Could the rise of the nonreligious defuse the population bomb?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Fifty-four years ago, in 1968, American biologist Paul Ehrlich warned that a human “population bomb” threatened global catastrophe. The world’s population at the time was 3.54 billion.

On November 15, 2022, the UN estimate of Earth’s human population flew past eight billion.

This “population bomb” is only partly to blame for climate change and other unfolding catastrophes. We might be able to sustain a population of eight billion if each of us consumed and polluted less, especially the affluent hyper-consumers of the developed world. But it would also help if there were fewer of us consuming and polluting.

But where did all of these people come from—and how might we slow that growth?

There is a strong argument to be made that religious belief and practice are a major part of the problem, and that increasing secularism could be part of the solution.

When pro-natal ideology meets modern technology

There is a variety of contributing causes to the explosion of human population during the past few centuries, the most obvious being the Industrial Revolution, the Green Revolution in agriculture, and related revolutions in medicine and healthcare. These innovations have made it possible to produce more children who survive long enough to produce more children of their own.

But reproduction is not merely a biological fact. It is also influenced by cultural, social, and psychological factors. The problem is that the new technologies of modernity arrived in a world that is structured by pre-modern worldviews that are pro-natal. Pro-natal ideologies worked well enough in previous millennia when child mortality and death were more common. But as we’ve developed better medicine and agriculture, pro-natal ideas no longer make sense.

On average, religious people have more children

The most obvious sources of pro-natal ideology are religious. Let’s put this bluntly: Religious people have more babies. This is especially true for orthodox or fundamentalist versions of religion, which tend to have a pro-natal ideology.

This point was made over 10 years ago by UK professor Eric Kaufmann in the book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? I discussed it in my own work a couple of years after that.

While the religiously unaffiliated worldwide have an average of 1.6 children per woman, Christians average 2.6 children and Muslims 2.9 children worldwide. Some smaller religious groups outstrip even these, such as US Mormons at 3.4 children per woman.

The basic pro-natal idea in the Abrahamic faiths can be traced to God’s command to Noah after the flood: “be fruitful and multiply.”

The pro-natal orientation of religion was confirmed by a recent report by Lyman Stone in Christianity Today that indicates fertility rates are higher among those who regularly attend religious services. Stone published a related report for the conservative Institute for Family Studies where he argues that even though religious women have more children, the rapid growth of secularism in the United States means that the US population will decline.

Stone notes correctly that nonreligious women have fewer children and that conservative religious women tend to have more children than women who are members of more liberal faiths.

Stone seems to want the general population to continue to grow, but his apparent central purpose is to sound the alarm of religious decline. One solution, he concludes, is for religious congregations to encourage women to have more children.

External messaging of this kind can actually have a noticeable effect: Research at Cornell University in 2021 found that even living in a secular country reduces the birth rate and family size of religious believers in that country.

Liberal religion and non-religion may slow reproduction

The empowerment of women is key to addressing the ecological crisis and the population boom. Women with education, contraception, and meaningful careers tend to have fewer children. Traditional patriarchal religious beliefs tend to keep women subordinated and confined to domestic life. That’s why liberating religion from patriarchy may be one way to slow population growth.

Among the most important factors here is the liberation of sexuality from reproduction. The human sex drive is powerful. But religions that are opposed to contraception actively refuse to restrain reproduction in other ways as well.

Furthermore, as secularism grows, it is worth reconsidering more broadly the pro-natal worldview. In a world of eight billion people (and counting), it is simply reckless to listen to the command to go forth and multiply. The Biblical basis for this idea ought to be critiqued. There was no flood, and humanity did not develop from Noah’s seed. Rather, we evolved as one species among many. Our big brains and upright posture allowed us to develop technologies, social systems, and ideologies that led us to conquer the earth.

The time has come to apply new technologies, social systems, and ideologies to help us avoid ecological collapse.

