You find yourself in a difficult position I suppose, being a godless conservative in the 'old-school' sense. Most atheists, in my experience, are rather liberal in the modern sense of the word, and I have to say that I wonder why. So your position is a lonely one, and a place where I have been myself.
You hint about a metric of 'fitness' that can be applied in the absence of any sort of transcendent meaning---that being Darwinian fitness. With no unkindness intended, how is that metric working for you? Certainly you bring forth adequate evidence that it works rather poorly for most that try it. The religous, while usually denying Darwin, are presently his most successful disciples :->.
But I'd ask, why is it that you do not believe in a Creator? The universe is such that you have to pick at least one of many absurd things to believe, and most lead to emptiness and despair. Perhaps you might find it profitable to reconsider your choice.

Kurt, Portland Oregon said...

Even though I do not believe in religion, usually I have no problem with those that do. My porblem is that the advocates of religion seem to be obsessed with using religion as a tool to limit individual autonomy and personal choice. This is especially the case with biological issues such as genetic enhancement and radical life extension, not to mention one's choice of sexual partners.

If the religious people were to back off a little and stop using religion for this nefarious purpose, I think they would find that much of the hostility that people like myself have towards them would evaporate.

I'm willing to bury the hatchet. Why can't they?

tom sheepandgoats said...


Since time goes on forever, but we only occupy 80-90 years of it in this life, it makes sense to focus on what happens after death. The reason modern people don't do it is that it can't really be explored via the scientific method, and they are too limited to imagine any other avenue. As your first paragraph shows, however, it comes in handy to be able to do that.

As to inverse correlation between religiousity and IQ, I can only speak from a JW perspective. I suspect the reason is not that smart people are too smart to develop religious interest, but that they are too proud. And I'm not sure IQ is the panacea it's made out to be.

Admittedly, stupid is not good either. Yet, the world is not run by unintelligent people. It is run by people lacking humility and empathy for fellowman. These are the qualities to value, and religion encourages them far more than non-religion.

With regard to this comment: "We need to find a way to glean the benefits associated with religiosity (fecundity and support for sovereignty" you correctly observed that JWs, practically alone, are non-nationalistic. Inasmuch as national sovereignty often amounts to little more than the child's "king of the mountain" game, should we not value people who are not limited by it, rather than those who uphold it? After all, we all see how far the U.N. gets in trying to work with national sovereignties.

You have a very thoughtful blog.

Anonymous said...

I think you'll find that nearly everyone, religious or not, is obsessed with using something, religious or not as a tool to limit individual autonomy and personal choice. Reasonably consistent libertarians are few and far between---I wager both of us have had vehicles in the past capable of carrying most of that group within the state of Oregon comfortably as passengers :->
But since you're looking for a sort of accomodation, I suggest this:
The payoff would likely be the almost complete demobilization of Christians as a political force. Since Christians are the most numerous subset of religious types in the US, this presumably would interest you.
There really aren't many things that are mandatory political beliefs for non-nominal Christians. It's quite possible to be a free market Christian, or a social democracy Christian (much as I hate to confess that). However there are a few non-negotiables for the bulk of the faithful. Key among those is abortion. Get rid of Roe v. Wade and devolve the fight over that issue to the state level and the impetus for political action by Christians as a corporate body will largely wither away (i.e. they'll largely revert to voting their group interests---primarily ethnicity and class). There are other issues, such as the ones you mention, but they don't have the visceral fire of the abortion issue, and are therefore very unlikely to activate that block of voters.

Kurt, Portland Oregon said...

The bone of contention I have with much of the christian right is their apparent hostility towards efforts to understand and remediate the aging process in humans. I am NOT referring to their opposition to embryonic stem cell research (which is a separate, but related issue). Several pundits associated with the religious right have made clear their opposition to radical life extension efforts, even if it does not involve the use of embryoes. Their position on this issue is unacceptable to me.

I have no problem with them on most other issues (i.e. family values, etc.).

As far as the sexual stuff goes (i.e. abortion, gays, etc.), I think they will make very little headway in the future.

