Gene Expression

The death of godless Europe?

Most of you know that Europe (like Japan and South Korea) has very low fertility; below replacement even. One of the main explanations is that with the decline in religiosity it naturally follows that fertility will decline (the psychological or sociological proximate models vary). Atheism kills with its pessimism. On first blush I think this is plausible because I’ve heard so many post-religious individuals who simply assert that they could never have children because of the state of this world. That is, with various catastrophes on the horizon they would simply be perpetuating suffering. But think more closely on this…this isn’t a very novel or new perspective, it has cropped up among anti-worldly religious movements many times. Cathars were simply an extreme manifestation of this tendency. Additionally, when I surveyed data from the 2005 Eurobarometer the correlation between fertility and belief in god was weak. This makes sense when you consider that relatively religious nations such as Greece and Italy have lower fertilities than Sweden and France. That being said, the secular do generally have fewer offspring in the United States, and within population variation is a necessary complement to observations of between population variation.

So with all this in mind that I was interested to stumble upon a paper, Religion, religiousness and fertility in the U.S. and in Europe. The authors observe that the United States is much more religious than Europe as a whole, and the average American woman is much more fertile than the average European woman. From this many intellectuals have adduced that these two characters exhibit a causal relationship so that the greater fertility of American women can be attributed to their greater religiosity.

The authors note that one major problem with these analyses is that they aggregate Europe into a whole, when the reality is that there is a great deal of variation between nations. Specifically, fertility in southern and eastern Europe is far lower than in western and northern Europe. Additionally, they note in their analysis of the data that there is a different between period fertility and cohort fertility; it is the former where Americans have much higher values than Europeans. All this means is that American and European women tend to have around the same number of children (with Americans more), but American generation times are shorter, while European women enter into childbearing later.

General religiosity does correlate positively with fertility across Western nations. But, it does not seem to be fertility differences can be reduced as outcomes of differences in religiosity. From the paper:

For Europe as a whole, the estimate is that the fertility of women 18-44 would theoretically be 14 percent higher than its current level if church attendance were the same and 13 percent higher if the same importance were attached to religion. The theoretical increases are lowest for the North and highest for the West. The general picture is approximately the same for women 35-44 but only in the West is a substantial increase suggested (of 30 percent). The effects in different countries are a function of the differences in religiousness compared with the U.S., differences in current fertility and in the strength of the association between religiousness and fertility.

These are not trivial effects, but they point to more complex dynamics than the verbal treatments we find in the media. The variation on evidence within the data they analyze is to a great extent the most interesting aspect of the paper, because this is a paper which simply falsifies a general hypothesis. Instead of further comment, I will leave with you some important tables from this paper.


Note: Odds ratios are not complicated.




Addendum: The working paper can be downloaded in full at the link above.


  1. #1 Lassi Hippeläinen
    October 22, 2008

    Fertility (or lack of it) should correlate better with education. Students often postpone the birth of the first baby until they have graduated. Besides, well educated women don’t have as many babies, because they don’t need them for old age support. Many Eastern European women are highly educated.

    Of course there is an inverse correlation between education and religiousness, so you end up with some positive correlation between fertility and religiousness.

  2. #2 Moopheus
    October 22, 2008

    Education levels would also be presumably correlated with economic factors that affect birthrate. And with urban living (smaller more crowded spaces=fewer children?). Also the tendency, pronounced here in the US, of immigrant families having fewer children as succeeding generations become more assimilated. EU countries have fewer immigrants, but that has been changing in recent decades. All of which just seems to indicate these factors influence each other in complicated ways.

  3. #3 agnostic
    October 22, 2008

    Education has nothing to do with it — fertility has been falling for centuries in Europe, long before women had equal access to education and employment.

    This is true of other explanations for declining fertility — they presume a cause that is too recent to have caused the decline starting so far back.

  4. #4 David B
    October 22, 2008

    What is the relative cost of housing, expressed as a proportion of income, in the US and Europe? All I know is that in the UK it is appallingly expensive, and young couples struggle to find somewhere affordable to bring up children. I simply guess that in the US, which is much less densely populated, the cost of land (and therefore housing) is relatively low.

  5. #5 Scott Carter
    October 22, 2008

    1st graf, last sentence, “compliment” should “complement”, as you perfectly well know. Razib’s wife must be above solecisms. Inshallah.

    Thanks much, I’ll have a look at the paper. And congrats on the culture11 gig.