We already have the main technological tool we need: contraception. Now it’s time for social systems and ideologies to catch up, and for human beings to choose to have fewer children.

Population decrease is not misanthropic

The goal should not be active depopulation. Some radical ecological theories see human population as a plague or cancer. Such a misanthropic approach may lead to so-called eco-fascism, a movement that can also be connected to white supremacy. Racist misanthropes encourage the elimination of undesirable others.

We already have the main technological tool we need: contraception. Now it’s time for social systems and ideologies to catch up, and for human beings to choose to have fewer children.

But we can reduce human population without being inhumane or by eliminating actual humans. Rather, we can slow population growth by encouraging responsible reproduction.

Critics of such a policy might call it “anti-natal” and try to link it to some radical authoritarian program such as China’s former “one child” policy. But it would be wrong to force people to stop having children, nor should we be opposed to children and birth. Children are wonderful, and birthing is a mysterious joy. We need new generations to provide new ideas, productivity, and social support.

Life beyond reproduction

But there is more to life than having children. Robust forms of feminism and humanism remind us of this. Women should be free to become artists and scientists, teachers and lawyers—or to have children if they want to. But women’s opportunities are constrained by pro-natal, patriarchal ideologies. And traditional religion often forecloses other non-family-oriented opportunities to find meaning and purpose.

RELATED: You don’t have to ‘be fruitful and multiply’: More Americans having just one child

Humanists need to continue to critique pro-natal and patriarchal forms of religion while reminding people that there is life beyond reproduction. But this critique should not focus on blame and guilt. A grumpy ecologist may wag their finger and say that it is irresponsible to have more than two children per couple. But scolding and blaming are not as useful as focusing on the positives of reduced fertility.

Children are great, but so too is life in a family with fewer kids or none. And in the long run, fewer children means a better life for each of them.

The crisis of democracy: on remaining vigilant without freaking out

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The fiery rhetoric of the campaign trail might make you might think American democracy has failed or is failing. There is declining trust in government, elections, and in democracy itself. And some people are freaking out. This is a crisis of democracy.

But there is no such thing as a stable, happily-ever-after version of democracy. Democracy is always in crisis. Understanding the nature of the democratic beast can help you keep focus, despite warnings of impending doom. Here are a few thoughts about how to remain vigilant without freaking out.

Avoid the rhetorical doom spiral

The Left suggest that we are facing a democratic crisis of unprecedented proportions. President Biden gave a passionate speech on November 3, where he said, “democracy itself” is at stake in the mid-term election. Former President Obama warned in a speech in Arizona on the same day that if Republicans win in Arizona, democracy in Arizona “may not survive.” Obama added, “That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.”

The Right paints a similarly gloomy picture. Former President Trump said, on the day before Halloween, “Our Country is Rigged, Crooked, and Evil.” Meanwhile, according to a Washington Post survey, a number of Republican candidates for governor and senator have already decided that the 2022 elections may be rigged, refusing to say that they would accept the result. These are the folks that Biden and Obama are warning about.

This kind of polarizing doom spiral has led people to talk about “civil war.” A new study from Notre Dame University reports, “Slightly more than half of Republicans (51.5 percent), over a third of Democrats (35.1 percent) and nearly a quarter of independents (23 percent) believe the United States is on the brink of a new civil war.” And some delusional people have already acted violently. The gloomy rhetoric can increase the likelihood of political violence, which can, in turn, increase our feeling of doom.

Remember things could be worse

The actual American Civil War brought terrible destruction, with as many as 750,000 fatalities. A hundred years later, the 1960’s was a decade of political violence. And until that decade, our country’s racial inequities existed in obvious tension with the lofty rhetoric of our founding ideals. For women, non-whites, and LGBTQ people, the 2020’s are better than the 1920’s or 1820’s.

And other democracies don’t inspire much confidence. The U.K. has had an embarrassing year. Israel seems to be in perpetual crisis. Italian democracy is a punch line. And in Japan, the former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was murdered.

