Could the rise of the nonreligious defuse the population bomb?

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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.