Dondena Interviews

Given demographics alone, says Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck University of London, fundamentalists are poised to change the world. Religious immigration is already slowing or reversing secularism in major European cities. And that’s going to have repercussions, he says, for politics and society.


Give us a summary of the talk you’re giving today. Tell us about the fundamentalists who are coming.

So this is basically a book and series of articles I did around the theme of the political demography of religion, roughly put. Or, you could also look at it as the cultural demography of religion. It’s about how population shifts globally, and also within nations, affect the course of secularization and also of fundamentalism. So this is to say that demography matters for society, essentially, and for politics.

That’s actually kind of a hard message to sell to a lot of political scientists and sociologists because they don’t really think about demography except as this slow-moving thing in the background that provides the raw material, people, which is then shaped by social forces. It’s the notion that things like biology and demography are sort of inert, that’s the substrate. And once people emerge into society, they’re quickly affected by social trends. For example, you might be born into a family and they might be all Republican, but you get to a certain age and then you’re socialized differently, and then you’re affected by events and so on, so the actual demography itself doesn’t really make much difference. And it’s interesting because if you look at the rise of Hispanics in the United States and how this is affecting the Democrat-Republican tilt, that’s got a lot of airplay in the media, and so the punditocracy and think-tanks are all over that, but academia won’t touch it. Because political scientists think that really what we have is a law called political marketing, whereby it’s about parties marketing to the center ground and people shifting and floating. So there really is a resistance to the notion that somehow these primordial, tectonic, demographic shifts are really going to count for politics.


The message about the rise of fundamentalism—I can’t imagine that’s very well-received in certain countries. That’s bad news to a lot of places.

I don’t think it’s badly received, but it’s just that I think the argument doesn’t neatly fit into a box that many disciplines are comfortable with.


So what is the argument?

It is essentially that the fundamentalists are going to outbreed the secularists. But that’s very crudely put. So let’s unpack that. What I’m arguing is that conditions in our period are conducive to what I call “endogenous growth sects.” That is, world-denying fundamentalist groups who set their face against the modern world and grow their own. That model is the most successful religious growth model. Paradoxically, the religious groups that try and reach out and convert people and proselytize don’t do very well, because they lose as many as they gain. They’re very exposed to the modern world, in order to convert. It’s the groups that really wall themselves off that are much more consistently, decade after decade, successful in growth rates.


So this speaks a little to the Mormons, for example.

They have been growing, both through high fertility and birth rates and proselytization. But there are organizations that are more successful with retention. The retention problem is solved mainly by having very strict, tight communities, the strong religion hypothesis, in a way. The argument is it’s your whole life that’s bound up with the sect, it’s not something you do just on a Sunday. Your friends, your family, your identity, it’s who you are.

But my argument really is to say that, first of all, population growth and fertility matters a lot for religion. Because the main way people get religion is, as I say, The Old Fashioned Way—through birth. The demographics of the base of these religious populations is very important for determining the course  of secularization, the course of fundamentalism, et cetera. I make the argument that even if we have a constant shift of people from religion to non-religion, and religion can still be a more and more important part of the society, if it’s growing demographically and seculars are shrinking demographically or aging. So in a way, secularism has to run to stand still because of its demographic deficit, if you like.

There’s a couple other things going on. One is that all the world’s population growth is in the religious part of the world, which is essentially the tropical part of the world. Whereas the aging societies, East Asia, the West, essentially, which have below-replacement fertility, are aging and will ultimately be declining. So the source of migration, then, is from the religious parts of the world to the secular parts of the world, which is going to transform, and already is transforming actually, the major European cities.

But there’s two stories: One is the kind of global demography, global demographic unevenness, where you’re getting flows from the religious parts of the world to the secular. That doesn’t actually concern fundamentalism that much, that’s just sort of traditional religious people leaving Africa or Pakistan or wherever and moving to the West. That is reversing or slowing down the secularization process, so that’s its main effect. The second thing, though, is a much more direct link, which has to do with religious pronatalism—“go forth and multiply”—that idea of traditional gender roles, women should be mothers, et cetera. So there’s a direct link between how religious you are and how many children you have. And that relationship actually holds in the World Values Survey around the world. In fact, religiosity is as important as education in determining a woman’s number of children. And that’s what I found, which was quite interesting, and that the effect is sharper in the developed world.