Things could get worse here. But they are better now than they were. Our democracy has matured and expanded. But democracies are unstable. And there is no cure for this instability other than the patient work of democratic citizenship. It also helps to tune out the doomsayers and polarizing rhetoric that breeds over-reaction.

Recognize the boredom of diminishing returns

When you note that things are better today, it is surprising that trust in the country and faith in democracy is eroding. One problem is that some people don’t like these improvements. White supremacists are not happy to have been displaced (or as they might put it, “replaced”). 

But American crankiness extends beyond the fringe. Some of it has to do with a more general sense of dread about climate change and pandemic disease. The iPhone era has also left us disconnected and distracted. And traditional religion no longer unites us with a common source of meaning and community.

I also suspect that we are suffering from a psychological problem related to the so-called hedonic treadmill. As we pursue happiness, we don’t seem to make progress. But that’s because our sense of progress is calibrated to a basic “set point” in the happiness thermostat.

Democratic progress is inspiring when it first occurs. But the joy of success soon fades, as we become used to a new normal. The excitement of change soon gives way to the grumpy boredom of the status quo.

It is a thrill to witness key moments of democratic enlightenment. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a time to celebrate. But after the Wall came down, the thrill of progress became the hard work of reunification. Incremental change from a new set point of democracy can appear paltry and sad, as the law of diminishing returns undermines the feeling of progress. So, we become bored and apathetic.

Beware the rabble-rousers

And when things are going well, some moron will organize a witch hunt. And then we’ve got a new crisis of democracy.

The average American voter is mostly indifferent to politics. We’re busy with our own lives. We don’t trust the system or the politicians. We are turned off by polarization. And, as mentioned, we are living in a much better time in terms of human rights.

To get our attention, the politicos crank up the volume, thinking that fear and polarization will get us going. These rabble-rousers use hyperbole and vitriol, while playing on our emotions.

Among the most effective rabble-rousers is former-President Trump. He’s got a knack for seeing witch hunts. And he leads them against those bogeys who supposedly stole the last election. Of course, this provides a great opportunity for the opposing party to use Trump as a foil in order to do a little rabble-rousing of their own.

None of this bodes well for critical thinking or for reasonable political engagement.

Relearn the wisdom of the Constitutional

Plato saw this coming. He warned that the mob would fall prey to the emotional outbursts of a tyrant. He suggested that the cure was a philosopher-king who might save us from ourselves. The American Founders suggested another more democratic solution, which is a written constitution with a separation of powers and regular elections. That stabilizing system was designed to keep the rabble-rousers in check and to prevent the masses from becoming a mob.

The Constitution was not perfect in its conception (it allowed slavery, for example). But it has been improved. And it worked to prevent President Trump from remaining in power, after he lost the previous election. One hopes that it will continue to function. But it will only do so, if “we, the people,” understand it and defend it. The American Constitutional system won’t last forever. Nothing does. But so far, it seems to be doing its job. And it is unlikely that it will fail during this election cycle.

The Folly of Political Violence

Fresno Bee, November 6, 2022

Political violence does not work. And yet some people think it does. Some political violence is the result of delusional people on a rampage. But many sane people still believe in its efficacy.

Consider the appalling case of the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband in San Francisco. The attacker wanted to send a political message. But he ended up in jail. The real message here is that violence is wrong, and a danger to our democracy.

Or consider any of a long list of examples. The riots of Jan. 6 failed to achieve their objective of overturning the 2020 election. The attacks of 9/11 failed to drive the U.S. out of the Middle East. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. failed to stop the Civil Rights movement.

We could look back further. Lincoln’s assassination failed to stop the abolition of slavery or keep the North from winning the war. And even further back, the assassination of Julius Caesar failed to stop Rome from becoming an empire. The killing of Jesus of Nazareth did not stop Christianity from becoming one of the world’s largest religions. And killing Socrates did not stop philosophy.

