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The impact of demographic change on religious populations and how this could relate to the future of secularisation in Europe.
The famous maxim that “demography is destiny” may, or may not, be attributable to Auguste Comte, but it was certainly Comte who first wrote about how population trends and distributions could determine the future of a country.
In the social sciences, predictions about human behaviour are based on theories and models, which are often proved wrong over time. However, demography is the branch of social science where predictions are more reliable.
This article explores the impact of demographic change on religious populations and how this could relate to the future of secularisation in Europe.
The Maxim of Secularisation: The Church in Europe is Dying
Another maxim, at least as far as the popular press is concerned, is that Christianity is dying in Europe, with Europe becoming more secular.
A headline in the Spanish newspaper El País stated that “Spain is the third highest country in Europe for those abandoning Christianity”.
They quoted a Pew Research Center report which compared a whole variety of religious metrics for Eastern and Western European countries, yet the author of the El País article concentrated on the difference between those who said they were raised Christian and those who confess Christian faith today.
These are sobering statistics, particularly for Western European countries (those in blue in the table). But secularisation is a complex phenomenon.
The unique history and context of each country mean that neighbouring countries may be on different secularisation trajectories. A closer look at this table suggests that desecularisation is happening in many Central and Eastern European countries.
And even in the same country, secularisation and desecularisation may be occurring simultaneously, depending on the measure you use.
A single arresting statistic to summarise a complex reality can be misleading. Many factors influence religious trends in Europe and this Pew report explores some of them, not least the link between Christian affiliation and national identity.
Yet none are, in themselves, reliable predictors of future trends. The most reliable indicators of Europe’s religious future are demographic phenomena, specifically:
- Europe’s ageing population;
- Inward migration of religious populations from other parts of the world;
- Differential birth-rates between populations.
The Greying of Europe
Low fertility rates, low mortality rates and increased life expectancy mean that Europe’s population is getting older.
In all of the EU’s 28 member countries, the total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime) is below the level necessary to maintain that country’s population.
And if current fertility rate trends continue in much of Central and Southern Europe, their population size will be cut by half in the space of two generations.
The 2018 Ageing Report from the European Commission suggests that the “old-age dependency ratio (the number of people aged 65 and above relative to those aged 15 to 64) in the EU is projected to increase by 21.6 percentage points, from 29.6% in 2016 to 51.2% in 2070”.
This will have significant implications for Europe’s labour force and public spending, especially the provision of public pensions.
This almost imperceptible demographic change is closely linked to another, more visible one: immigration.
The need for skilled and unskilled workers to maintain Europe’s economic growth serves as a significant “pull factor” for migrants, especially as the native working population is in decline.
Despite the stubborn resistance to immigration in many Central and Eastern European countries and the hardening of migration policy across the EU, European states face a stark reality.
Without immigration many European countries will see a sharp population decline in the coming years. (European Environmental Agency, 2016).
Differential birth rates
Lastly, we should note the higher differential birth rates of migrants. Over the last 50 years, many religious people from the rest of the world have migrated to Europe.
According to the recent Pew Research Center report Europe’s Growing Muslim Population (2017), nearly half of this growth is due to higher fertility rates relative to non-Muslims.
The Muslim population of Europe today is around 5%, though that is predicted to grow to over 10% by 2050. Less noticeably, though no less significantly, many Christians from the Global South have migrated to Europe.
These are less easy to quantify, and I have been unable to locate research on the differential birth-rates of Christian migrants, but very significant numbers of African, Latin American and Asian Christians can now be found in towns and cities across Europe.
Demographics and Secularisation
Sociologists of religion have frequently focussed on religion as a social phenomenon where the conscious choices of individuals in a given, if dynamic, context cause the rises and falls in religious adherence.
The main non-social mechanism for religious change is demography, specifically migration and differential birth-rates. Where migration is low and fertility no different to that of the rest of the population, the non-social mechanisms are less important.
However, when migration and differential birth-rates are significantly higher this can have a dramatic demographic effect.
Eric Kaufmann’s book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? (2010) convincingly argued that the cumulative effect of migration from religious countries and higher fertility rates among those with religious faith will ultimately result in a reversal of the secularisation processes in Europe and the West.
Rather than the rest of the world becoming more like Europe, Europe will become more like the rest of the world.
