Today, Father Steve reflects upon the recent claim by Sir David Attenborough that Catholics are responsible for overpopulation and another article that insists religion is headed towards extinction. Read his commentary below.
Two recent pronouncements from media sources caught my attention. One is a commentary from Bonnie Erbe posted by Scripps News who reports that famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough blames the Catholic Church for overpopulation and its deleterious effects on the planet. According to Erbe, Attenborough has surmised this conclusion from studies of birth rates in developing nations and compared population growth in Catholic and non-Catholic countries. Forgive me, Sir David, if I become alarmed when cultural elites from Britain begin to draw conclusions about the population growth of Catholics. (Many might still remember an attempt to curb population growth in nineteenth century Catholic Ireland. ) Erbe then draws the conclusion that the increased population growth in developing nations is nothing less than a conspiracy by the Catholic Church to increase its membership, and it will damn the planet’s health if that stands in the way of that goal.
Of course, it is not noted as a matter of any interest that the problematic populations that seem to be growing are for the most part brown and black skinned folks from the South who are constituents of Europe’s former colonial possessions. I have wondered for some time if what is really meant when the jeremiads warning against overpopulation are unleashed is that it is really about those people that some have come to believe should be controlled. There also seems to be a kind of snobbery at play, barely containing its revulsion, that some might, against the civilized standards established by cultural elites, actually welcome more than a single child, if any children at all, into the world. How dare they! Indeed!
The rhetoric about overpopulation has become one of the irrefutable dogmas of the secularist magisterium. Most of Europe has been willing to oblige this dogma with such extraordinary (dare I say “religious”) devotion that is has resulted in a population decline so drastic as to threaten the survival of European civilization. (Lest I be accused of picking on the Europeans, U.S. population rates would be sinking as precipitously low as Europe’s if not for an influx of immigrants, mostly from the Southern Hemisphere.) It may be true that many who remember Europe’s imperial past are appreciative of their current decline.
Attenborough’s and Erbe’s warnings represent the consternation often expressed in regards to the unwillingness of many in the developing world to imitate Europe’s aversion towards the kind of sex that culminates in reproduction. It is as if these people just do not understand how miserable they are making us, let alone themselves. I think that many in the developing world have a different sense of the origin of their miseries; they identify this as rooted not so much in their fertility but in the effects of several centuries of European hegemony. A birthrate higher than their European overseers has proved itself to be quite an effective form of resistance. Quite frankly, I think that Attenborough’s and Erbe’s fear of Catholic reproduction is really a smokescreen; it is a deflection of language meant to disguise what they perceive is the real threat. Catholic birth rates are not the real issue because Catholics prove themselves mostly willing, when push comes to shove, to compromise with the demands of secularity. If it is not really Catholics then who is it? There is a religious culture that has demonstrated remarkable fertility and when pushed and shoved has a tendency to fight back: Islam.
Attenborough’s and Erbe’s population anxiety got me thinking about another anxious piece from BBC News that claimed to be predicting the demise of religion in nine nations. Census data from Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland were passed through a kind of mathematical oracle called “non -linear” dynamics. According to this model, religion in these nine nations is heading towards extinction. My reaction to this news was a bit like that of the stunned assembly of the United Nations to the intervention by Nikita Kruschev, where he banged his shoe on his desk and threatened that the triumph of the Soviet system would soon overtake the West. “We will bury you,” I believe is what he exclaimed. Really.
There is no disputing the objective fact of the decline in the rate of religious affiliation in Europe. The last, fading vestiges of the dream of Christendom were dispelled by the nightmarish conflicts of the twentieth century that were waged on European soil. This violence completed a trajectory that began in the eighteenth century. However, despite the declines in religious affiliation in Europe (and in two of its former colonial possessions), I would argue that the people in question are actually no less religious; it is just that the ascendant religious ethos has changed. Religion is a category that defies a simple definition, but it has a lot to do with what people consider as “ultimate” and the narratives and practices that manifest, support and propagate this perception of ultimacy. The secularist narratives of the modern nation state and the practices of life that this state insists be applied to life have replaced Christendom as Europe’s ultimate concern.
Population control seems to be an integral part of this ultimate concern, as evidenced from Europe’s plummeting birth rates. The former imperialistic pretense that sought to export European mores and manners to their colonial possessions now insists that the people in these regions adapt themselves to the current secularist ethos embodied in European ambivalence about reproduction. The former colonies are to be brought into a future as bright as Europe’s present by accepting limits on their fertility. This can be accomplished by persuasion, financial incentive, or threat of apocalyptic annihilation. If these peoples do not apply themselves to the strategies established for minimal population growth, the planet will be destroyed- and they will have only themselves to blame.
It is precisely European ambivalence about reproduction that is the variable not considered in the recent study predicting the extinction of religion in nine countries. The countries in the study have birthrates that are well below the ability of those cultures to insure their survival (excluding Australia and New Zealand, whose birth rates are bolstered, as they are in the United States, by immigrants), and this variable is the common link despite differences in region, language, and culture. Given this variable, I think that what we are really looking at is not the extinction of religious sensibilities, but of particular cultures. It is not simply “religion” that is going extinct- it is the peoples identified in the study who are passing away. I wonder who will inhabit all those empty territories when the current populations have faded into memory. What will be their religion? Could the answer to these questions be the real reason for Attenborough’s, Erbe’s and Europe’s anxiety about population trends?
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.