I’ve simplified things here, quite a bit. There is often no single motive behind political violence. And sometimes the motive is lost in madness and mystery. We don’t really know why Oswald killed Kennedy, which is why conspiracy theories linger. Surely some of those who murdered Caesar were playing power games. And Socrates was killed by Athenians seeking a scapegoat after losing a war.

But the bottom line is that killing an individual does not stop a movement, a system or an idea. Violence does not change people’s minds about truth, justice, or morality. Minds are changed through education and argument. Substantial changes in law and politics require negotiation and compromise, as well dialogue and deliberation.

The focal point of political violence is on the moment and the act. It is “spectacular,” as I explained in more detail in a book I wrote about nonviolence. Violence attracts our attention. It is an explosive and unexpected outburst that disrupts things. Violent acts provoke responses. But the response rarely unfolds as the attacker wants it to. The attacker controls the moment. But the system and society control the response.

The feverish imagination of violence is episodic and individualistic. The assassin imagines that if he kills person X, everything will change. But that is a misunderstanding of how life and politics work. The daily grind of political life is not spectacular. It does not occur in explosive moments and exciting episodes. Rather, it involves the boring work of persuasion and coalition building.

Ideas, laws, and movements are larger than persons. If person X is eliminated, there will be Y and Z who are committed to the same ideas. And if X is murdered, her followers will be angry and even more committed to the cause.

We forget this because we’ve been taught a version of history that focuses on the biographies of great men and women. We blame Nazism on Hitler, for example. But if Hitler had been killed, the Nazi party would not have crumbled overnight.

The history of Christianity provides an interesting example. The leaders of the Christian movement were murdered by the Romans. Jesus was crucified, as was Peter. And Paul was beheaded. Many martyrs were killed after them. But the movement continued to grow.

Things are more complicated in the case of wars and revolutions. But again, these things rarely work out as planned. The 20-year war in Afghanistan reminds us of that. Violence and war are unpredictable. And it is ideas and systems that matter.

The American revolution is often held up as a paradigm of effective violence. But was it the violence that mattered — or the ideas that were fought for? And would those ideas have endured even if the revolution had failed?

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” Human problems need humane solutions. Violence operates in the realm of animal power and physical force. It is subhuman and inarticulate. And it usually makes things worse.

War crimes in Ukraine: pacifists should support war crimes tribunals

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A United Nations commission investigating the Ukraine-Russian War issued a report this week concluding that Russian forces have committed the “vast majority” of war crimes in the conflict. But it also found two cases in which Ukrainian forces committed war crimes.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine counts as the first criminal act. And then there were indiscriminate bombings, torture, summary executions, and sexual violence. The cases in which Ukrainian forces were implicated involved the abuse of Russian prisoners of war. This is not to say that a kind of “you too” argument would minimize Russian atrocities. But war is messy. And it is usually difficult to sort out good guys and bad guys.  

Most wars involve war crimes. American forces have committed war crimes, with the events of My Lai (in Vietnam) and Abu Ghraib (in Iraq) showing up in lists of war crimes. Even peace-keeping forces (the UN’s blue-helmeted soldiers) have engaged in criminal acts, including notorious cases of sexual violence and exploitation.

Pacifists might conclude that war is wrong because it seems to beget this kind of lawlessness and atrocity. The War Resisters International (WRI) was founded in 1921 with the declaration that war is a crime against humanity. But until war is finally abolished, it is wise to call for better prosecution for war crimes and for more education, training, and understanding of the rules of war.

Is war criminal?

Pacifists will sometimes claim, like the WRI does, that war itself is criminal. Pope Francis stated in his new book, Against War, “War is madness, war is a monster, war is a cancer that feeds on itself, engulfing everything! What’s more, war is a sacrilege.” But we often fail to see that. The Dalai Lama once explained that’s because we take it for granted that war is legal. He said, “Since armies are legal, we feel that war is acceptable; in general, nobody feels that war is criminal or that accepting it is criminal attitude. In fact, we have been brainwashed.”

