Religion affects birth rates

By Frank Götmark | 12 June 2024
The Overpopulation Project


The global human population will increase by 2.4 billion to 2088, according to the UN. Birth rates are high in some parts of the world, leading to continued population growth. In Africa and parts of Asia, and within Muslim countries and communities, religiosity promotes high birth rates. This role of religion could, however, potentially be reversed.

Religious immigrants to the West have high birth rates, the British political scientist Eric Kaufmann emphasized in his book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? (2010). Two years later, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt published The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. He and Kaufmann both argued that religion is hard to eliminate through rational arguments, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and many others have tried. According to Haidt, religiosity is part of inherited behavior that reinforces social cooperation among competing groups of Homo sapiens.

Below, religion refers to belief in supernatural power, including spirituality and spirits that influence our attitudes and actions. Animism long dominated among hunters and gatherers via souls and spirits (deceased people, parts of nature, etc.). As agriculture evolved globally, larger hierarchical communities adopted gods to rule over them (monotheism).

The American researcher Stephen Prothero attempted to characterize the major religions in his book God Is Not One (2010). For Buddhism he suggests “the problem is suffering – the solution is awakening”, for Christianity “the problem is sin, the solution is salvation”, and for Islam “the problem is pride, the solution is submission”.

Muslims give birth to more children

In the Western world in the 1960s and 70s, many scholars believed that religions would fade away and that developing countries would become secular. This did not happen. For example, in Africa south of the Sahara and in Arab countries, according to Gallup surveys, on average 90 percent answer “Yes” to the question “Is religion an important part of everyday life?” In 2017, The Pew Research Center reported that Islam is the fastest growing religion, with a forecast that Muslims will give birth to more children than Christians by 2035.

This is supported by a study by the World Values ​​Survey in 57 countries which showed that Muslims give birth to more children than other religions. Immigrants to Europe from Muslim countries also appear to have higher birth rates than other immigrants and the host population.

Population growth is strong today in parts of Western Asia (for example, Pakistan and Afghanistan) and in Africa, especially south of the Sahara. The UN forecast for Africa from 2022 is a dramatic increase from today’s 1.4 to 3.9 billion in 2100, which is largely due to high birth rates (today 4.3 children per woman). For Africa and other parts of the world, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports increased malnutrition. Meanwhile, the media is silent on the role of future population growth in Africa.

Declining religiosity?

Recently there have been some reports of reduced religiosity around the world, for example the American political scientist Ronald Inglehart’s analysis of the World Values ​​Survey in Religion’s Sudden Decline (2021). Decreased religiosity may apply to the USA and some other countries, but the World Values ​​Survey covers Africa poorly and cannot be used for conclusions about the most rapidly growing continent.

One should also be careful with the meaning of “religious” – for example, some people indicate in surveys that they do not belong to a congregation or organized religion, and so are marked as having none. A new survey by Pew Research shows that “none” responses have increased in USA from 16% to as much as 30%, but most of those people believe in a god or higher power, even though very few of them regularly attend religious services. In addition, spirituality and belief in spirits can be difficult to capture in surveys.

The British Africa specialist Stephen Ellis and his Dutch colleague Gerrie ter Haar describe the importance of spirits in Africa in Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa (2004). Beliefs in spirits permeate culture and politics among poor and rich, urban and rural. They are ever present, and religious “mentors” often influence or control political leaders. President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, for example, was strongly controlled by two Indian gurus “who recognized him from his shamanistic journeys in the spiritual world”, and they were given access to power. Not infrequently, murders of political rivals are arranged with reference to spirits and gods. Some women are seen as witches possessed by evil spirits, displaced and relegated to special villages.

A colleague who used Ellis & ter Haar’s book at a Swedish university found that Africans who read the course recognized themselves in the book. Laura Grillo and co-authors, in Religions in Contemporary Africa (2019), give Ellis & ter Haar a prominent place. A February BBC report from north-east Nigeria, hit by skyrocketing food prices, poverty and security concerns, is also telling: the governor called for “divine intervention”, and for citizens to pray and fast. Lower birth rates and fewer mouths would be more effective for families and for the country, but it is unclear how many agree, or realize this.

Spirits and minor gods still exist in close-to-nature animism, where much is considered animate. But monotheism with a single, anthropomorphic ruling god (often assumed to be a man) predominates today in Africa and many countries. How did we get there? The development can partly be explained by autocrats exploiting religion. Researchers Bentzen and Gokmen, in an analysis of pre-modern societies and data from today, found that rulers with “divine legitimacy” contributed to religious laws. The societies that followed this path are today more autocratic, and their populations more religious than in democratic societies.

