Field of Science

Why Rabbi Sacks is wrong on religion and fertility

Rabbi Johnathan Sacks has been hitting the headlines recently with his latest warnings on the perils of nonbelief. Michael Blume has dug out the transcript of his speech, so you can get it from the horses mouth.

Most of it is the usual stuff... but then comes the bit where he says that atheists are slowly killing Europe because they're failing to have enough kids.

This is a fascinating claim, not only because it's factually incorrect but also because of what it reveals about the religious mindset.

First, to deal with the factual inaccuracy. (I'll dispense quickly with the obvious howler: that Europe is the only region experiencing population decline. North America, China, and Australasia are also shrinking).

I'm more interested in what I've shown in the graph, which is that the most religious countries in Europe actually have a lower fertility rate than the most secular ones!

Now, it is true that, within these nations, the most religious people tend to have more offspring. And yet when you look at the country level, the effect is reversed. How can this be?

Well, when you see an effect like this, it's big red flag warning that there's a third factor that connects religion with fertility at a social level, only in the opposite direction. And if Sacks had bothered to talk to a demographer, he could've easily found out what it was (but then I guess he would've got no headlines!).

You see, the factors causing the low birth rates in Europe are fairly well understood, and can be put simply: it's a clash between women's aspirations and societal expectations.

In traditional, patriarchal societies, women have few opportunities other than the role of mother. In Europe and other modern societies, their opportunities are far greater.

The highest fertility rates occur in those European societies where women are enabled to achieve both a career and a family. In a recent paper, the Italian demographer Alessandro Rosina wrote that this will occur in:

...contexts and social categories in which childcare services are more readily available, gender asymmetries are less evident, economic conditions are better, and modern and post-modern values are more diffused

And this is the missing factor that accounts for low fertility in religious countries. Religion is closely connected with conservative values. In traditional, highly religious countries, women have to choose between career and motherhood. In countries that have made the transition to modern values, they can have both.

So much for the statistics, what about the religious mindset on fertility? Well, the reason that fertility is lower in wealthy countries in general (leaving religion out of it) is that whereas children were once a financial asset (not only do they help out on the farm, but they are also your old-age pension), now they are a financial burden.

As a result, birthrates fall. Is this a problem? Sacks thinks so, and as evidence quotes approvingly the 3rd-century BC Greek historian Polybius:

"The fact is, that the people of Hellas had entered upon the false path of ostentation, avarice and laziness, and were therefore becoming unwilling to marry, or if they did marry, to bring up the children born to them; the majority were only willing to bring up at most one or two."

[Sacks:] That is why Greece died. That is where Europe is today

Now, Sacks doesn't actually know what the fertility rate in ancient Greece was. I know that, because the leading authority on the subject, Walter Scheidel of Stanford, doesn't know either. However, there's no basis for Sacks' claim that low fertility 'is why Greece died". (But see footnote.*)

But why should it matter? So what if Europe's population decreases?

Well Polybius is notable because his is the first voice in history to express the fear that 'our' tribe is going to be overwhelmed because 'we' are not breeding as fast as 'them'. It's a fear that has echoed down the ages, reaching a zenith in the fascist idea of motherhood as a national duty. You can see it in full flood in modern movements like Quiverfull.

Put simply, this is fertility as an extension of tribal warfare.

Of course, religion is closely linked with other aspects of tribalism (or group cohesion, as a sociologist might put it). Rabbi Sacks' goes on to say:

The only serious philosophical question is “Why should I have a child?” And our culture is not giving a very easy answer to that question.

He doesn't himself answer that question, but his polemic gives the game away!

*Footnote: Although we don't know the fertility rate of Ancient Greece, we do known that Mycenean Greece experienced a population crash. In the 500 years that followed, the population of Greece increased perhaps 10-fold. By Polybius' day it had reached the point where the population could only be sustained by dominating neighbouring countries and sucking resources in - a fact that probably explains as well as anything the Greek's subsequent demise.

Europe is currently running at 220% of biological capacity. Similar to ancient Greece, we're pillaging the rest of the world to maintain our lifestyle. Rabbis Sacks urges us to be custodians of future generations, and yet a swelling population is the greatest enemy that our children face.

Having a large family is not self-sacrifice. It's the ultimate in selfishness.

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. Hi Tom,

    living amidst an imploding population (Germany), I am not agreeing to your negative view on large families - but I agree with your demographic findings!

    There is a (potentially) strong effect of religiosity on fertility, but it normally doesn't surface in monoreligious, modernizing states - for exactly the reasons you quoted! Italy, Spain and Greece are good examples of states who didn't adjust their family policies to the changing needs of families (especially educated mothers) - curbing their birth rates partially because of traditional Church politics. In contrast, France adopted very modern family politics. In all of these countries, the religious do have more children - but monopolist Churches had strong negative effects. (You might compare that with the low birth rates of Yehovas Witnesses and the New Apostolic Church in Switzerland in my study you wrote about - strong traditionalism is beaten by more flexible communities.) To speak with Hayek: it's about the right balance of rigidity and flexibility.

