Demographic Projections Predict Fundamentalist Populations Surpassing Secular Counterparts

| February 13, 2009

According to demographic projections, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian fundamentalists will gain significant ground against their liberal and secular counterparts by 2050, even surpassing them in some cases, Belfer Center Fellow Eric Kaufmann said at last week's International Security Program (ISP) brownbag presentation.

Kaufmann, a joint fellow with ISP and the Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, outlined fertility trends within religious groups and the impact this may have on regional, national, and global politics and security in his talk, "Religious Fundamentalism as the End of History? The Political Demography of the Abrahamic Faiths."

The increase in the size of a religion's fundamentalist population can change the local and even national politics of a country. During the twentieth century, conservative Protestants increased from little more than a third of the white Protestant total (among those born in 1900) to almost two-thirds (for those born after 1975). Only a quarter of this effect was down to changes in switching patterns, the rest accruing to demography. Indeed, one graph showed the relationship between a state’s non-Hispanic White total fertility rate (TFR) in 2002 and the percent vote for George Bush in 2004. At one end of the spectrum was Utah, which had the highest TFR and percentage of people who voted for Bush, and on the other end was Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Demographic change can threaten a state's security because it produces a larger pool of potential religious militants. Kaufmann pointed out that while most fundamentalists are not militant, all militants are fundamentalists.

Kaufmann hypothesizes that while the Fukuyama, "post-historical" core societies — liberal democratic, capitalist and secular — have been able to survive external threats like the advancement of technology and the challenge of socialism, it may not be a demographically sustainable system. There is the possibility that the stark differences in growth rate between religious fundamentalists and others could threaten this system from within.

The population "will become increasingly religious and conservative in the long-term, reversing decades — even centuries — of liberal secularization. There will be no mass conversions or sudden shifts in the cultural mood. Instead, religiosity will spread largely through demographic advantage in a world where secular religions and sources of enchantment have exhausted themselves," Kaufmann said.

The first demographic transition, which lasted between the 18–20th centuries, resulted in a population boom because the total fertility rate (TFR) was higher than the death rate. Today, it appears that the world is on the verge of a second demographic transition, where there are fewer births than deaths. The current world total fertility rate (TFR) is 2.55, but the U.N. predicts that it will drop to 2.33, below the replacement rate, during 2020–2050.

While the overall TFR is on the decline, the TFR among those on the more religious end of the spectrum remains well above replacement. American Jews have a very low TFR of 1.43, but within this group, ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) stand out as exceptionally fertile: they increased their share of American Jewry from 7.2 to 9.4 percent during 2000–2006 alone. In Israel, the Haredim had a TFR of 7.61 in 1996 while other Israeli Jews' TFR stood at just 2.27. This will enable the Haredi to form a majority soon after 2050. Kaufmann hypothetically asked lecture attendees to consider the impact this could have on the peace process since the orthodox and Haredim are particularly attached to Jerusalem — where they are a majority — and to the holy places and "promised" land of the West Bank.

While demographic change will transform Judaism the fastest, both Christianity and Islam show similar patterns. Within Islam, conservative politicians like Ahmadinedjad of Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan urge larger families and denounce birth control. Muslim governments have endorsed family planning, but at the mass level, supporters of political Islamist doctrines like sharia are significantly more fertile than other Muslims, an effect that is most pronounced in the growing cities. In urban areas, most people are on an equal footing when it comes to accessing family planning and incentives to keep families small, so values, be they secular or Islamist, play a big role in determining family size.

In reply to a question, Kaufmann speculated that demography may expose a contradiction, first cited by Nietzsche, between liberalism's practical need to defend itself and its inability to legitimate the illiberal policies that may be required to do so.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Maclin, Beth. “Demographic Projections Predict Fundamentalist Populations Surpassing Secular Counterparts.” News, , February 13, 2009.

The Author