I’m a secular irreligious person who wants a big family, at least six kids or so. That makes me something of an anomaly…or does it? Might we be greatly underestimating the long-term demographic heft of secular “breeders”? Sure, highly religious people do have more children on average, but the rest of the population are far more numerous, so the not-so-religious should make up a bigger share of those with big families than is usually thought; might we just not notice them nearly as much because they don’t form a concentrated distinct group like religious congregations do?
After all, everyone notices the Amish with their eight children per family, but they number 400,000; only about 0.1% of the United States population. Are there 400,000 secular people in this country who have eight children on average? Consider that those with no religious affiliation make up 29% of the American population, so to equal the Amish’s “breeder” population only 0.4% of seculars would need to have such big families. That’s one out of every 238 secular families. Are the seculars hitting that benchmark? They just might be!
The Reports of Seculars’ demographic Disappearance have been greatly Exaggerated…
The best data I can find, as relayed by this Washington Post article on secular big families, is that measured by completed fertility (i.e. among those women who’ve turned 50, so this data is a bit outdated) nationally 15 percent of all families have four or more children; broken down by religious affiliation, 17 percent of evangelical Protestants had that many kids (about average), 18 percent of Catholics (ditto), 9 percent of mainline Protestants (below average), 12 percent of Jews (about average), and a whopping 46 percent of Mormons (much above average). The figure for those with no religious affiliation? 12 percent; about average!
So if we assume those with big families will have lineages who will continue having big families who will in turn inherit the earth, the future might not be as lopsided in favor of conservative religious cults as some observers have suggested. There is reason, however, for even more optimism among the irreligious: demographics are not stable. A striking trend in recent decades has been for gaps between the most demographically modern populations and those who still had unusually high fertility to close.
Heavily evangelical parts of the South have fertility rates comparable to the national average; sure, the religious are still having more kids than the irreligious in these areas, but not by enough to noticeably move any statewide numbers. That’s a big deal! Much more strikingly, Mormons, the biggest holdout among the faiths that practice modernity in the United States, have seen their once-frisky fertility rates crash toward the national average. Utah, a state that’s majority Mormon, now has a lower birth rate than South Dakota, a state with very few Mormons (or members of other traditionally natalist sects, for that matter).
Even if you go by race and ethnic group, it’s the same story. Latino Americans were once, in Jeb Bush’s cringeworthy words, “more fertile” than Anglos, but that’s much less the case than it was a couple decades ago. Perhaps the most noteworthy development has gone unheralded: across the Lower South black fertility in the 2020s has now fallen below white fertility for the first time ever. That’s particularly impressive considering black educational and economic attainment relative to whites’ hasn’t budged much in the past few decades; by the usual fundamentals black fertility should be higher, yet it keeps dropping in disproportionate fashion. This makes a future where whites are the ascendant racial demographic a real possibility down the road. Wild.
The Amish Option: a dead End?
With the likes of the Mormons going out of the picture, about the only traditionally frisky groups that are still holding up well in the face of the demographic transition are the likes of the Amish, religious sects that reject modernity for whatever reason. But will they too succumb? The Hutterites once had the highest fertility rate on record, cresting 10 per woman as recently as 1940, yet now they’re down to just half that level. Might the Amish undergo a similar evolution in the future? Might all these groups succumb to full convergence with demographic modernity? That might seem crazy, but maybe none of these “breeder” sects will make it to the point where they come remotely close to taking over the population.
As an aside, it’s too bad the Amish maintained their natality whereas the Hutterites have petered out of the breeder sweepstakes. Anabaptists on the northern High Plains who wear *gasp* vivid colorful clothing are hella cooler than Anabaptists who wear drab clothes in Pennsylvania. Oh well.
Photograph by Rainer Mueller, picture created at Greenwood Hutterite Colony near Delmont, South Dakota. CC-BY 3.0.
As zany as it might sound, if these traditionally-frisky groups all converge toward average or even below average fertility, then irreligious white people might actually have the population-growth advantage going into the 22nd century!
A Curveball of a Future?
Our default future that everyone, from white supremacists on the right to woke socialists on the left, is banking on happening assumes that the oppressed, the underprivileged, the marginalized will augment their power, their influence, their threat by dint of sheer numbers. What if that just doesn’t happen?
Sure, some of that growth is baked in already, but it might not continue too far beyond that. Might the stage of the demographic transition where higher-class people, white people, secular people and the like have lower birth rates ultimately prove to be just a passing anomaly, an artifact of the demographic transition taking more time to work its way through the population, where ultimately the lower classes, people of color, and the religious are the hardest hit?
I’m not sure, but I do know this much: don’t underestimate the ability of the privileged to pull a rabbit out of the hat; their chances might be better than you think.