  6. #6 razib
    October 22, 2008

    oh, i just “imported” my blog’s RSS into a diary. no gig.

  7. #7 Danny
    October 22, 2008

    Atheism kills with its pessimism

    Sounds like Spenglerian nonsense. Atheism is pessimistic? That’s news to me. Western religions are all about regulating sexuality – sex should not exist outside of marriage, and the purpose of sex is procreation. Thus religion encourages people to procreate whereas Atheism doesn’t.

    Of course there is an inverse correlation between education and religiousness

    There is? That doesn’t seem very obvious to me. Religion demands discipline, which many uneducated people tend to have problems with.

  8. #8 Statsquatch
    October 22, 2008

    I think there are different kinds of atheists. The typical politically aware American secularist reminds me more of the Shakers than the gnostic cathers. They are “pure” ,”other-worldly”, and barren.

  9. #9 Caledonian
    October 22, 2008

    My impression is that fertility in the modern world is associated with cultural tendencies towards accepting inconvenience and being dutiful in general.

    Let’s face it, being pregnant is not a walk in the park. Neither is raising offspring once they’re decanted. If people face tradeoffs between what they want to do with their lives and having kids, and society doesn’t specifically approve of having children… a lot of people simply won’t want to go through the bother.

  10. #10 jim
    October 22, 2008

    I’ve seen interviews with Italian and Spanish women who claim that they wanted more children, but could not find a suitable husband with enough money to raise a family until it was too late to have more than one or, maybe, two kids.

    The highly regulated labor markets result in high unemployment among young people and many years spent acquiring the needed certifications. At the same time the Catholic culture still strongly disapproves of both out of wedlock childbirth and divorce.

    It seems many women postpone child-bearing in the hope of meeting the handsome, financially prosperous husband and father of their dreams. Overestimating the likelihood of marrying such a man and underestimating the difficulty of conceiving later in life are possible factors.

    It seems women are getting more accurate information about fertility in recent years – but high profile 40-something celebrity births also likely create unrealistic expectations.

  11. #11 Marc
    October 23, 2008

    The highly regulated labor markets result in high unemployment among young people and many years spent acquiring the needed certifications. At the same time the Catholic culture still strongly disapproves of both out of wedlock childbirth and divorce.

    I think Jim nailed the situation in Italy, where a significant minority of men don’t leave their parents’ house until well after their 30th birthday. Not because they’re lazy, but because housing is expensive and they haven’t worked their way up the food chain to the point where they can afford it. A lot of Italian women (and men) who would like to have two or three children are being forced by circumstances to settle for one. It’s quite sad, at least to me, but then I’m in a similar situation, being an Italian-American who would very much like to have children he can’t presently afford.

    During the last election in Italy, the issue was actually brought up by a very eloquent young woman during an Italian-style town hall question and answer session with Silvio Berlosconi. She began her question by stating that like everyone in Italy she is aware of the demographic crisis and that that she herself would like to be mother to several children more than anything in the world (irrespective of the crisis), then went on to outline all the difficulties that face young Italians who want to parent. Finally, she asked what Mr. Berlosconi’s solution was. Berlosconi’s glib response was that she should find herself a “man of means” to marry, then mentioned that he had sons who were both rich and single.

    I wanted to strangle the man with a shoelace. WITH A SHOELACE.

  12. #12 Linus
    October 23, 2008

    Religiosity is much lower among the young and fertile in Italy and Spain than the old. Sorry no link, but I recall watching congregations exiting churches in Spain and not spying a single young woman.

  13. #13 windy
    October 23, 2008

    Northern Europe is interesting… What’s up with the younger women who attend church 1-3 times a week? More likely to be spinsters?

  14. #14 toto
    October 24, 2008

    As usual, France is the outlier there. It is a staunchly secular country, yet it boasts the highest fertility rates in Europe.

    Importantly, this is not caused by the higher fertility of immigrant women (especially noting that children of immigrants tend to show near-average fertility).

  15. #15 Jean -Carrie
    October 26, 2008

    I am religious and I choose not to have children because of environmental and social reasons…education has a lot to do with that. I for one think it is a good thing that there are less people. We are destroying ecosystems in these countries.

  16. #16 Maciano
    October 27, 2008


    You should look up the young demographer Thomas Sobotka. (He works at the Vienna institute of demographics.) He has looked into the subject of female European postponement of first pregnancy.

    It may help you to confirm your suspicion.

    For details, see here:

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