Anonymous said...

I think you'll find that most Christians don't really have a dog in the fight on the radical life extension issue. Certainly a few do, but not enough to really mobilize any significant political force. This of course assumes that abortion gets decoupled from national politics (the only politics that really matters insofar as life extension technology goes). If it stays as a front and center issue, which it will if Roe continues to be successfully maintained, I'm afraid that the technology that both of us are fervently hoping for (while I believe I have an eternal reward stored up for me, I'm in no hurry to collect, as I view this life itself as a precious gift) may wind up being collaterally damaged. You might be surprised to know that there is really no consensus on the issue of life extension among Christians, and there is in fact ample precedent for 'godly men' living a very long time within our holy writings (think Old Testament patriarchs, Methesuleh, etc). This position, that many religious spokesmen I concede (for most religions honestly) seem to espouse, doesn't have any real doctrinal foundation. Even when there exists a strong argument from doctrine or tradition, the faithful are honestly not terribly inclined in many cases to put it into practice or to try to codify it into law (check out the statistics on how many Catholics, for instance, support birth control, you'll find that its almost the same as in the population at large). No I think the only thing you really have to worry about is a backlash caused by the failure to give ground on the Roe issue. Perhaps you should consider the example of how the Roman general finally managed to beat the Cathaginian elephants---often its better to give a bit of ground to divide your opposition.

Kurt, Portland Oregon said...

Yes, the Roe option. I actually have no problem with an overturning of Roe vs. Wade, if it is done on the basis that it should not have been a federal jurisdictional issue (i.e. states vs. federal). In fact, this is the most likely manner that Roe vs. Wade will be overturned, if it actually is.

The effect of overturning Roe vs. Wade on this issue would be to preclude the possibility of a federal ban on abortion. Then, it will be a state by state issue, just like when the federal 55 MPH speed limit was repealed.

Anonymous said...

Yes, to be honest, the biggest threat to the life extension progress that both of us desire is socialized medicine rather than the influence of the religious. Certainly socialized medicine would result in less gold for doctors and medical researchers, which means that we'd be reduced in the future to benefiting from mostly people that have a 'calling' to medicine. I don't know about you, but I'm keen on enjoying the fruits of the labors of the profit-maximizing and mercenary as well as the humanitarian of our 'best & brightest'. Right now becoming a doctor or medical researcher is a fairly reliable ticket to the lower upper class, or at least the upper middle, and I'd like to see it stay that way (or even get a bit better). Presently, if you look at our net expenditures on medical R&D, we're effectively running an Apollo Program or Manhattan project with natural death as the enemy. Thankfully, most of those who are pro-death don't realize this fact :-> What I'd like to see is socialized law, for much the same reasons as I loathe the prospect of socialized medicine. There are a lot of brilliant lawyers not yet manufactured that I'd rather see redirected into the practice of science, business or medicine through the use of natural incentives:->

crush41 said...


I didn't mean to construe myself as godless. I'm a self-described theist, but I'm agnostic when it comes to questions of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, and all the other attributes that make for rich discussions (ie, Can God create a stone so heavy He is unable to life it?)

Selfishly, I take the contemporary understanding of Pascal's Wager to be a pretty solid argument in favor of at least giving spirituality some breathing room. A few years back I suffered a severe concussion that left me unable to remember anything for four days. Coming out of the delirium is something I'll never forget. I probably should have been dead, and I experienced such an overwhelming feeling of helplessness that the conception of 'waking' up one day to an existence removed from the laws of the universe we currently exist in is something I can fancifully imagine if I really stretch.

And I find atheism philosohpically untenable, and in its professed certainty, quite religious as well.

The point about Darwininan fitness seeming to be bestowed on those most skeptical of its existence is indeed true.


I'm similarly struck. Raised an ECLA Lutheran, the religious community I've experienced is entirely removed from secular concerns. I've never heard embryonic stem cells, abortion, capital punishment, or immigration mentioned at church. In an online newsletter my pastor mentioned evolution, but only to admonish the faithful in becoming involved in the debate from a religious perspective because it presumed knowledge about the nature of God that is impossible to ascertain.


