The utopian ideal of the modern secular state is a world that looks Scandinavian.
Cool, slightly detached, rational, autonomous units, small families, low carbon footprint (apart from all that IKEA packaging), and, most of all, post-religious.
But demography is not the friend of those with such utopian ideals.
A report in The Times of London today spells it out.
Almost half of the world’s countries – 91 nations – are not replacing their ageing populations through births, according to The Lancet publication that The Times quotes.
The report says that, outside of migration, the fertility rate to replace a population should be around 2.05 children. To put that in perspective, the British average is now 1.7 children.
The report’s author, Dr Chris Murray says that the results are “remarkable”, and I think he means they are something to remark upon, rather than being great, despite what those who push for population decline in the West are saying.
We will soon be transitioning to a point where societies are grappling with a declining population. Think of all the profound social and economic consequences of a society structured like that, with more grandparents than grandchildren.
I think Japan is very aware of this — they’re facing declining populations. But I don’t think it has hit many countries in the West, because low fertility has been compensated with migration. At a global level there is no migration solution.
And there we were thinking that a smaller population will be more nimble and responsive to change, when if anything, like an aged person, it will be less nimble and more atrophied. Utopia will not be all it is cracked up to be in the West.
The countries with larger birth rates? Well, they not the Western ones, and they’re definitely the ones that are more religious. Large families are the stuff of “the rest” not the West, and definitely the stuff of the religious observant.
And as Mary Eberstadt observes in her book “How The West Really Lost God”, the link between religiosity and family does not merely flow one way, even if at all. The more religious do have larger families, but the larger a family gets over time, the more religious it has been found to become. For too long we’ve ignored the fact that the correlation can flow the other way!
Now don’t hear me say that smaller families are sinful. They’re not. But smaller families are not being approached in the street with fertility advice, while families with larger amounts of children report being offered such advice all of the time! Nothing like a good ol’ public shaming for committing the sin of thinking of England too much and not the planet.
This is about the reasons being given for smaller families, not whether a couple is infertile or has to deal with family or relationship or health issues that preclude children.
And our culture alternatively idolises and demonises children. We watch the strange, slightly warped experience of a celebrity announcing they are pregnant, which becomes, in this social media age, a shared experience of the pregnancy (if not the conception, at least not so far).
We are updated with every minute detail about the imminent arrival of a mini-messiah, including Instagram photos of Queen B and her bump, who upon delivery will be showered with gold, frankincense, incense and an endowment fund at a great school.
And then, on the other hand, there’s Planned Parenthood, where body parts are farmed off to the highest bidder.
A great day of Cosmic Role Reversal is coming, and it won’t be pretty.
The more depressing aspect of The Times report was the case study of a well-heeled, well-paid, well educated couple in Brighton with one eight year old child called Alex, who have no intention of having more children. Because here is where true virtue in our Western culture now lies.
It’s not depressing that Alex’s parents, Alistair and Claire have stopped at one child, that’s their own gig, but the comments around why they did so and how Alex is responding to this is disheartening to say the least.
And it’s notable that Alistair works for an organisation called Population Matters, which promote small families on environmental grounds.
When Alex came into the world we were putting another mouth to feed on the planet, another carbon emitter.
There’s the biggest sin of all right there in this post-religious world in which sin is rebranded not retired: the sin of being a carbon emitter. That’s how Population Matters defines a human. An emitter of bad stuff.
Children a blessing from the Lord? Not with all that carbon they’re emitting. More of a curse! But what does one expect in a post-transcendent world in which all of our hope is placed here?
It’s notable that even in the West, it is religious people who have the largest families, and that’s not completely all about birth control. It’s about hope. Where your hope lies. If your children are primarily viewed as pesky carbon emitters who are destroying the planet, then why have more than the replacement number of 2.05?
But the truly depressing fact is what these carbon emitters will end up being like. Alistair goes on, that while Alex is happy and sociable:
…he has said he doesn’t want a sibling. Although he knows about my job, and it’s a topic that gets discussed at home, I think it is more likely he doesn’t want to share his toys!
Maybe Alex, with all that careful crafting, will turn out okay, but a nation of little Alex’s? unable to share their toys? That will be an interesting social experiment.
A whole nation of single children is going to be difficult to manage when they reach their twenties and thirties and are still throwing the same tantrums they threw when younger. Sharing childhood with a sibling – all the give and take it requires – sets us up for sharing life with other adults.
And you can bet your bottom dollar that even all by his lonesome, Aliex will emit more carbon in his well-crafted, well educated lifetime than the average Nigerian family with seven kids ever will.
One of the flow-on effects will be the spike in loneliness across the West, a loneliness that is already a malaise in many nations. We’re hearing reports all of the time saying how our nations are in the grip of a loneliness epidemic, even with all that inter-connectivity we were promised by modern technology. And now we’re about to crank that loneliness up.
How is the church set to respond to this?
Comfortingly, as I look around the churches, I see families that are larger than the average. And that’s a good thing because it shows that hope beyond this age still has traction in the West.
But I hope that the gospel decision to have more children will be matched in the future by a gospel decision to welcome around the table those who are lonely.
Those who come to faith from an experience of socialisation within a family that is thin or lacking. It’s one thing to respond differently to the world, it’s another to welcome that world and model that difference to it.
After all we claim to be the family of God that is growing larger by the day. It’s a great chance to model something winsome to a watching world; watching as it will be in splendid, secular isolation from the vantage point of a cool, detached IKEA armchair, device in hand, surrounded by low-carbon emitting toys, ready for a meaningful interaction with someone that somehow never arrives.