Blame Atheists for Ballooning Budget Deficits and Islam’s Growing Clout in Europe?

Maybe. In a fascinating summary, at, of global demographic research, Joel Kotkin points the finger at Enlightenment secularism for the ballooning budget deficits and low birth rates in industrialized countries:

The increasingly perilous shape of public finance in almost all advanced countries — largely the result of rapid aging and diminished workforces — can be ascribed at least in part to secularization’s role in falling birthrates.

The solution?


In the future, many high-income societies, whether in East Asia, Europe or North America, may find that religious people’s fecundity is a necessary counterforce to rapid aging and eventual depopulation of the more secular population.

In other words, religion correlates with Darwinian reproductive fitness (in case you were wondering why religion persists):

In virtually every part of the world, religious people tend to have more children than those who are unaffiliated. In Europe, this often means Islamic families as opposed to increasingly post-Christian natives. Decline in religious affiliation — not just Christian but also Buddhist and Confucian — seems to correlate with the perilously low birthrates in both Europe and many East Asian countries. […]

This pattern is reflected in the geography of childbearing. Where churches are closing down, most particularly in core urban areas such as Boston or Manhattan, as well as their metropolitan regions, singletons and childless couples are increasing. In more religiously oriented metropolitan areas like Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, the propensity to have children is 15% to nearly 30% higher (as measured by the number of children under the age of 5 per woman of child bearing age– 15-49).

Religion is also good for you personally:

Religious people . . . tend to live longer and suffer less disabilities with old age, as author [Charles] Murray notes.

And religion, dammit, is even good for business (as an agnostic, I do not quote these facts with pleasure):

Overall the most cohesive religious groups — such as Mormons and Jews — still outperform their religious counterparts both in educational achievement and income. Both Jews and Mormons focus on helping their co-religionists, providing a leg up on those who depend solely on the charity of others or the state. […]

Researchers at Harvard, looking at dozens of countries over the past 40 years, demonstrated that religion reinforces the patterns of personal virtue, social trust and willingness to defer gratification long associated with business success.

But perhaps the most important difference over time may be the impact of religion on family formation, with weighty fiscal implications.

So there you have it. Enlightenment secularism, committed as it is to strict rationality and the liberation of individuals from religious and communal constraints, has unintended consequences: among them, low birth rates straining the budgets of welfare states and Islam’s potential demographic triumph over the European continent.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to Blame Atheists for Ballooning Budget Deficits and Islam’s Growing Clout in Europe?

  1. Longtooth says:


    There is irony in all this. As you well know, at the bottom of the numbers game is the classic Bronze Age admonition to “be fruitful and multiply”, hailing from a time when survival to adulthood was considerably more tenuous a proposition then it is now. According to Jared Diamond, one of the functions of religion (along with justifying war) is to enable adherence to its own self; to out-compete the competition by a process of group selection. In that regard the monolithic religions have done admirably well. The world’s swelling population of humans is now on the far side of seven billion and projected to exceed nine billion by 2050. Consider the shrinking availability of basic resources, the spread of deforestation and environmental pollution, all attributable to steeply raising world population. What good are religion’s alleged perks if religion’s hordes manage only to drag us all over the precipice?

    It’s notable that Joel Kotkin, author of the article you cited, is a graduate of a Christian College and member of the mainline church community. The mainline membership currently shows a birthrate lower than any other American Christian group while at the same time the evangelicals have swelled in comparison. The evangelical-fundamentalists with their strict sanctions against abortion, contraception, and premarital sex have simply bred more aggressively. But isn’t that exactly the point? The Catholics, Muslims, and evangelicals are still playing the numbers game while the world quakes under the weight of altogether too many babies already.

    I imagine one of products of the enlightenment would be a well considered responsibility about matters of procreation. The evidence suggests that it very well exists among secularists and most modernist Christians. The irony is that many if not most of the world’s religionists have not as yet caught on to the moral legitimacy behind the notion. Not all the blame is on Abrahamic religions though. India, a predominantly Hindu nation, has over a billion citizens, lagging only China in population. Although not couched in biblical terms, an ancient agrarian-agricultural consciousness continues to dominate in many quarters of the world. That is, a man’s worth is measured by how man sons he has sired. With the fields and herds the family once needed so many offspring to tend, becoming a fading memory, such standards of self worth are no longer rational despite the cultural momentum they continue to possess. What to do about this widespread irrationality would seem to be the looming question.


    • Santi Tafarella says:


      I’m a fan of Matt Ridley’s “Rational Optimism” book, so I’m less worried about the global population figures than you are. A larger population doesn’t just mean more bodies; it means more problem solving brains too.