Recent Research on Religion and Fertility
Interest in the link between religion and fertility has increased remarkably in the last twenty years. An online Religion and Fertility Bibliography now runs to more than 700 books and articles.
The societal consequences that sustained low fertility levels are having across a whole range of issues is explored at length in Poston (ed., 2018) Low Fertility Regimes and Demographic and Societal Change.
The final chapter in Poston’s book deals with Religion and Fertility.
In it, Ellison et al investigate the effects of fertility changes on religiosity making use of four responses from the World Values Survey data in a very similar way to our own Nova Index of Secularisation in Europe (NISE) as described in the October 2010 issue of Vista.
Their four measures were attendance at religious services, religious salience (the importance of religion in a respondent’s life), religious belief (specifically whether they believe in God or not) and private religiosity (measured by frequency of prayer).
Multi-level regression analysis was then conducted on two independent variables, namely individual fertility (as recorded in their WVS response to the number of children they had), and country level fertility using Total Fertility Rate.
The results were clear: “both the individual level and country level fertility variables are significantly associated with all individual level religious variables in the anticipated directions” (p.223), that is to say, less religious people demonstrate lower fertility. Nothing surprising there.
Where Ellison et al break new ground is in their reversal of the traditional causal relationship. Normally it is argued that as people become less religious, they have fewer children but these researchers suggest the inverse: declining fertility is what is leading to reductions in religious participation, salience and belief.
In conclusion, they suggest “at least tentative evidence that the connections between religion and fertility may be bidirectional” (p.228).
Missiological Implications for Europe
These, and other, trends lead us to identify four key missiological implications for European mission:
The Greying of Mission. If half the European population will be over 65 by 2070 this will require a complete rethinking of mission priorities. Care for the elderly will become one of the principal activities of Christian mission.
The future of Islam in Europe. It is clear from recent migration and differential birth-rates that the number of Muslims in Europe will continue to rise. This poses a significant challenge for secular European societies but also for the church.
Churches everywhere will need to help their congregations to engage in dialogue and outreach to their Muslim neighbours. They must also resist the rhetoric of populists and nationalists who would seek to legitimise racism through “defending our Christian identity.”
Migration and the future of the European Church. Slow, gentle and silent demographic effects can have a profound impact over the long-term.
The arrival of millions of Christian migrants from the rest of the world has been largely ignored yet these “new Europeans” are renewing and changing the face of Europe’s churches.
Their passion, vibrant spirituality and confidence in the agency and power of God are no less of a challenge to secular Europe than Islam.
If European churches and migrant churches can learn to work and witness together this can have a powerful testimony in tomorrow’s Europe.
“Go Forth and Multiply”. Rodney Stark (1996) has shown how the favourable fertility and mortality rates of the early Christians relative to the pagan population helped to fuel a 40% growth rate over several centuries.
Could this happen again? If Ellison et al are right, then an increase in the religious population in Europe will require an increase in fertility rates among European Christians.
Perhaps one of the most radical things that young Christians can do today is to get married and have a (large) family.
Secularisation is not the “telos” of history. Predictions of the demise of Christianity in Europe don’t take into account the promise that Jesus made to Peter that “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
The destiny of the church depends on more than demographics but we must not ignore the insights that demography provides to the future of Christian mission in Europe.
Jim Memory is church planter and lecturer.
This article first appeared in the January 2019 edition of Vista magazine.
Ellison, et al in Poston (2018) Low Fertility Regimes and Demographic and Societal Change, Cham: Springer.
European Commission (2018) The 2018 Ageing Report, https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/economy-finance/2018-ageing-report-economic-and-budgetary-projections-eu-member-states-2016-2070_en
European Environmental Agency (2016) https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/total-population-outlook-from-unstat-3/assessment-1
Kaufmann (2010) Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, London: Profile.
Pew Research Center (2017) Europe’s Growing Muslim Population, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/11/29/europes-growing-muslim-population.
Pew Research Center (2018) Eastern and Western Europeans Differ on Importance of Religion, Views of Minorities, and Key Social Issues, http://www.pewforum.org/2018/10/29/eastern-and-western-europeans-differ-on-importance-of-religion-views-of-minorities-and-key-social-issues.
Stark (1996) The Rise of Christianity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.