Review of Fertility and Faith by Philip Jenkins

The following book review by BRIN’s co-director may be of interest to BRIN readers. This ‘author’s original version’ is being reproduced, on behalf of David Voas, in accordance with the ‘author’s self-archiving policy’ for Oxford University Press journals. The review was subsequently published in Journal of Church and State, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer 2021, pp. 519–21,

Fertility and Faith: The Demographic Revolution and the Transformation of World Religions. By Philip Jenkins. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2020. 270 pp. $29.95 hardcover.

Philip Jenkins is a distinguished historian of religion and a prolific commentator on religion and current affairs. Fertility and Faith is a work of remarkable scholarship, amounting to a global overview of both the demographic transition and the decline in religious involvement. Work on this topic is often intemperate, marked by claims that one group is going to swamp another, or that the world is going the dogs because too many people are (take your pick) too Muslim, too Christian, too secular, too slavish or too selfish. By contrast Jenkins is a model of good sense and balanced judgement.

Those qualities make the central thesis of this book all the more astonishing. Jenkins points out that low fertility and secularity go together like, well, not love and marriage these days, but perhaps nuts and bolts. But population growth has been falling almost everywhere outside sub-Saharan Africa. By implication, organized religion is in trouble around the world. If you had told me 10 or 15 years ago that Baylor University Press would publish a book arguing that “the religious character of many non-European areas is highly likely to move in the direction of sweeping secularization” (dust jacket), with blurbs provided by close colleagues of Rodney Stark, the secularization denier-in-chief, I’d have laughed out loud. How times change. The theory that demand for religion is permanent, universal and constant, so that decline can only result from supply-side problems in the religious market, has lived fast and died young.

Jenkins does state that disclaiming a religious identity is compatible with maintaining supernatural beliefs. The book’s last paragraph offers a sop to religious readers: “religions of all kinds are forced to reconsider what their core purpose actually is … That exercise in rethinking could be prolonged and even painful, but the potential opportunities are rich indeed” (p. 199). But we have plenty of evidence that when people stop belonging to religious organizations, the ultimate result is that they, or their children, or their children’s children, drift away from theism and indeed any coherent form of spirituality. The idea that a religious entrepreneur is going to appear among us and guide post-industrial secular society back to faith is a fantasy.

Historians are usually wary of generalizations; they trade in particularity. Jenkins shows an admirable willingness to tell a global story. He leaves a large hole, though, where one might hope to find a theory of what connects religious and demographic change. Does reproduction suffer when religious commitment declines, or is there something about low fertility that leads to religious decline? Or is there an underlying cause for both? Jenkins argues that “it is scarcely necessary to determine an exact sequence of change, as the two factors, fertility and religiosity, work so closely together, and developments occur within a short time span” (pp. 11-12). But what counts as short? The time scale is measured in generations: individuals typically settle into the values and preferences they held in early adulthood; the next steps in matters of family and faith are taken by their children.

This reluctance to move much beyond the correlation presents an interesting contrast with the new book by the prominent political scientist and survey researcher Ronald Inglehart (Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing it, and What Comes Next?). Inglehart also points to the first and second demographic transitions as key factors, and he is much more specific about the supposed mechanisms and causal connections. His analyses of the World Values Survey are less persuasive, however, than Jenkins’ careful marshalling of evidence of many kinds.

The association between the demographic transition and what I have called the secular transition is fascinating and important. It may be that “A shift to lower fertility encourages declining religiosity, which in turn would discourage religious enthusiasm, and so on, in a kind of feedback loop” (p. 14). It is hard not to suspect, though, that value change rooted in the prosperity, complexity, diversity and freedom of modern society is the cause of both. To that extent Jenkins is rediscovering and reframing the secularization thesis, which he boldly applies to the entire world – something that even Steve Bruce, the leading proponent of the theory, has been loath to do.

Disputes over how to interpret the evidence are almost beside the point, though. Jenkins gives historians and social scientists plenty to ponder, providing both a remarkable panorama of the woods and an assiduous examination of the trees, displaying the fruits of years of research in a book that is completely accessible to a general audience. It deserves to be widely read.

David Voas, University College London

© David Voas, 2021

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