Controversial right-wing Congressman Steve King made headlines in March when he tweeted his support for anti-Muslin Dutch politician Geert Wilders saying, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” One can only imagine, then, the level of dismay Wilders, King, and others must feel from the latest Pew Research report which drops the bombshell that “Babies born to Muslims will begin to outnumber Christian births by 2035.”
While this is good news for Islam, it poses unique challenges for Christianity, which is a faith that has long emphasized family and “the great commission” (a command to spread Jesus’ message globally).
For Christianity, the problem begins with an aging population: Christians have “had a disproportionately large share of the world’s deaths (37 percent),” according to the study. The global Christian population continues to grow, but “more modestly.” According to the study, Christian deaths are outpacing births, especially in Europe.
For Islam, the story is significantly different. In fact, “between 2010 and 2015, births to Muslims made up an estimated 31 percent of all babies born around the world — far exceeding the Muslim share of people of all ages in 2015 (24 percent).”
For some Christian traditions, whose emphasis is on families and reproduction, this news may bring mixed feelings.
“From a Catholic perspective,” says Colleen Gerke, president of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers—an organization, that seeks to strengthen the Church’s commitment to families—the report underscores the direction the Catholic Church must take.
“The Pew report is in line with the urgency that Catholic faith leaders have already articulated. This urgency concerns not just our theology, but the need of using new methods to evangelize,” reaching not only those who “identify themselves as Catholic,” but also “our non-Catholic brothers and sisters,” she said.
She is convinced that an essential part of the Catholic Church’s growth is first through the family. Many might first put the focus on big families, but she says the cornerstone of a strong society begins with strong marriages.
“The Catholic Church has long professed the importance of strong marriages building strong families. These strong families then become the building blocks of strong communities and strengthen society,” she adds.
She points to the marriage initiative from U.S. Bishops, which provides marriage advice and education to U.S. Catholics, as an example of the Church’s theology in action.
“It is out of our Catholic understanding of marriage that we choose to become parents committed to raising Christian children, who live and bring the Good News of the love of God and salvation through Jesus Christ to the world.”
“God has given us this gift of Christian marriage and family,” she adds, “and embracing this gift as intended with love and joy will provide us the momentum needed…to grow as a Catholic Church.”
It isn’t news to say that not all Christians hold to what is sometimes called traditional families. Christianity has its share of diversity on procreation, contraception, gender, and family—running the conservative to liberal spectrum—but there are smaller segments of Protestant Christianity that have even rarer perspectives on what makes a large Christian family necessary.
They believe in transforming society by out-reproducing other worldviews, and this Pew study speaks volumes to that core commitment of their faith.
For example, the largely Protestant Quiverfull movement—with “movement” reflecting their shared theology, as they are not actually an organized group—promotes a religious form of natalism (childbearing for the sake of cultural growth). The idea was introduced to pop-culture by the once widely watched show 19 Kids and Counting, which followed the lives of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their nineteen children.
“Quiverfull” comes from Psalm 127:3-5, which says that children are a blessing and “like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them…”
A prominent voice advocating Quiverfull theology is Nancy Campbell, publisher of Above Rubies, a magazine in its 40th year which seeks to strengthen marriages and families. Campbell emphasizes that (in her eyes) Quiverfull isn’t a movement, but it is “a sovereign move of God.”
“There was a time when people accepted that children were a blessing and an average family would have six to ten children,” she tells The Daily Beast. “However, as feminism and humanism increasingly became the culture of our society, couples were brainwashed to believe that it was more important for wives to get out in their careers than to stay home with children.”
Campbell agrees with Pew’s findings. She believes that some Christians are turning to Quiverfull ideals, but that Pew exposes continued Christian disobedience to God’s first command in Genesis 1:28. In that passage, God says, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,” commanding Adam and Eve to “have dominion” over the earth.
(This is sometimes called the “culture mandate” or “creation mandate” of Genesis.)
“The proof that the Bible is correct [is] when it says that the people who are fruitful and multiply will take dominion,” says Campbell. “The more people born, the more the vote goes the way of the majority of people. If there are more Muslims, they will vote for their religion. If there are more Christians, there will be more votes for Christianity. This is a serious threat to [the] USA, which was founded as a Christian/Judaea nation and on the truths of the Bible.”
Children reveal God’s glory, she adds. “God created His world to be inhabited and it has not yet been fully inhabited.”
Other theologians who are not part of the Quiverfull world, but are theologically adjacent on some points, also see Genesis 1:28 as providing a cultural mandate to take dominion, and procreation plays an important part.
“The divine logic for bearing children seems to be that the earth is a large place, and it will take more than two people to oversee it, that is to say, to create culture,” says P. Andrew Sandlin, founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership, and an ordained minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.
