Does Secularization Lead to Lower Birth Rates?

by Cecelia

Birth rates have fallen significantly in Western Europe and many countries will soon have shrinking populations.

Secularization and the decline in religious practice is often blamed for this worrying phenomenon. As an example, an article titled Religion takes a back seat in Western Europe had this to say:

Among the most striking consequences of the decline of religion has been fewer children. The birth rate throughout much of Western Europe has fallen so drastically that the population in many countries is shrinking, indicating that women throughout Europe now routinely use artificial birth control, in defiance of the Roman Catholic Church's teachings.1

Another article titled Faith Equals Fertility made this claim:

If they want to spread their gospel, then, one might half-seriously conclude that atheists and agnostics ought to focus on having more children, to help overcome their demographic disadvantage. Unfortunately for secularists, this may not work even as a joke. Nobody knows exactly why religion and fertility tend to go together. 2

Birth rate statistics in Western Europe don't support the claims made by these articles. They ignore the economic and social factors that influence birth rates and make the mistake of thinking that correlation equals causation.

Low birth rates in Western Europe

Country Comparison

So, is secularization really to blame? I did the comparison below to see if there is a correlation between religiosity and birth rates. I chose several countries that have a low rate of belief in the Judeo-Christian God and high atheism rates and compared them to some countries that have a high rate of belief in the Judeo Christian God and low rates of atheism. I did not include Britain or Spain because they have both high church attendance and high rates of atheism or belief in a spirit or life force rather than the Judeo-Christian God.

While all of these countries have birth rates below replacement rate (2.1%), there is no correlation between high rates of atheism or nontraditional beliefs and low birth rates. The more religious countries actually have lower birth rates with Ireland being the exception. The lowest birth rate for the secular countries is 1.67 for Sweden. All the religious countries (other than Ireland) have lower birth rates than this.

I also checked the statistics for Poland, which is in Eastern Europe. Its church attendance rate is 63% and atheism rate is 1% but its birth rate is 1.29, which is by far the worst of all the countries I looked at. I did not include Germany because I could not find statistics for it in the Eurobarometer 2005 survey that I used. Germany is a very secular country with a very low birth rate of 1.42

Church Attendance in Western Europe

I chose 25% as a minimum for countries to be listed in the high church attendance group. These numbers are for weekly attendance. The numbers are a little higher when you include people who attend church irregularly.3

Low Church Attendance

High Church Attendance

Finland 5%

Greece 27%

Denmark 3%

Portugal 29%

Norway 3%

Italy 31%

Sweden 5%

Ireland 46%

France 12%

Malta 75%

Rates of Judeo-Christian Belief in Western Europe

The first number is the atheism rate. The number in parenthesis is the percentage that believes in a spirit or life force, rather than the traditional Judeo-Christian God. As you can see, atheism isn't as wide spread in Western Europe as many people think. Most people do believe in God. Just not the traditional Judeo-Christian god.4

Low Levels of Judeo-Christian Belief

High Levels of Judeo-Christian Belief

Sweden 23% (53%)

Portugal 6% (12%)

Denmark 19% (49%)

Italy 6% (16%)

Norway 17% (47%)

Ireland 4% (22%)

Finland 16% (41%)

Greece 3% (16%)

France 33% (27%)

Malta 1% (3%)

Birth Rates in Western Europe

Here are some birth rates. Again, the most secular countries have the highest birth rates, with Ireland as the one exception.5

Less Religious Countries

More Religious Countries

Sweden 1.67

Italy 1.32

Denmark 1.74

Greece 1.37

Norway 1.77

Portugal 1.5

Finland 1.73

Malta 1.52

France 1.97

Ireland 2.03

Correlation Doesn't Always Equal Causation

From these statistics, it doesn't make sense to blame a decline in religion for low birth rates. Economic issues, work-life balance and career decisions are most likely the main culprits. Birth rates have actually been increasing in France due to more family friendly government policies. Birth rates are only slightly higher for immigrants, so it is not a case of immigrants or Muslims driving up the birth rate as some people want to claim.

In the past, children were an economic benefit. Many people worked in farming or owned small businesses and children were a big help. Lack of birth control options made it almost impossible for people to control family size, even if they wanted to. Kids today are a huge economic cost from infancy to either high school or college graduation and sometimes beyond. The economic benefits of having kids today don't show up until parents are elderly. So, having larger families is a much bigger decision than it used to be. It's not surprising that people are having fewer children or none at all regardless of whether they are religious or not.

Letizia Mencarini, a professor of statistics at the University of Florence, questioned more than 3000 mothers from five different cities across Italy in an effort to find out what would persuade them to have more children. She found that the more the father was involved in the chores of looking after the child and household, the more likely his wife was to want and have a second baby. The survey indicated that Italian men do little around the house - fewer than six per cent of mothers responded that their husbands "always" or "often" did household chores . Consequently many women cannot face the dual burden of going out to work and looking after an extra child. They have to give up one of those two options: they usually decide to sacrifice the extra child. There is evidence from other countries that men's participation in household chores affects the chances that a wife will have a second baby. Sweden's birth rate is nearly 50 per cent higher than Italy's.6

Updated: 02/26/2013, Cecelia
 
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Cecelia on 02/25/2013

Church attendance is included. Even countries with high church attendance have lower birth rates than those with low church attendance.

Faith on 02/24/2013

Look at church attendance and then you will see a correlation.

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