Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Response to "Shall the fundamentalists inherit the earth?"

Welp, I was going to make a comment on a post over at Tom Rees' blog, and I got so verbose it went over the 4k-per-comment limit. It's probably rude to post a comment that long anyway, so why don't I respond in the form of a blog post, hmmm?

Tom's post is in regards to the book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? by Eric Kaufmann. In it, Kaufmann provides disturbing statistics suggesting that religious fundamentalists may out-reproduce the non-religious and religious moderates alike, resulting in a future demographic breakdown that favors extreme patriarchy and oppression of women. I'll let you read Tom's original post for the details. What follows is my response:

First things first, I am extremely skeptical about Tom's contention that "ratcheting up the level of conflict serves to paradoxically increase the power of the religious patriarchs." It seems to me that these highly insular patriarchal groups do not require any external catalyst whatsoever to "ratchet things up". Note that the Ken Hamms of the world hate the Francis Collinses as much or more than they hate the PZes. I know that is Creationist fundamentalism rather than extreme patriarchal fundamentalism, but I suspect their respective responses to the outside world are similar. As was pointed out to me today, no amount of pandering will satisfy an extremist, and similarly I doubt that any amount of politeness is likely to prevent insular cult leaders from "ratcheting it up". They will feel equally under attack regardless of tone or content -- creating a persistent feeling of being under attack is what they do, otherwise they would not be able to achieve insularity.

Tom expresses hope that the problem may be solved by a rebound in liberal fertility, a possibility that is already showing early signs of plausibility. It could happen, but with AGW a looming and unresolved problem, that's going to be a tough sell for a lot of people. And even neglecting whether it could happen or not, combating the rise of fundamentalism by increasing global fertility rates -- while NOT solving the problem of out-of-control carbon emissions -- is a solution that could backfire quite badly for everyone. (Full disclosure: My wife and I are planning, for the moment, on eventually having three children altogether, despite some reservations I have that this may be grossly environmentally irresponsible)

On the other hand, I am highly skeptical that this scenario of unchecked growth of insular patriarchal fundamentalism is realistic after all. Insularity is difficult to maintain on a large scale. The Amish may have ballooned to a quarter million, but try keeping up those fertility and retention rates when it's five million or ten million. Almost by definition, insularity can only be maintained on a relatively small scale.

The Mormons, a group with which I unfortunately have intimate experience, are a relevant example here... They are spreading worldwide, but the pace of their expansion has slowed (don't let misleading statistics used in church propaganda convince you otherwise), and I can tell you from personal experience that the insularity is not well-maintained outside of Utah and parts of Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado -- and as we might predict, retention rates are quite poor outside of Mormon Country. And there's only so many Elder Youngs and Sister Smiths you can cram into 82,100 square miles. If most patriarchal cults go the way of Mormonism, it's quite possible that the trend identified by Kaufmann will turn out to be self-limiting.

Which is not to say the subject isn't worthy of concern, especially if the Mormon blueprint is/becomes atypical. It may turn out that in the Internet era, a bazillion insulated "cells" could form, connected by a common ideology spread via the 'tubes. I'm thinking Quiverfull here, which is not a singular insular cult, but rather is composed of thousands of scattered insular groups united only by their interest in explosive reproduction. The Duggars (of 19 Kids and Counting fame) could even represent the prototypical model for this kind of "cell"-like expansion: they aren't a member of any church per se, but rather they hold Sunday services in their own home, and occasional meet with like-minded families at conferences, camps, etc. The Duggars themselves probably won't have a particularly high retention rate, given that the omnipresent film crew severely disrupts their insularity, but the "cell"-like nature of how they practice their brand of patriarchy is disturbing to say the least, and contradicts my previous contention that the trend will be self-limiting.

It may be naive, but the biggest source of hope for me is that, given access to sufficient information, our side is quite clearly right while the other side is quite clearly wrong. I know it makes me sound absolutist, but I make no apologies when I say that there is no such thing as "cultural relativism" when it comes to the wrongness of oppressing women, for example. Those who are cognizant of the world at large and who still maintain these backward worldviews are anomalies; the vast majority are operating from a position of ignorance. As the pace of information flow increases, perhaps it will be harder and harder to maintain these pockets of willful ignorance... Or so I hope.


  1. Speaking as an Israeli, I can't see any inherent limit to the ultra-orthodox increase in the near-by future. Not because of insularity, anyway. They have their own society, strictly separated from the others, and thus are free to breed as much as they want. The ultra-orthodox only look inward, interacting with the outside world only though the rabbi's appointed representatives almost exclusively. They can, and do, maintain and grow insular communities everywhere, in New York as well as London.

    The Mormons are different because they proselytize, they try to preach and convince; they are not the insular patriarchal cult Kaufmann is talking about. It is when you stop preaching and become insular, while bolstering fertility, that you become a long-term demographic problem.