The dynamic development of congregations

How do individual churches and congregations develop? The sociologists Rodney Stark and Roger Finke and the economist Laurence Iannaconne argued for a kind of economic market model where believing individuals act rationally based on inherent needs and choose congregations based on so-called tension, i.e. degree of “distinctiveness, separation, and antagonism”. Stark and Finke describe the ideas in an original book, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (2000). Strong experiences and faith (linked to high tension) gives cohesion, with more closed congregations where the priest is financed by members who “demand” experiences.

The social position of long-standing congregations and their priests can be challenged by new congregations that provide stronger or alternative experiences. Christian charismatic churches (with “speaking in tongues”, ecstasy, etc.) are examples of rapidly increasing movements, at the expense of others: first in the United States, then, among other places South America, and nowadays in parts of Africa. Stark and Finke describe this as the religious market, in which the price extracted from members is rewarded by intense experiences. In traditional churches, belonging and faith are lower, but cheaper according to the authors. For example, in (highly secularized) Sweden it costs little to hang on to the Church of Sweden, but religious belief becomes weaker. In contrast, charismatic churches that provide high tension demand time and money, and free-riders are excluded there.

Rodney Stark, who died this year, argued that religion and religiosity are not going away. Some scholars are critical of the ideas of religious market and congregational dynamics. Additions to the models may be needed. In secularized countries, it may be that religiosity is latent and can increase rapidly, for example through crises such as wars and pandemics.

Islam is gaining ground

Islam is now gaining ground in Africa and increases in other places via migration and population growth. In an experimental survey of 15 European countries, immigration by Muslims was unpopular, independent of the respondents’ age, education, income, and political ideology. Covering clothing for women, gender segregation, Sharia law or sympathy for such, terrorist groups, and high birth rates probably contribute to make Islam unpopular in Western countries.

Nicola Turner and I reviewed studies from sub-Saharan Africa to see if the major religions differ in birth rates and thus potentially in relative future growth. We were surprised that so much information existed, including good research by African scientists. And the more you dig into databases and literature, the more you find! We also found valuable information in low-ranked journals and reports, and in reference lists of articles.

Our study of 44 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that followers of older, indigenous African religions had the highest birth rates: between 4 and 58 per cent higher than for Christians, depending on country. But such religions, which once played an important role for group cohesion and survival, are now in the minority. Monotheism with a single ruling god has “won”. Within Islam, birth rates were 2–36 per cent higher than for Christians, except in two countries (where it was 2 per cent lower). On average, Muslims and followers of African religions had about the same birth rate. Our study and others suggest that religiosity in Africa contributes to large family size, although other factors such as patriarchal culture also influence fertility.

Possible measures against unsustainable population growth

It is often emphasized that (longer) education lowers birth rates in developing countries, but the importance of the content of the education has not been investigated in this context. Religious schools are common in Africa and are supported through extensive international aid. Could this contribute to birth rates falling slowly, or stagnating at a high level, in Africa?

In the early 1990s, the United States, a major donor, changed policy to allow government aid to Africa through Christian organizations. Both Republicans and Democrats support this development. At the same time, countries in Africa allowed the establishment of private schools paid by the United States, Arab states or other donors. To what extent does education in sexuality and family planning occur in these schools? This should be investigated.

Aid to family planning could mean much for people, the environment, and wildlife in Africa and elsewhere. Researchers Bongaarts & Hodgson, in Fertility Transition in the Developing World (2022), argue that a major investment in voluntary family planning could halve the remaining population growth in Africa from 2 to 1 billion in the future! Aid to countries in Africa with a reported policy to lower fertility, and which themselves invest in family planning, should be a high priority.

Melinda Gates, in The Moment of Lift (2019), advocates for family planning and points out that male allies are essential; especially valuable are men who are religious leaders. Such leaders in sub-Saharan Africa advocating for family planning are relatively few, but those that exist need support. In addition, the greening of religion offers some hope.

Religion and faith are present in many contexts: from terror to quiet prayer and wise advice. To curb population growth, we should support religious leaders advocating for family planning programs in countries with high birth rates. Priests have potential to positively influence their congregation, the media, and even government policies. Historically, two examples are Costa Rica and Indonesia, where the birth rate today is 1.5 and 2.1 children per woman, respectively.

This blog is shortened version of a longer Swedish essay on population and religion published on the web site Kvartal this week. 

Reprinted with permission from Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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