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Religious Voices in Public Places

Nick Spencer

Eric Kaufmann
Profile Books, 330pp, ISBN: 9781846681448

RKaufman.jpgMost of us were brought up in a world in which the phrases 'population explosion' and 'the population bomb' regularly kept us awake at night. It was still just physically possible, my teenage self was reliably informed, to squeeze the entire population of the world onto the Isle of Wight. But if we kept breeding, this would no longer be possible. And it was more than just beach huts and 1950s bungalows we would run out of. Starvation beckoned.

40 years later, things look rather different. A new agrarian revolution has enabled us to keep feeding our increased numbers, and the obscurantists are showing signs of failing in their campaign to convince us that GM crops will leave us all with third ears and untreatable illness.

The situation now is, on the one hand, a continuing spike in the youth population of those areas of the world (the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa) least able to absorb them into labour markets, and most prone to violent upheaval, and, on the other hand, a remorseless downward demographic pressure in developed economies. In the (entirely abstract, merely mathematical) hypothesis of zero future immigration, Europe's population would be about a third of its present level by 2100. And the Chinese one-child policy has born fruit in an ageing population, a threat to its economic miracle, a big gender imbalance, and countless young women in southeast Asia kidnapped to be brides in China. Japan's economy has been stagnant for a generation, for reasons that politicians persist in locating in arcane aspects of the financial sector, but really come down to a hopeless, and ever-worsening, imbalance between workers and retirees.

Kaufmann's book asks whether the recent analysis by many commentators (including Yours Truly) is correct: Will religious populations outbreed secular ones? Will Europe become predominantly Muslim? Will Orthodox Jews come to dominate Israel's population? Will the U.S. be more solidly conservative Christian in 2100 than it is today? Will Africa become even more sharply polarised between Christians and Muslims?

His answer is an unwilling and qualified, but very definite, 'yes'. As he says on his final page, 'This much seems certain: without an ideology to inspire social cohesion, fundamentalism cannot be stopped. The religious shall inherit the earth.' Kaufmann, Reader in Politics at Birkbeck College, London, is a secular person whose asides about conservative religion, whether in America, Israel, Europe or elsewhere, are mostly unfavourable. Some of that commentary even falls short of the academic rigour of the book as a whole. But when he sticks to his chosen question - will conservative religion triumph, demographically? - then he is at his best, and most persuasive.

Kaufmann's analysis is based upon work with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, in Vienna, and specifically with its highly respected World Population Program. He does not agree with my Why the Rest Hates the West and some others in thinking that Europe will be majority Muslim by 2100. But, though my simple mathematical projections cannot compete with sophisticated models available to Kaufmann, his own projection - somewhere around the 30-35 per cent mark, with the youth percentage much higher than that - shows that he does not differ in more than timescale; the tipping point, on his evidence, would be somewhere around 2130. And he projects that ultra-Orthodox Jews will become a majority in Israel not long after 2050. As for the Islamic world, 'Religious Muslims bear more children than the non-religious', and their 'fertility advantage ... increases in more modern contexts'. The resultant population explosion across the Muslim world has 'supercharged the global Islamic revival'.

He takes full account of recent, declining Muslim fertility - but points out that it is the differential between the fertility rates of the religious and of secular people, rather than absolute numbers, that is crucial. He takes on board, too, the secularising pressures of modern states, of host societies assimilating minorities, of intermarriage and other factors. 'Might secularism's salvation lie in luring away the children of the devout?' he asks. The education systems of countries like Britain are, of course, largely predicated upon just such a hope. But he shows that secularising trends are finally overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the demographic that are underway. Nurture cannot keep pace with nature.

Kaufmann's book is hardly unblemished. His explanation of the emergence of 'fundamentalism' juxtaposes the prominence, after 1802, of the Volozhin yeshiva in standardising Orthodox Judaism in eastern Europe with the founding of Moody Bible Institute in 1886 'as a hub of premillennialist thought'. The connection is, to say the least, hardly compelling.
And one intriguing idea, introduced early on, gets inflated by sleight of hand to the level of probability and then to that of fact - when it is, in fact, very unlikely. In his introduction, he observes that "even a small fertility advantage in the presence of high membership retention is enough to ensure compound increase over generations. The early Christians of the Roman Empire grew from forty converts in AD 30 to six million in the year 312. Their growth rate was 40 per cent per decade, somewhat less than the Mormons have enjoyed since 1850.' The implication is that the early Church grew mostly by outbreeding their neighbours. Later, the suggestion has become a theory: 'Conversion was certainly important, but demographic forces were arguably more vital' with a 'Christian birth rate above that of the pagans'. And by page 89, he is referring to this totally unproven hypothesis as if it were an established fact, throwing light by analogy on other historical phenomena. Oh, dear!

No one, perhaps, can enter a debate of this momentousness entirely unswayed by their own pre-commitments. Kaufmann is one of the best informed and, after his fashion, most careful of commentators in what will, beyond contradiction, be a harrowing area of public concern and global transformation in the coming decades. Clearly, his book is one of the better guides available.

Meic Pearse