      And I think that religious households have always been the incubation nests for secular offspring. In other words, the smartest of the offspring from religious households go to the cities and colleges, and secular people will always be a smaller subset of the human population as a whole. New York City, for example, is full of smart and secular singletons—who came from religious households.

      I think what the research cited by Joel Kotkin should suggest to the thoughtful agnostic or atheist is the following: a Europe or America absented of religion should not be our aspiration. Agnostics and atheists belong to an intellectual subculture suited to urban creativity and the college and university setting. It works brilliantly in those contexts. But it’s not the right tool by which to make other important things in society—namely families. The risks inherent in child-rearing and community building are so strenuous that you have to bring some hopeful delusions to them. Not everyone can be an intellectual living without hope of an afterlife—especially if you’ve lost a child and long to see them again. There are psychological breaking points that religion, however deluded, can buffer people from. The fear of death and the loss of loved ones is among them.

      What buffers an atheist or agnostic from suicide if they risk having children and they die on them?

      And to weaken Christianity in the West to the breaking point (in which it dwindles to a point where households with children go into steep decline as a percentage of the population) simply opens the demographic door to more reactionary forms of religion (fundamentalism and Islam). That is, forms of religion that begin to threaten the free and secular activity that goes on in the cities and universities. So long as you can be and do what you want in the cities and universities, maybe there should be no broader ambition to bring secularism to the masses. Maybe, for example, European secularism has been too successful.

      I’m thinking of Jacques Derrida. He was a secular Jew living in Algiers and supported Algerian independence from the French. But when that independence was obtained, he found that he couldn’t live, as a secular Jew, in Algeria safely anymore, and moved to Nice in France.

      Postmodernism, secularism, etc. is opening a demographic door to Islam in Europe that might find itself repeating, en masse, Derrida’s experience.

      Maybe America’s Christian religiosity, being relatively moderate—you see no Christians trying to close any American universities—is a sign of the country’s strength, not a weakness. Maybe Europe’s lack of Christian religiosity is not a portent of a secular future, but of one increasingly influenced by Islam.

  2. Longtooth says:


    “… I’m less worried about the global population figures than you are. A larger population doesn’t just mean more bodies; it means more problem solving brains too.”

    Well yes, but it nevertheless means more mouths to feed in the face of rapidly shrinking world resources. The commonly embraced adage is that “necessity is the mother of invention” and thus of problem solving too. But how much of a weight of humanity can be put on the shoulders of that mother and still expect adequate results short of mass starvation and or genocide?

    I have no expectation for religion’s extinction anytime in the future of humankind. Religion is likely to persist in some form or another as long as human civilization stands. I think, however, a retooling of religion to relieve civilization of some of religions more irrational and counterproductive attributes (like fundamentalism) is nevertheless a justifiable expectation. How does the old biblical wisdom go, “there is a time for all things under heaven”? Indiscriminate cherishment and veneration of antiquity’s scriptural relics plainly sucks the worst kind of cultural wind.


    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Secularism might be ramped up if it had a pro-baby producing meme that attached to it (as religions do).

      But I wonder what such a secularism would look like.

      My guess is that, even if secularism did this, it would simply end up functioning as an incubation center for religion. When the kids reached a certain age, a lot of them would rebel from their secular parents by becoming religionists (as religiously-raised kids often ditch their religious upbringing and head for the cities and colleges).

      The fundamentalism in Egypt is not the product of religious parents raising religious kids during the 1970s. A lot of the older people in Egypt remember a time when the cities of Egypt were secular and Islamic dress for women was nowhere to be found.

      90% of human beings on earth will live in cities 60 years from now (if demographers are correct). So there won’t be much movement from the country to the city. Will that mean that the world is headed for greater secularism and liberalism? Or does that mean religions will adapt and take over the cities?


  3. Longtooth says:


    A cultural dynamic operating between religion and secularism is certainly evidenced by the demographic data.

    “Will that mean that the world is headed for greater secularism and liberalism? Or does that mean religions will adapt and take over the cities?”

    Maybe adapt and take on a good modicum of the rational liberalism of the secular world. I think that Islam, like Christendom before it, ultimately faces a serious cultural stiff-arm in Europe and elsewhere in the West if it doesn’t do that very thing.


    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Like you, I’m hopeful that the sheer demographic weight of humanity moving into urban areas will function to tame religion’s worst impulses and cause people to be mostly secular in their behavior and tolerant of others: the Los Angelization of the planet.

      It’s hard to imagine small town right wing religious politics ever dominating a city like LA—it’s almost unthinkable.

      And people living in cities actually use less resources per capita than country-dwelling people.

