scilogs Biology of Religion

Why Religion is not going to die - The Quiverfull Example of Religious Fertility

from Michael Blume, 06. April 2011, 21:27

These last days, a mathematical study about a purported decline of religious affiliation incited various (online-)debates. It was presented by Daniel Adams, Haley Yaple and Richard Wiener at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas. Although I was asked by a German science-portal to write an article about it and waited some more days, I couldn't find a single English-using writer pointing out the main flaw of their elegant model: Adams, Yaple and Wiener didn't include the well-tested effects of religious demography.

There are two main points to be addressed:

1. Members of religious communities tend to have (far) more children as their non-religious peers, especially among the wealthy and educated. Successful religious traditions are able to attribute value to having children "because" they may refer to superempirical agents (such as ancestors or God blessing marriage, family and specific lifestyles). 

2. We know about lots of religious traditions whose members retained extremely high fertility throughout subsequent generations (i.e. the Old Order Amish, the Hutterites, orthodox Jews...). In contrast, we didn't find a single non-religious population, movement or group that was able to retain at least replacement level (2.1 children per woman) for just a single century!

A few weeks ago, Jonathan Leake from the Sunday Times put the findings into a sharp headline: "Atheists a dying breed as nature favours faithfull." The nine countries chosen by Adam, Yaple and Wiener for their ongoing secularization are actually supporting these findings: All of them are showing fertility rates below replacement level. 


Another example - The Christian Quiverfull Movement in the USA

The United States of America experienced repeated cycles of secularization and religious revivals (mainly) due to religious fertility. The established standards of religious rights and liberties led to a competitive, religious-demographic marketplace with various highly fertile traditions. Among the newcomers is a bottom-up-evolving movement whose influence is already surpassing it's membership of about ten thousand heads: The Quiverfull Movement, named after the message of Psalm 127, Verse 3 to 5:

3 Sons are a heritage from the LORD,
children a reward from him.

4 Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are sons born in one’s youth.

5 Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
They will not be put to shame
when they contend with their enemies in the gate.

A new branch of the Christian Patriarchy Movement, female and male members of the Quiverfull movement discovered large families as a costly and hard-to-fake signal of religious faith and as a way to "re-conquest" the country demoghraphically from the purported dominance of secularism, feminism and other -isms. Kathryn Joyce wrote a compelling (and critical) study about the fresh and quickly expanding tradition in "Quiverfull - Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement".

And here is a report made by Jennifer London about the movement.

Please note that I am not endorsing any specific religious tradition nor the idea that human beings should proliferate at any cost. But as a scientist working in the field of evolutionary studies, I could not ignore the reproductive potentials of religiosity, its genetic basis and the ongoing biocultural evolution of Homo religiosus. There is a central irony to be found:

Non-religious proponents of evolutionary theory tend to bring up far more scientific arguments. But religious creationists tend to bring up far more children.

Regardless of holding religious beliefs or not, these findings are worth considering.

Religion & Demography, Enste 

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  1. John Jacob Lyons Religious Fertility v. Secular Conversion ?
    08.04.2011 | 06:43

    As a psychologist/ evolutionary theorist I am fairly new to the biology of religion. Have I got this right?

    On one hand we have the well documented greater fertility of the religious. On the other we have the current tendency for rates of religious-to-secular conversion to trump secular-to-religious conversion. It's a race for supremacy and the prize is the religious/ secular affiliation of the world's population.

    Is that correct as a simple model?

  2. Michael Blume @John: Model
    08.04.2011 | 06:55

    Thanks for your sound question and idea!

    Yes, as far as we see, there is an ongoing concurrency between the emergence of religious traditions and their refusals throught human history, with the religious returning after every wave of secularization due to their higher fertility. In short-time models spanning "only" some centuries, the result does not look like a linear arrow pointing up or down, but rather like a cyclical trend with recurring ups and downs. In evolutionary timescales, religiosity is evolving due to its reproductive potential. Homo sapiens not only became Homo religiosus - this trend is going on in our time.

  3. John Jacob Lyons @Michael: Model
    08.04.2011 | 14:58

    Thanks for that Michael.

    Do you think that there is anything different about the current wave of secularisation compared with earlier waves? Has anyone studied this question to your knowledge? If we had a statistical handle on this point, we could combine it with our knowledge of current demographic trends and attempt to predict where we are headed(?)

    I realize, of course, that I am assuming a very simple model here and that it would have to be augmented to take account of several additional variables.

  4. 08.04.2011 | 16:36

    There have been early attempts of devising such a model, i.e. the noted Adams-Yaple-Wiener-paper:

    and the population genetic-model by Robert Rowthorn:

    But then, the real history is far more complex than any simple model could predict. Just compare Eastern and Western Germany or Southern and Northern Korea for the impact of different political ideologies on the development of religious traditions. Then, the modern state is organizing i.e. social and educational institutions which have historically been founded primarily by religious communities.

    Although I do hope in more scientific progress in the field (with special interest in simulations based on game theory), I think we should be aware that religious phenomena are at least as complex as economic ones. There's endless work to be done! :-)

  5. J. A. LeFevre Why Fertility?
    10.04.2011 | 05:54

    Consider the circumstances surrounding the development of organized religion (this ‘greater fertility’ is not associated with hunter-gatherer societies): Agriculture and the Neolithic revolution. We suddenly had more food and were beginning to build cities – it became very important to have enough population for the jobs and services cities needed. Encouraging large families appears as old as organized religion.

  6. 10.04.2011 | 08:23

    Even among hunters and gatherers, the mythologies about superempirical agents frequently endorse having families and children. And just think about the paleolithic figurines, many of whom featured topics of fertility and birth. Then, the Quiverfull is no "organized religion" with a specific hierarchy, but more of a bottum-up network with religious specialists - as are many shamanistic traditions.

    Finally, evolutionary fitness is about reproductive advantages. It all comes down to the question how offen traits are passed on in subsequent generations. Differential fertility (throughout subsequent generations) is the key factor of biological and biocultural evolution.

  7. Ormond Otvos What about dropouts?
    26.04.2011 | 09:33

    Is there a Quiverfull parent around who doesn't worry about secularization of their bountiful flock?

    It's pretty difficult to keep the kids down on the farm when the iFarm comes to them...

    I saw this happen in the Sixties, and it's still happening.

    There is no religion gene, just cooperation and submission to authority, which no longer seems to need religion. After all, we have economics...

  8. Michael Blume @Ormond Otvos
    26.04.2011 | 09:42

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    There is no religion gene, just cooperation and submission to authority, which no longer seems to need religion.

    Well, brain and twin studies all point to a genetic basis of religiosity, too.

    And that's what Darwin assumed, following evolutionary logic:

    Why should religion be different from any other human trait such as musicality, speech, intelligence, creativity (etc.)?

    After all, we have economics...

    Yes, and we had demographics long before. Non-religious people seem not to be able to build demographically stable populations. It's like: Get rich and die out...

    Discomforting, isn't it?

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  10. mormon Why Religion is not going to die - The Quiverfull Example of Religious Fertility
    06.06.2012 | 08:01

    My opinion is that religion will last forever. And it depends on the people who really want to continue its tradition. Thank you for this really interesting. Very well said.

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