Sandlin says he has no real first-hand knowledge of Quiverfull, but he does see children as an essential part of fulfilling the command of Genesis 1:28. Human families, he says, are God’s way of growing his family.
“I must add,” says Sandlin, “that the Gospel of John, chapter 17, indicates that one reason God created humanity was to share in the loving communion of the Trinity. In short, God wants man and woman to bear children because he himself wants children. Of course, they are not identical to his Son Jesus, who is deity, yet nonetheless, as creatures, they are meant to be his children whom [he] can love and with whom he can commune.”
The Pew report, according to Sandlin, belies the need for Christians to make procreation a priority.
A Reformed evangelical Protestant, Sandlin holds to a postmillennial theology, which sees the progress of history as moving upward and the lion’s share of the world’s population as one-day embracing the Christian faith. The church’s job, according to Sandlin, is to transform culture.
“If one is postmillennial and also believes in the cultural mandate, he will likely see Christian children and succeeding generations as the divinely appointed human means of advancing the kingdom of God,” says Sandlin. The problem, from his point of view, is when Protestants and Catholics see families as optional.
“The increasing disposition of both Protestants and even Roman Catholics to look on childbearing as secondary or non-essential is in direct contradiction with the biblical creation mandate.”
Christians aren’t the only ones getting bad news from the Pew report; the religiously unaffiliated are not expected to inherit the earth either.
Although also not a movement or a cohesive group, the religiously unaffiliated do have some shared characteristics. They tend to reject institutionalized religion, either through rejecting theism or by the embrace of individualized spirituality. They are also increasingly becoming secular in worldview.
In the United States, studies show that “the nones” have risen from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. Globally, however, the trend is in reverse. “While religiously unaffiliated people currently make up 16 percent of the global population,” notes Pew’s report, “only an estimated 10 percent of the world’s newborns between 2010 and 2015 were born to religiously unaffiliated mothers.”
While birth to a nonreligious family is not the only way to become a “none,” as many join this demographic by leaving a faith, Pew says that “switching” is “overshadowed by the impact of differences in fertility and mortality” globally.
For many, this is not surprising.
“All else being equal, religious traditions that are more pronatalist are more likely to spread—it’s simple math,” says Professor Ara Norenzayan, author of Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict and director of the Centre for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture at The University of British Columbia.
“People often forget that the much higher fertility rates in religious populations is a powerful countervailing force against secularizing trends, so the world’s population as a whole is not becoming more secular, at least not for the time being.”
Some believe, however, that the future for those who are religiously unaffiliated or secular isn’t yet written.
“I think we’ll just have to see,” says Paul Fidalgo, Communications Director for the Center for Inquiry, which seeks to foster a secular society based on science, reason, and humanist values. “Reproduction isn’t the only means by which a society becomes more secular.”
Fidalgo sees the possibility of the de-conversion of children from religious families as gaining momentum from an ever-increasing access to information. The rise of secularization, he says, is strongly connected to the exposure of ideas made possible through the Internet and emerging technologies.
“The enabling technologies are only going to improve in the coming years,” he adds, “making it easier and easier to be exposed to new ideas. Filter bubbles aside, of course.”
Fidalgo doesn’t believe in ignoring the signs that point to the rise of Islam and diminishing numbers of the religiously unaffiliated, however. “It only reinforces the need for those of us who believe in the importance of secularism, skepticism, and humanist values to remain active and steadfast.”
He notes that “human beings are complex” and religious faith changes.
“I expect that regardless of their parents’ beliefs or their theological identifications, coming generations will…be more inclined to embrace science and reason in other areas of life, not less. That’s been the historical trend, and I don’t see why that should necessarily change or reverse.”
And there are reasons to see the Pew report as not being the final word.
Its conclusions are based largely on the faith of a child’s mother, with the assumption that children will adopt the faith of their mother until at least adulthood. While this is a strong signal of a child’s faith, it only takes into consideration half the parental equation in which partners or society may have an entirely different influence.
Additionally, a recent study by psychologists Will Gervais and Maxine Najle from the University of Kentucky suggests that—at least in America—the number of atheists figured by polling firms may be wrong. A Gallup poll from 2016 indicates that possibly up to 10 percent of Americans do not believe in God. Gervais and Najle believe that negative stereotypes of atheists might lead to under-reporting in surveys, and that the numbers might actually be double what’s showing up in polls.
Fidalgo believes personal identities are complicated. Many he adds, “don’t wave the atheist banner,” rather, “they just don’t believe.”
“There are a lot more people questioning religion and dogma than is often assumed,” he adds, “and that’s a good thing.”
It’s highly unlikely, however, that Steve King would find that reassuring.