    Keep up the good work, best wishes!

  2. Hi Michael, do you think the low fertility in Germany is temporary, at least to some extent. People used to have children at a young age. Now they have children later. The result is a kind of 'pause' of low fertility, before a recovery. I wonder whether Europe's low fertility is not quite teh future issue you would expect from a simple linear extrapolation of trends.

  3. Hi Tom,

    no, unfortunately not, it's not "just a pause". Since 1971, we had more deaths than births in any year and the birth rate has "stabilized" about 1.4 children per women - meaning that three adults are followed by two children. In the meantime, more than a third of the children up to age 6 are children of immigrants, here in Stuttgart more than 50% (my wife is of Turkish origin, too, but the integration problems are accelerating). Especially in Eastern Germany, the closure of villages has begun and it has spread into rural regions of the West. Growing numbers of old people are living completely isolated, schools and kindergartens are closed (I had to participate in a closure once as a City councillor myself). At the same time, educated Germans are migrating out, i.e. to Switzerland and the US. I am certainly not an apocalyptic, but German society is actually imploding.

  4. Do you know what the biological capacity if Africa and the middle easy is?
    In The Economist magazine there was recetly an article in which it was stated that Africa population is expected to grow to 2 Billion by 2050. By 1850 Africa was home to just 100 mio people.
    To my knowlege these numbers are just possible through food aid mainly from Europe and the US, highly industrialized farming makes is possible.
    And what about the middle east? most ME countries are also expiriancing huge population growth but have little agrarian potencial.
    the same can be said about pakistan. When the financial crises started it was one of the first countries to get an IMF creditline, because it imports a big part of its food and energy needs for its nearly 200 mio inhabitants. At the moment of the crisrs, pakistan was not even able anymore to pay for that.

    what happend anyway with the food crises? will it come back?

  5. Hi Anonymous,

    yes, you are illustrating the very point Sacks made. As secular Europe is exploding, highly religious regions as i.e. Africa or the ME are demographically expanding. It's not religion that's dying out... You (and @Tom?) might be interested in the famous "Sacred and Secular" from Inglehart & Norris describing the demographically expanding gap between religious and seculars worldwide.

    Personally, I would prefer a more balanced development: More education, freedom and wealth in Africa and Asia leading to lower birth rates and less violent fundamentalisms, and more religious pluralism and (scientific) respect in European societies leading to (more) demographic stability and successful integration of immigrants. I think, extremes may lead to nowhere.

  6. Only slightly on topic.... but with some of the Malthusian predictions going on out there (such as anonymous about Africa and the ME's biological capacity)....

    Tom - why is it that people who do not have the resources to have multiple children have multiple children? With the widespread access to birth control - what are we missing?

    Is Catholicism in Africa really having that much of a depressing effect on birth control usage - or is there something else at work?

    I am all for people having families, and even large ones. But don't think for a second I am advocating multiple teenage pregnancies.

    I think Michael's balanced approach is the way to go. But what sociologists and psychologists need to be finding out is why with the prevalence of effective birth control, these countries with EXTREMELY UNSUSTAINABLE demographic explosions are continuing to grow. Is religion really the driving force? I know Catholicism is anti-B/C but I don't know Islam's views on it (another large religion in Africa/ME).

  7. Hi Samuel,

    thanks for the comment! Without wanting to interfere in your questions to Tom, I thought you (and other readers interested in global demography) might like this link from Mini-Epiphenom:

    Thanks for the interest, best wishes!

  8. Samuel, info on Africa's ecological footprint is here: I haven't read it though!

    On the economist page that Michael linked to, they explain that all over the world, then number of children that women want is less than the average number of children in that country (except in countries with very small families). In other words, if women had more power, they would have fewer children.

    In Iran, they cut right back on family planning after the revolution. Family sizes shot up but are now plummeting.

    Bottom line: in poor nations, children are an investment that pays dividends. Not so in wealthy countries.

  9. Thanks for interesting post and brain training!

    I'm not a demographer or sociologist so I will not discuss statistical data (maybe there are some collected raw data to verify?)

    But two more doubts about your conclusion Having a large family is not self-sacrifice. It's the ultimate in selfishness.

    1) In "local-generation" sense (as for a large family parent) it seems to be very questionable: a parent should spend himself for their children, less money, less time etc.

    2) In "many-generations" sense I think Mycenaean civilization experience extrapolation is not correct. Simply because due to Christianity we have Science that can help intensively and with solicitude explore the Nature.

    What do you think about that?

  10. Alexander, Iwhat I mean is that I am not helping you by having lots of children. You don't benefit from it - in fact if anything you suffer because of increased competition for resources.

    Now, that's not entirely true - it's good to have young people around, because we depend on other people. But I don't think anyone has children so that I can have a happy life in old age. That's not the motivation.

    So if that's not the motivation, what is? Well, it can only be selfish.


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