      The key is immigration of diverse people into a city (as opposed to homogenized cities). That’s LA’s secret—no group can dominate, yet the advantages to living there are so high (economically) that people decide to stay and get along. That may be the Muslim experience in Europe: if you can’t dominate, you moderate and learn to respect others.

      I’m less hopeful for cities like Cairo and Alexandria where ethnic and religious discrimination—and even cleansing—functions to drive otherness away.

      Not a good time to be Christian, Baha’i, or secular in Egypt.


  4. Longtooth says:


    Not a good time for hardly anyone anywhere in the Middle East I think. That is, except for the Saudi Arabian royalty and Iranian Iatola types riding in wealth and power atop the historical momentum of Muslim theocracy. No wonder that a considerable ongoing migration of Middle Easterners into secular Europe is in progress. Most of these immigrants, I believe, are just looking for a better life for themselves and their offspring, not for somewhere to peddle Islam.

    I’ve got to revisit a few thoughts in the details of this exchange of posts.

    I think it’s somewhat inaccurate to characterize the secular world’s occupants as wholly living without motives, ideations, or hopes of a religious or spiritual variety. Even the late Chris Hutchens toward the end of his days was open to being “surprised” as he put it. Looking at the details of America’s rapidly growing unaffiliated group, only a fraction describe themselves as being truly atheistic. Most continue to carry quite ordinary religious beliefs. Their issues, I surmise, are not necessarily with religion per se, but rather with organized religion and its often unyielding strictness regarding matters of doctrinal dogma, free thought and opinion, and lifestyle choices. I observe that many if not most educated seculars are not unacquainted with the world’s religions or their associated core literatures, even if not read from a strictly devotional point of view. Moreover, many of these same seculars have at least flirted with religious practices external to the religion they were raised under. Is it better said that many among the unaffiliated are simply content to manage their own sense of religiosity rather than have it managed for them? In this regard isn’t the secular world distinguished from religion more by its pluralism rather than by an inherent lack of religiosity among its members?

    Matt Ridley’s thesis is provocative and a bit unsettling. A first blush it seems to have something in common with musicians playing soothing music as the Titanic sinks. Not unlike New Orleans which had been warned nearly a half a century before Katrina that if a category five storm hit, the city would be dead meat. Some forty years before Katrina, congress had authorized funds so the city could prepare their levies and wetlands to withstand a Katrina like event. Only a fraction of the money was actually used for that purpose. In the spirit of optimism, most of it was siphoned off by bureaucrats and politicians for other purposes. Then Katrina struck. In the aftermath New Orleans was left wining and crying about the slowness of the massive relief effort needed to bail them out, another unrealistic expectation.

    Okay, so I’m one of those despicable pessimists. Some parts of Ridley’s thesis do resonate, particularly the role of exchange in the evolution of human culture. However, some of the statistics he cites in support of his optimism are here and their questionable in their accuracy and or representativeness. Bill Gates has a noteworthy alternative perspective on Ridley’s thesis and the role of pessimism.

    I do wonder, although not originally, that Ridley’s book must have gotten rave reviews in the Republican Party camp. The politically late Rick Santorum undoubtedly must have a whole grip of autographed copies. This is the most unsettling part for me. Ridley’s thesis fits so well into the political scheme of the corporate rich, but while the fundamentalists among the party’s social conservatives don’t give a dispensational rip because the world is irreversibly headed for Armageddon anyway and therefore why spend either worry or money on stuff that has no future meaning. Ouch!


    • Santi Tafarella says:

      As you imply, organized religion is a way that people outsource their religious concerns, and many people are increasingly in the “do it yourself” camp. I recall a few years back visiting a mosque on a Friday and my impression was that organized religion works precisely by being a tad better, on average, at keeping a person out of moral trouble than she might be if she were on her own. Most people who are involved in organized religion, I believe, would do worse in their personal lives if they didn’t have the standardized moral yardstick and group support their religions provide. That’s why they go. It keeps them “straight” (or at least a bit less crooked in their life path), and gives them a vague hope (as one has a vague hope when purchasing a lottery ticket).

      But my guess is that most people who have “faith” really just have hope—a distant hope—that what they are supposed to believe is actually true. That’s including the religious leaders. No sane or intelligent person, after the Holocaust, can really treat God belief as non-problematic and easy. It’s why apologetic books sell. People have doubts and are ambivalent, but still have the visceral need for religious meaning in their lives. It’s a form of dice throwing in a bad situation.

      As for Ridley, he may be selling snake oil. I’ll look at your Bill Gates article (I haven’t yet), but his book seems pretty convincing to me. I tend to be a pessimist, so Ridley’s perspective gives me some balance.


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