Culture At Large

Untangling the relationship between faith and family

Andy Rau

It's Friday, it's almost Christmas, and (at least in my part of the country) a truly epic amount of snow is promising to trap us indoors all weekend. In other words, it's a perfect time for a bit of idle musing: Why do religious people have more children than their non-religious counterparts?

Does religion run in families? Does being part of a large family make you more likely to be religious, or less likely to leave the religion in which you were raised? All interesting and complex questions raised (but unfortunately not definitively answered) by Anthony Gottlieb in an article about the strange relationship between faith and fertility.

The article addresses a half-joking statement I've heard more than once—that atheists' biggest challenge is not spreading their message through books or speeches, but in out-populating a religious demographic that's growing much more quickly than their own:
Unfortunately for secularists, this may not work even as a joke. Nobody knows exactly why religion and fertility tend to go together. Conventional wisdom says that female education, urbanisation, falling infant mortality, and the switch from agriculture to industry and services all tend to cause declines in both religiosity and birth rates. In other words, secularisation and smaller families are caused by the same things. Also, many religions enjoin believers to marry early, abjure abortion and sometimes even contraception, all of which leads to larger families. But there may be a quite different factor at work as well. Having a large family might itself sometimes make people more religious, or make them less likely to lose their religion. Perhaps religion and fertility are linked in several ways at the same time.
It sounds like a joke to suggest that the best way to "win" a culture over to your viewpoint is to... have more kids than your ideological opponents. But I've actually read "concerned reports" from Christian organizations noting the fast-growing Muslim population in parts of Europe. The never-quite-stated implication seems to be that Christians are somehow obliged to combat the rise of Islam by having more Christian children, which seems like a fairly ridiculous slant on the Great Commission.

And buried behind all of these questions are some fairly serious personal ones, like Am I a Christian just because I was born and raised in a Christian family? Would I be a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu if I'd grown up in another part of the world?

One thing's for sure: your family, big or small, Christian or otherwise, nurturing or dysfunctional, has almost certainly played a big role in shaping your attitude about spiritual things. Read through Gottlieb's article (and if you're feeling really brave, try this more exhaustive essay about families, population growth, and religion). And if you've got any personal anecdotes about the relationship between faith and family, feel free to share!

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Home & Family, Family