I've always admired the conviction of Jehovah's Witnesses. They, virtually alone, chose to be persecuted under Hitler when simply pledging allegiance to the Third Reich offered an escape from persecution.

It would be fascinating to know the SAT/ACT scores of all our Congress critters to see if any discernible trend emerged between corruption and IQ. I'll find the correlation between national IQ and corruption over the weekend, although I'm pretty certain that IQ and corruption are inversely related (with exceptions existing, of course).

Regarding the UN: Disdain for the ineptness, costliness, and risibility of the UN describing me aside, dislike for the world body doesn't necessarily equate with nationalism. The neocons despise the UN, but they also despise nationalism. The UN's problems run impossibly deep because of the realities of the human condition and the great human biodiversity that comprises its members.


Heh, I thought Oregon was as libertarian as you can get, with Eugene groundzero.

I agree that Roe is the rallying cry for religious Christian activists. I wonder if conservative pols would even allow for a constitutional amendment if they thought it might pass. Such a whithering away wouldn't be good for the GOP.


I'm not so sure. The Hispanicization of the American Southwest does not bode well for many of the left's social causes, chief among them the 'right to privacy' and environmentalism.

Thanks to all for the interesting discussion thus far.

Kurt, Portland Oregon said...

Yes, socialized medicine is a much greater threat to life extension than anything the christians are doing. Its not because it removes the financial incentives, but that it would reinforce the bureaucratic nature of the medical system and make it impossible to go "outside" the system. For example, "Hillary-care" in 1993 would have banned vitamin supplements (which is one of the reasons it failed).

Yes, I also think that the overturn of Roe vs Wade would make the christian right go away on the national level.


I think the hispanization of the Southwest bodes very well for "leftist" causes like wealth redistribution and the like. It is true that the hispanics have little regard for environmental issues. But they do tend to support economic populism.

savage said...

The problem with the secular left with regards to religion is how it equivocates relentlessly. Rather than treating specific faiths and dogma, the Christian fundamentalist and the Islamic fundamentalist are encompassed equally by way of being religious.

Because the former occasionally attacks an abortion clinic, he is no different than the Wahhabi extremist. Pay no mind to frequency, or that in the case of the Christian he is ubiquitously condemned within his own community while the Muslim is at least acquiesced to and usually celebrated.

It is this inability or refusal to take anything more than a tertiary view of the complexities of religiosity that reveals an enormous moral bankruptcy.

crush41 said...


Certainly Hispanization bodes well for the Democratic Party, but not for the left's most 'selfless' goals (the kind that distinguishes its supporter as an elite who can afford to support such a cause) like environmental protection, banning cigarette smoking in public places, same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. An almost monomaniac focus on wealth transfer (and affirmative action policies) probably characterizes the Democratic Party of the future.


A Steve Sailer reader had an interesting take on the inability to distinguish between an occurence and its average frequency.

al fin said...

Religious people do themselves a disservice when they try to argue religion with a conservative/libertarian "agnostic" who otherwise shares many points of view with them. That kind of arrogance can cause someone who otherwise might sympathise with many of the religious persons' causes, to turn around and view those causes more critically.

Choose your battles very carefully, because the current coalition in the US that has held off total socialist control of government, is very tenuous. Religious people can drive off a lot of allies by making too many unfounded assumptions--particularly about their political power without allies.

nzconservative said...

Most people in the West have replaced faith in religion with faith in progress.

Subsequently they can't handle harsh truths like inequality, or the idea that civilisations rise and fall.

Perhaps the greatest secular myth is the idea that all people can become wise through education.

Only a small minority of non-religious people are capable of facing up to such harsh realities, and such people don't necessarily recommend atheism to others.

Anti- religious atheists, such as old school Marxists, are a contradiction in terms.

It is a natural state of affairs for the majority to be religious and for a minority of people to be secular.