Sunday, June 10, 2007

Stereotypes Bite the Dust

Remember how education is supposed to "cure" religion? Apparently not. It seems that the educated are more likely to maintain their religious affiliations.

Remember how religion promotes baby-making and secularization promotes small families? It may be the other way around. Baby-making may promote religion while decreases in baby-making promote secularism. I'd like to point out that Mary Eberstadt gets a LOT of things wrong, including the fact that the American Pediatric Association has decided that children raised in families with two gay parents are just as well-adjusted as those raised in more "traditional" families.

However, her discussion of the relationships between religion and reproduction fall in line with other studies that have shown a decline in rates of atheism and increase in religious observance after age 30, with 12% of those under 30 and only 6% over 30 self-describing as atheists. Most studies have correlated this change with child-bearing and family formation.

One such study was conducted by William Sims Bainbridge of The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Since reading Dr. Bainbridge's study requires registration, I'll quote Statguy from Magic Statistics here:

Dr Bainbridge outlines an argument based on compensator theory that atheists, compared to religious believers, have fewer and weaker social obligations. He finds atheism to be more common among men than among women, and more common among single or cohabitating persons than among married or divorced persons. Atheism is also more common among those with no children under 18 than among those with one child, and much more common than among parents of two or more children. A very strong negative correlation was found between the proportion of a country's population professing atheism and the fertility rate. The higher the percentage of atheists in the population, the lower the nation’s fertility rate.


One particularly interesting aspect of Dr Bainbridge’s study is that he incorporated the recent fertility collapse in advanced industrialised societies into his provisional theory of atheism.

The relevance of the fertility collapse to secondary compensation is that a failure to reproduce means fewer social relationships carrying family obligations. This tendency could be magnified in societies with a welfare state or where at least many of the former nurturance obligations people have had with each other are taken over by the state or by such things as health maintenance organizations, extensive public education, and the mass entertainment industry. To reduce secondary compensation, the state does not need to fulfill the obligations it takes on; it merely needs to take those obligations away from its citizens. I am suggesting the possibility of a pernicious feedback loop, in which a decline of religion leads to reduced fertility, which in turn reduces the secondary compensation that is at least partly responsible for religion’s strength.

If this view is correct, this would appear to be how atheism grows: As the state has taken away social welfare functions formerly performed by such smaller social groups as families and churches, inter-personal social obligations have declined; then religious allegiance declines and atheism grows, followed by a decline in fertility, leading to further decrease in social obligations and religion and increased atheism. Pernicious feedback loop indeed.

Large randomized studies of atheism is difficult, so these findings may not be 100% reliable. However, this preliminary information may indicate serious problems with current theories.


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