In making this kind of claim, however, the pacifist may be unable to distinguish between better and worse wars. Is there a difference, for example, between aggressive war and defensive war? A blanket rejection of war seems to ignore that difference. The moral framework of the just war tradition helps clarify matters. War crimes can be understood as violations of the just war theory. That theory says that it is wrong to deliberately target noncombatants and that torture and rape are not legitimate weapons of war.

But a number of critics have pointed out that modern war typically violates the moral prohibitions of the just war theory. Hannah Arendt said, “by the end of the Second World War everybody knew that technical developments in the instruments of violence had made the adoption of ‘criminal’ warfare inevitable.” She was referring to the mechanized killing of modern warfare and the criminality of bombing civilian population centers. I have contributed to this kind of critique in The Just War Myth, where I concluded that actual wars don’t live up to the standards of the just war theory.

Prosecuting war crimes

When crimes are committed, we must identify and punish them, if we can. There is an important difference between a state that prosecutes war crimes committed by its own soldiers and a state that orders those crimes or excuses them. A critic of war may point out that it is rare for war crimes to be prosecuted from within. War crimes are often a matter of “victor’s justice,” with the victors setting up tribunals to punish the vanquished.

And yet, it is worth noting that the U.S. did punish the soldiers involved in My Lai and Abu Ghraib, even if those punishments were modest and contentious. The U.S. might do better in this regard. But politics makes this difficult. One interesting study showed that Americans tend to forgive war crimes when they are committed by the “good guys.” We are confused about what it means to “support the troops” and we’ve politicized the idea. This might explain why former-President Donald Trump pardoned a Navy SEAL who had been convicted of war crimes in Iraq. But we support the troops by expecting them to behave morally, and providing training and guidance that supports good behavior.

It also helps that international commissions and institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been established. But these remain weak so long as major players like the United States and Russia are not subject to their jurisdiction. The U.S. has never formally joined the treaty that authorized the ICC. And under Trump, the U.S. even imposed sanctions against ICC officials who were investigating war crimes in Afghanistan. President Joe Biden revoked that policy. But the U.S. and Russia continue to exist outside the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Pacifists should support war crimes tribunals

Critics will rightly complain that this lack of an effective international tribunal leaves powerful nations free to commit war crimes with impunity. One important way forward, then, is to support institutions like the ICC.

We also ought to avoid oversimplifying the critique of war. Some wars and warriors are better (or worse) than others. This is also true of crime. Some crimes are worse than others. And some criminals are worse than others. And while the goal of eliminating war is a noble ideal, we still benefit when war crimes are prosecuted and punished. 

There is a kind of simplicity in stating that all war is criminal. But the world is not that simple. And declaring that all war is criminal can create confusion when trying to prosecute war crimes.

War crimes occur in every war. We should support the work of identifying and prosecuting them. And we should encourage states and militaries to be more vigilant about their own misconduct, to stop excusing war crimes, and to take responsibility for their own misdeeds.

Secular vegetarianism and the Montreal Declaration on animal exploitation

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I signed the Montreal Declaration on Animal Exploitation, along with nearly 500 other philosophers. The signatories include such notables as Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher well known for his work on “animal liberation.” Secular thinkers should embrace this Declaration and the idea of secular vegetarianism.

The Montreal Declaration condemns animal exploitation that inflicts “unnecessary violence and harm” onto nonhuman animals. It imagines “transforming numerous institutions fundamentally.” Broad social change will not occur overnight. But we can stop eating meat.

We are all animals

If it is wrong to inflict unnecessary harm on animals, then you should become a vegan or a vegetarian. If meat is not necessary and meat-production causes harm, then you ought not eat meat. Behind this simple syllogism, there are complicated questions.

One question is which animals and how much suffering? Wild salmon and free range dairy cows may be different from factory farmed chicken or pork. Vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and pescatarians continue to argue about these details.

