That at least is the implication of Philip Longman in an interesting little piece called "Survival of the Godliest". Longman is a questionable figure, to say the least, but he's on to an important idea here -- that modern secular society, despite its manifest economic and technological success, is steadily losing a long-term demographic struggle. As his title indicates, his focus is a comparison between secular and religious cultures, where the demographic contrast is especially marked:
In a world in which childbearing is rarely accidental and almost never rewarding economically, birthrates increasingly reflect values choices. And so, by Darwinian process, those who adhere to traditions that preserve and celebrate the ancient injunction to “go forth and multiply” wind up putting more of their genes and ideas into the future than those who don’t. As Kaufmann shows, fertility, over time, plays out like compound interest. That is, even if religiously fundamentalist families only have a few more children than secular or religiously moderate counterparts, and they can keep those children holding on to fundamentalist faith and values (especially related to child-bearing), the passage of generations will greatly magnify their numbers and influence. Similarly, secularists and others who choose to have only one or two children, and who pass those values on to their children, will, over time, see their population decline precipitously.
Ironically, the structure and sensibility of secular society is bringing about its own demise.But it's not just fundamentalist competition that's the problem here -- the simple and almost too obvious fact is that a society that averages less than two children per family, as all so-called First World societies do, will eventually waste away to nothing. I say almost too obvious because when I've brought this up in conversation before I've found a surprising, perhaps willful blindness about it. Everybody recognizes the demographic facts: just a few generations ago, when many still lived on farms, 5 or 6 child families were common; in the next generation, as those children moved to cities, 3 or 4 children were the norm; and then the families of those children, the ones we see around us now, consist of 1 or 2 children at most -- more is looked upon as odd, and somehow not quite right.
As I say, everyone sees this, but hardly anyone sees it as a demographic phenomenon that strikes at the long-term survivability of our society. No doubt there are a number of reasons for this -- we're so accustomed to think of overpopulation as the problem, for example, that we can't get our minds around the inverse; Third World immigration has tended to mask the problems associated with a society not replacing its young; and, of course, there's the simple tendency of people not to see problems associated with a lifestyle they're hardly conscious of having chosen. And that last is what makes this trend so deep and intractable -- it's something, as Longman says, built into the very "structure and sensibility" of the modern world as such. Children, no longer being necessary either as help in the field or as caregivers for aging parents, have simply become an option, which frees up women to realize their own individuality, and which in turn leaves most with little time or inclination to devote to looking after more than the 1 or 2 that can be accommodated within the other demands of life and career.
This is not to indulge in the usual moralizing of cultural critics -- it's not, for example, simply that we're all "selfish", and certainly not that women in particular are. It's that the very trends that have defined modern civilization and are at the basis of its greatest achievements -- freedom and plenty -- may also be at the basis of its decline and undoing. So, three possible long-term scenarios:
- Modern civilization, in the sense of a secular, rational, individualist, democratic, market-oriented culture, really is not viable in the long term, and will eventually be replaced, as the Longman piece intimates, by a renewed religious fundamentalism the world over, through purely demographic, Darwinist processes.
- Or our culture turns increasingly statist, and the whole process of human procreation, including reproduction, gestation, and birth, becomes increasingly woven into bureaucratic state policies, a la Brave New World, e.g., -- this too, I would say, would represent the ultimate failure of the liberation that the modern world once promised.
- Or -- to speak of more hopeful predictions -- the ongoing evolution of the modern world includes a renewed or revived view of the family, seeing it once again in its multi-generational dimensions, but within a redefined view of the roles of men and women as both unique individuals and as fathers and mothers.
That last scenario is admittedly vague, and, given current demographic trends, perhaps doubtful. But, as I've stated in the "Theme", there's every indication that the leap in cultural evolution the modern world represents is far from finished, and the emergent individual at its center is still adding layers of complexity, still generating new forms of relationship and community. In fact, I think I saw somewhere that, perhaps with the waning of environmentalist alarmism (a version of fundamentalism in its own right), replacement numbers of 2 to 3 children per family are again becoming acceptable and increasingly common -- so maybe for the latest generation to come of family age, children are making a comeback.
Thanks again to Itzik