So it’s a great neglected thing when it comes to demography, what drives population growth. When we look at that direct link between religion and pronatalism, that’s where fundamentalism comes in because fundamentalists everywhere have got this fertility premium over just moderately religious people, and the moderately religious people have a premium over the non-religious. So in France, for example, white Catholic French women have about a half-child—between a quarter- and a half-child—birth advantage over white secular French women, and that’s similar in Spain. Which doesn’t sound like a great deal, except if you compound over time, that can be very significant. Now of course in France and Spain, if we’re just talking Catholics, there’s going to be high secularization, and high decline of religion will be more than enough to offset that religious premium. But in other cases, you don’t have the high membership loss. And of course the paradigm case is Israel, where you have a much, much larger gap between the religious and the secular, especially between the ultra-orthodox and the secular. There’s a gap of 3 or 4 to 1 in birthrates and almost no membership loss. So that’s just an unstoppable machine. And it’s already having all these ramifications.


Tell me about your data.

The book is actually sort of a synthesis. I’ve done individual bits of analysis, so I’ve looked at, for example, the European Values Survey, European Social Survey, World Values Survey, they have questions on religion, and that’s very important. You need a survey that’s got questions about religion and some question on how many children you have. Using that kind of data you can say, What are the predictors? How important is religion, say compared to education, compared to economic condition, in determining family size, and also what is the typical family size of seculars and those who are religious? That’s been quite interesting, both for Europe and also looking at the Muslim world. There was definitely a difference, in terms of birthrates, between women who said they strongly agreed that Shari’a should be the law of the land or that religious authorities should have absolute power and Muslim women who disagreed with that statement.

That was one set of empirical evidence that fed into the book. I was largely drawing on a lot of secondary data analysis of fundamentalist groups—Dutch Calvinists, Laestadian Lutherans in Finland, Ultra-Orthodox in Israel. All these studies have been done on these different, fast-growing, what I call “endogenous growth sects,” sects that essentially set their face against modernity, inward-looking, usually quietist, growing through high fertility and retention. And I was finding that if you look at the fastest-growing religions in the United States, in any one decade you’ll get some sort of evangelical offshoot that’s doing really well, but that tends to obscure the fact, though, that they will then do poorly the next decade. Whereas the Amish and Hutterites are consistently posting very fast growth decade on decade, and that kind of goes under the radar.


How does this fit into the broader picture of the research you’re doing?

I’ve kind of got two hats, one is the religion hat and the other is the ethnicity/nationalism hat, and so I started off mainly looking at national identity, ethnicity and went over to religion, and now I’m coming back a bit to questions of ethnicity, partly because I’ve got a British grant, an ESRC grant, that looks at the response of the ethnic majority in Britain to immigration and ethnic change, in the form of a whole number of things, whether it be voting for the far right—that’s the political side of it, attitudes toward immigration—and also so-called White Flight, or residential shifting. So I’m looking at all three of those things holistically right now. It’s proving a challenge but really quite interesting.


What do you like about what you see going on research-wise in demography, sociology, and social sciences more broadly and what would you like to see a lot more of?

I think demography is extremely important and I’d like to see it integrated more into debates about society, as well as politics. There does seem to be a resistance, more so I’d say on the part of the sociologists and political scientists than demographers. I think the issue with demographers is they have a set of methods and they have a set of working styles which seem to have bedded down. So it’s all about, you know, risk of first-birth and predictors of fertility, so demography is generally the dependent variable. There’s some attention to how demography affects the economy. Maybe there’s a bit on the economy, but there’s not much on society and politics. It’s almost untapped. There are a few people, some of the people I’ve done work with at IIASA near Vienna, they’ve been doing some interesting projections work. But again, it’s almost impossible to publish demographic projections in theoretical journals. I think those sorts of things should be happening. We should be making demographic cohort projections and saying, "Look, these projections suggest things are going this way or that way." That should be integrated into theory.

Just broadly in terms of the social sciences, I think there are other avenues that could be pursued generally. I have an interest in the emotions, and the whole behavioral economics thing, which I think can make useful additions to politics and sociology as well. There’s kind of a neglect of emotions in sociology and politics. I mean, it is there at one level in terms of political psychology, but it’s not there when it comes to explaining mass behavior. So this idea of emotional contagion, non-linearity such as tipping points, and herding, that kind of language isn’t so common in discussions in politics and sociology, but I think it should be more common. That’s another area that I think is ripe for cross-fertilization and innovation.


Learn more about Eric Kaufmann here. Learn more about the Dondena Seminar Series here.















Last updated 24 February 2014 - 16:11:28