But they generally agree that meat eating is not necessary. This is a counter-cultural claim. Western religious traditions typically hold that nonhuman animals are inferior to human beings and exist for our use. God gave Adam dominion over the animals. And animal sacrifice was once viewed as pleasing to the gods.

These ideas make little sense in a secular age. The theory of evolution teaches us that we are animals too. Humans and nonhumans share a common neurophysiology. We also share a similar experience with other social animals. Human beings suffer when cut, burned, beaten, and killed. And we suffer when separated from the herd, isolated, and confined.

What is necessary?

The vegetarian argument holds that harm done to nonhuman animals is not necessary. But what do we mean by necessary? It is fairly easy to establish that meat is not necessary for human health. A diet heavy in meat is not healthy. And vegetarians can live long and healthy lives.

But words like “necessity” and “health” are complicated. There are layers of meaning here embedded in culture, customs, and social practices. Health is not merely a physiological concept; it also contains cultural elements.

For a bull fighter, killing the bull is “necessary.” And one might argue that meat eating is “necessary” given a certain form of life. Meat eating was thought to be a “healthy” part of American and European diets for a long time. Think about the role of hot dogs and steaks in American culture. In Germany, beer and sausage go hand in hand. And in Greece, lamb is often on the menu.

The vegetarian argument calls these norms into question. It asks us to rethink forms of life and cultures that are oriented around meat. This is why the vegetarian argument often strikes a fundamental nerve. If you argue that meat eating (or bullfighting) is not necessary, you seem to call a person’s entire way of life into question.

There is a parallel here with arguments about religion. Religious believers typically react strongly to atheists who argue that religious belief is mistaken. For the believer, the critique of religion is not just an exercise in logic. Rather, it is a matter of fundamental existential import. Atheists who suggest that belief in God is not necessary will be perceived as attacking the very foundation of the believer’s form of life.

Sectarian vegetarianism

This is why atheists and vegetarians should tread lightly. And maybe we can find common ground. Vegetarianism has often been pluralistic, drawing on multiple sources in religion and in secular thought.

Gandhi provides a famous example of an eclectic and pluralistic approach. His vegetarianism was influenced by Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. But Gandhi explains, in his autobiography, that he also learned a lot from the Vegetarian Society of England. Even before Gandhi visited England, Christians and humanists in Europe and America were embracing plant-based diets.

One significant example in the United States is John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg’s advocacy of plant-based food was influenced by Seventh Day Adventism. Yes, corn flakes had a vegetarian and sectarian birth. And in pursuit of plant-based protein, Kellogg invented peanut butter.

Kellogg wrote a primer on vegetarianism in 1899, in which he chronicled religious views of meat eating and abstention from meat. He explained, “the ethical argument against flesh eating is found in the fact that lower animals are, in common with man, sentient creatures.” Kellogg put this in theological terms, stating that God is “actually present, living and working in every created thing.” He concluded, “the slaughter of animals of any sort for mere pleasure ought to be prohibited by law.”

Secular vegetarianism

The vegetarian argument has evolved in a more secular direction. The Montreal Declaration is not focused on theology. It reflects secular, moral philosophy. And my sense is that secular thinkers are becoming more sympathetic to the vegetarian argument. Indeed, there is a growing number of vegetarian atheists and humanists. One recent survey shows that there is a substantial demographic overlap between atheism and vegetarianism.

This makes sense given the fact that a substantial critique of our misuse of animals depends upon a critique of the anthropocentrism of the Biblical worldview. Atheists and humanists are less likely to conform to outmoded social norms. And nonreligious people seem to understand the evolutionary argument mentioned above, which puts humans and nonhumans in the same predicament.

If this is the only world we’ve got and suffering is not redeemed in another world, then it is incumbent upon us to reduce suffering here and now—for ourselves, for other humans, and for our fellow animals.

Generated by Feedzy