Atheists will soon start to die out, according to demographic projections. So much for 'secularisation theory'

At first glance, it looks as though the Sea of Faith has well and truly evaporated. At the start of Lent this year, the BBC expressed puzzlement when Glasgow MP Carol Monaghan turned up to a parliamentary meeting wearing ash on her forehead, and asked whether this was “appropriate”. As the general election was called, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron came under fire because of his Evangelical Christianity, a belief system historically central to liberalism but now incompatible with secular (but seemingly no less sacred) ideas about sexuality. The message: that religion is not just outdated but also absurd.

Western Christianity has been under sustained pressure for at least three centuries, a process that began with the Dutch philosopher Spinoza but accelerated in the 19th century with Darwin and the German Higher Criticism. In the Middle East Islamists may bomb churches and behead “Nazarenes”, but ridicule has been a highly effective way of driving Christianity out of public life in Europe.

This has really begun to tell in the past three decades, an acceleration dictated by demography, as older churchgoers are succeeded by young atheists. Christians are dying and not being replaced, and the balance has even tipped in the United States, long seen as the exceptional highly religious Western country. There the decline of the mainline Protestant churches is finally starting to show, while the Catholic Church is also ailing: not even mass migration from Latin America can save it, with Hispanics leaving the faith in droves.

The number of Americans identifying as atheists doubled between 2007 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Centre, while Catholicism loses six times as many followers as it gains, becoming part of the worldwide Church Despondent. Even the most religious countries in Western Europe – Catholic Ireland, Portugal and Malta – are catching up with France and Britain.

It seems we’re doomed, as the Calvinists might say. Secularisation theory holds that as countries develop economically, so religious belief declines. This has certainly been the case in Europe, where it has reached the stage where faith is regarded as an eccentricity, incomprehensible to a religiously illiterate media, as Mr Farron learned. Yet believers have for some time held out hope of a miracle to give them final victory: the battle of the cradle. They may now have found it.

As religious belief declines, birth rates fall dramatically. France was the first country to undergo secularisation, and by the late 19th century it had a fertility rate half that of the more churchgoing Britain. But the paradox is that as overall fertility decreases the gap between the religious and secular starts to grow, so that the next generation comes disproportionately from religious families.

This began to be discussed more seriously after our post-Berlin Wall assumptions about “the end of history” were struck down on September 11, 2001. Two books in the ensuing decade suggested that religious believers might win the war of the cradle after all: God is Back by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, and Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?

Kaufmann looked at demographic patterns across the West and found that, taking into account class and education, there were large fertility gaps between practising Catholics, nominal Catholics and the secular. Everywhere atheist birth rates were catastrophically low, with Austrian secularists having just 0.7 children per woman. Europe’s ethos was summed up by an issue of Time magazine with the cover line: “The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children.” (Or alternatively: “We have no future – awesome!”)

And yet according to Pew, the average American Mormon has 3.4 children, while among religious Catholics and Protestants it is between 2 and 2.5. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have among the highest fertility in the world and non-religious Jews the lowest. American agnostics have just 1.3 children per woman.

Kaufmann’s central idea is backed up a newly published study, The Future of Secularism, which compares the fertility rates of atheists and believers in the United States and Malaysia. It concludes that the number of atheists will “slowly diminish”, while religious believers go forth and multiply. The paper, which presents what it calls a “contra-secularisation hypothesis”, suggests that secularism will decline “throughout the remainder of the 21st century, including [in] Europe and other industrial societies”.

Among those who profess no religion, known in demographic circles as “nones”, there were more births than deaths in every region of the world between 2010 and 2015. Yet the report suggests that by 2030 atheists will start to die out in Asia-Pacific, the most godless region of earth. Europe will follow suit five years later. The authors write: “It is ironical that effective birth control methods were developed primarily by secularists, and that these methods are serving to slowly diminish the proportional representation of secularists in forthcoming generations.”

These projections have received support from Pew, which suggested last month that the proportion of “religiously unaffiliated” people in the world will decline from 16 per cent today to 13 per cent by 2050.

What’s new about The Future of Secularism is that it delves into an area demographers have previously shied away from: the role genetics plays in religious belief, personality and intelligence. In particular, the study suggests that people who score high on agreeableness, one of the “big five” personality traits, are more involved in religious activities, have larger families and are more connected to their communities.

A recent meta-analysis published in the journal Nature concluded that agreeableness is about 50 per cent genetic. According to The Future of Secularism, “adults who score high on agreeableness tend to invest heavily in both religious and family life”. More controversially, the study cites evidence that intelligence is falling across the West, due to declining fertility among the highly educated, and that “since intelligent individuals are somewhat less likely to be religious, a decline in mean IQ could result in greater average religiosity”.

This is highly contentious – perhaps less so to believers than to secular liberals for whom equality is a sacred idea – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s untrue. Today Christianity has become a victim of its own success. Its ideas about the dignity of the poor and vulnerable, and the rights of the individual – alien to much of the world – have evolved into progressivism, a secular heresy which now deems Christianity irrelevant.

Yet it is secularism that is perhaps selecting people carrying more specifically religious traits, since these selection effects only come into play with the advent of birth control, as “individuals who were most successful in curtailing their fertility during this time were the most highly educated and the least religious”.

Edward Dutton, one of the authors of the study, says: “When I was doing my PhD we read secularisation theory – ‘God is dead’ – but secularisation is just objectively wrong. The problem is that it’s not underpinned by biology. The assertion of God’s death is a bit premature. He didn’t die, he just got a bit ill, but because of the fertility rates, society is likely to become more religious.”

Eric Kaufmann, however, is sceptical about some of The Future of Secularism’s claims. He calls the link between religion and intelligence “a huge leap”.

“It may be that the religious rump really are the low-IQ and they have more kids,” he says, “but recent evidence in the West shows that fertility is higher among Masters-educated women than BA or high school. Also that church attendance is higher among the middle than lower class. And we know that Mormons who are successful have more kids than less successful Mormons – indeed, the lower class are generally less churched than the middle. So it’s a complicated story.”

He argues that retention is the biggest issue, and notes that mainstream Christian churches are continuing to lose huge numbers. “The long-term future is one based on religious return via demography,” he says, “though I would say this will be achieved mainly by closed, endogamous, pro-natalist sects and not by the major proselytising branches of the world religions.”

The biggest winner, according to the new paper, will be Islam. Currently, about a fifth of all humans are Muslim, but his will rise to one in four by 2100. In addition to Muslims having the highest reproduction rates, “Islam retains membership unusually well due in part to harsh sanctions imposed for members renouncing Islam”.

The Dutch scholar Hans Jansen once remarked that “For a century and a half, secularists have been announcing the end of religion as pious Jews announce the coming of the Messiah.” It seems that they will have as long a wait.

Ed West is a journalist and author

This article first appeared in the May 5 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here