    The ultra-orthodox breeding will be curtailed somewhat by economic factors, now that they've become large enough to start over-burdening the state's welfare system. But that will not drop birth rates to Western or secular standards. Only massive conversion or rise in feminism will achieve that; there are some signs of such developments, but nothing definite.


  2. Yeah, my wife has told me some about the Israeli ultra-orthodox community. As you referred to, they have an added advantage because in addition to their strict separation, they also get subsidized by the state.

    There has been some bad press for that community lately, which is something I cannot recall in previous years (e.g. this incident). But who knows if that will make any kind of difference?

  3. Hi James, interesting points. When I said that conflict helps these guys, what I really mean is that fear is what keeps these groups together. There is no more powerful force for group cohesion than the fear that a common enemy is trying to destroy you. The leaders of these cults consciously play upon these fears - and that's also a motivation for the high fertility.

    I appreciate what you're saying about eco issues. I have 2 kids, 3 is OK too since replacement level is about 2.1. But currently liberal average well below replacement. So we can bump up liberal births and still have static or even falling population.

    The point about the cell structure of quiverful is a good one. What I hadn't realised before I read the book that the Amish actually are similar. They have groups of around 100 individuals, and as the reproduce new units continually split off. Orthodox Jews are also non centralised. So what we face is a world full of small, paranoid, suspicious cults.

    What spooks me is that it's not really religion that is the driving force behind these cults. People cling to them because they are scared - of novelty, of strangers, of change, of different cultures. These personality traits are quite strongly genetic, so when mixed with a religion that leads to hyperfertility we may have a genuine evolutionary change underway in human psychology.

    But enough of my paranoia :)

  4. As a Christian, my emotional response to Kaufmann's projections are obviously somewhat different from yours.
    One thing I've noticed is that various "fundamentalist" groups are lumped together in Tom Rees' post: maybe from a doggedly secularist viewpoint it all 'looks the same,' but cramming very disparate communities into a single conceptual framework has its limits. Anabaptist groups such as the Amish and Hutterites reflect very different values than many mainstream evangelicals, to say nothing of Mormons and Haredim. Strict pacifism, anti-militarism, and technological restrictions are all obvious points of distinction.
    My wife and I have single, secular, childless friends who almost certainly exert a larger carbon footprint individually than many large Amish families do collectively. Sushi flown in by plane, expensive cars, imported clothing, nightclubs, etc, etc.
    Overall, I think you make a good point: community dynamics might change as a function of expansion and growth.
    This has happened among some Amish settlements in various ways, as farming gives way to trades like carpentry, factory work, and business ownership. Time will tell how these communities choose to adapt and survive, and what demographic effects do or don't take hold. "The Amish" as a group are extremely diverse, observing very different Ordnungs and practices. Some will undoubtedly move toward greater assimilation, while others will maintain themselves as non-worldly, traditional people under God.
    I find militant secular materialism to be a deeply unsatisfying worldview. It feels profoundly disconnected, makes no room for sacred thoughts and feelings, and erodes many communal and social bounds. The ethos of individualism seems to bear different fruits, biologically speaking, than sacred communitarianism.
    While I uphold the rights of anyone to be secular/atheist, I do not support it as a social movement, beyond efforts to uphold separation of church and state, and the right to practice belief or non-belief without fear of undue harassment or coercion.
    The case of Haredim in Israel feels very different from the Amish. While the Amish have their problems, in my extensive dealings with them I have never experienced them to be anything but kind and peaceable. At the worst they can be shy or maybe grouchy. The segregated (public) buses in Haredi communities, the violent rioting, the insistence on dress standards regardless of affiliation are a different matter, and should be a cause for concern. The fact that both are nominally 'fundamentalist' disguises deep differences in both behavior and intention.
    Thank you James, for your interesting post!

  5. I find militant secular materialism...

    Without addressing the rest of your post for the moment, could you tell me exactly what "militant" secularists you are referring too? Or maybe we are using a different definition of "militant"... heh...

    I have not read Kaufmann's book, but it seems like he's not saying, "All these groups are the same," but rather, attempting to draw parallels based on insularity, patriarchy, and fertility rates. In the specific example you give, you're right, I'm far less worried about the Amish taking over the world (heh) than I am about the expanding political power of the Haredim. I almost mentioned in my original response, in fact, that one thing that is very different about the Amish is that they don't really care what all the rest of us do -- a truly important distinction. I still have mixed feelings about the implications for people who are born into it, though Ramspringa (sp!) goes some way towards addressing even that issue.

    But in any case, yeah: I don't think anyone's losing sleep over the Amish. It's just a useful model to see what might happen with other inward-looking cults...

  6. Hey James,

    I meant "militant" in the colloquial sense. I can't say I'm living in fear of armed humanists yet. ;)

    All the best,

    Ian +