First, the context: Modern political science — which readily understands imperialism, resistance, and clash of competing interests– does not similarly understand “the wasting away of nations.” That, says David Goldman, author of How Civilizations Die: (and why Islam is dying too), is because political scientists tend to assume that people will follow their rational self-interest. In fact, they often don’t.
From antiquity, he notes, a symptom of a civilization’s decline has been the destruction of children:
Macedonian poet Poseidippus of Pella wrote: “Even a rich man always exposes a daughter.” A 200 BCE survey of seventy-nine families in Miletus, an ancient Greek colony on the Western Turkish coast, show a combined total of 188 sons but only 28 daughters.
One Greek author, Polybius, suggested as a last resort “passing laws for the preservation of infants.” But most Greek colonies were finished already.
Rational self-interest would dictate raising enough girls to keep the population going, but clearly that didn’t prevail. Indeed, it is generally believed that the Christian prohibition of abortion and infanticide was a key factor in how Christians ended up in charge of the Roman Empire 300 years after Christ’s birth. The prohibition worked, one might argue, for rational self-interest, but it was actually motivated by fear of God.
And without fear of God? If the present low fertility rate continues, three-quarters of all Japanese and half of all Europeans will be elderly dependents. That’s where the collapse comes in.
Why the current collapse of Christianity in Europe and not the United States? In Goldman’s view, Christianity had long nourished the seeds of serious setbacks in Europe. Many Christian kingdoms in Europe were not clear how much was Christian and how much was kingdom. He cites the damage wrought by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648, 8 million dead in Germany). The carnage was not, as often believed, Catholic vs. Protestant; indeed, Catholic kings who believed in their own divine election to rule would send Protestant armies to devastate the countryside governed by other Catholic kings. “The tragedy of the Catholic Church was to believe that it could turn such patriotism to its own purposes.”
Goldman, an observant Jew, believes that an inability to establish the Church as a kingdom not of this world helps to explain both the secularism and the hopelessness of Europe today. Everywhere, traditional Catholic nations, Poland, Ireland, Spain, and Quebec (Canada), for example, are collapsing at the core because, he argues, “faith rooted in blood and soil weakens when people step out of traditional society into the modern world.” The average Polish woman now has only one child. Ireland is lost to posterity. Spain has the lowest birth rate in Europe. Even so, who would have believed that by 1982 in Quebec — once famed for its proud Catholic heritage in the teeth of opposition — more than 42 percent of men and women still in their reproductive ages had undergone voluntary sterilization, with 41 abortions for every 100 live births?
The United States is the one exception in Goldman’s view.
If a single characteristic makes America exceptional, it is the fact that American fertility has stabilized at replacement. … In the second half of this century most of the great powers of the past — Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, and Japan, among others — will cease to function. A century later they will have ceased to exist. What makes America utterly and completely exceptional among the industrial countries, in short, is that it will still be here in a hundred years.
It’s easy to dismiss predictions for two centuries from now, but historically, very few nations pull out of a demographic death spin. Of course they could. Double income-no kids couples could suddenly think of the future — but experience shows they rarely do. Having long since ceased to believe in a transcendent religion, they want all the toys now. Instead of buying toys on special occasions for Junior and Little Miss.
A key reason America may be spared is the persistence of personal (not national) religiosity. As Phillip Longman noted (in alarm), it is mainly religious people who raise children. Half of all American women of childbearing age say that religion is important to them, versus one in six of European women.
That in itself provides evidence that Americans will replace themselves and Europeans will not: “When children become a cost rather than an asset, prospective parents must identify with something beyond their own needs in order to sustain child-raising.” Especially in a modern welfare state where those who raise no children expect a comfortable retirement based on the labour of the children of others. Raising children then becomes an act of faith with no earthly reward. One undertaken by evangelicals and observant Catholics but not so much by mainline Protestants.
The really remarkable and hopeful thing we learn is that the vital American model of Christianity (including sustainable populations) seems to be taking root in the global South.
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