Does religion affect population growth?

What is the connection between religion and population growth? The answer might surprise you: absolutely nothing. Well, according to Hans Rosling.

In his April 2012 TED-Talk, Rosling graphs the relationship between religion, income and children between zero and fifteen years olds. He shows that there is no connection between religion and babies, and that there is a much closer connection between:

1 – mortality rates and babies born ie the more likely a baby is to die, the more babies a mother will have.

2 – women’s education, employment opportunities and getting married older and the number of babies a mother will have.

It’s well worth watching:

Using a new medium of boxes – 1 per billion people – Rosling demonstrates why it is inevitable that humanity will reach 10 billion and hence all planning for food, water, housing etc, must be taking into account an additional 3 billion people.

This is an interesting point, though he made the same point pretty clear in his last talk. I’m curious about a few cultural and religions trends that don’t seem to be captured in this animated graph.

For example, in my 2010 visit to India it seems to me that the Indian women had so many babies not due to economic or mortality rates, but as due to their culture. More babies = higher status, at least for the women of lower incomes that I met. Culture isn’t religion but the large red dot that represented India showed a huge reduction in babies. That is, my local observation conflicts with this data. That being said UNICEF confirms that the fertility rate in 2010 in India was 2.6 [1], so I suppose it must be. I guess it depends how the US (who is the provider of the data) has collected it… I’ve asked a friend in India for their opinion and will post that when I hear from him.

Another point that has me a little wary is the connection between different religious laws/controls and birthrates. For example, if Catholicism continues a ban on birth control, surely that will have an affect on birth rates? This distinction is obviously absorbed by the joining together of all the denominations of Christianity under one banner.

Forgetting the detail for now let’s consider the big population question that seems to remain: will we stop at 10 billion?

Rosling makes it clear this will happen only if we:

1 – rid the world of absolute poverty in a way that empowers people/nations to stay out of it

2 – address the various forms of violence that are preventing child survival rates

3 – provide access to child planning

4 – continue to die off when we are 65+ at the same rates as the past, i.e. not using medicine to continue to make us live longer, or preserve our brains in robotic bodies…

Will this happen? Well if you look at the world today you’d probably say no and predict the population increasing far beyond 10 billion. However if something happens to change this eg (following the order of above) we:

1 – reverse neo-liberalist policy that make the “3rd world” provide us cheap raw materials and labour

2 – we find non-violent ways to resolve political, tribal and personal conflicts

3 – the pope embraces condoms (kidding, well sort-of kidding… global family planning does require the spread of condoms)

4 – we realize death ain’t that scary and using medicine to make us live forever ain’t a good aim

So to conclude, while Rosling’s talk is all good in theory and proves the minimum population we can stabilize at is 10 billion, I do wonder about how valid the statistics and analysis are in practice… love to hear your thoughts.




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  1. Arka
    2 Aug ’12    

    Hi Juliet,

    It’s Arka here again. I read your blog here and there whenever I gat a chance..:). I do watch TED talk and more often than not agree to Hans Gosling’s analysis based on the data but there is also some float in the data and being an engineer I might be quite analytical at times. I do not agree completely to Han’s observations about religions and babies though sometimes it’s purely cultural but then again you have to see that religeon plays an improtant role in any particular cultural growth and typicalities. A culture and religious denomination go hand in hand in many places though not entirely. I would think that culture precedes the development of a religion and what we see today is the manifestation of culture and religion interwined in our society. The distinction between culture and religeon is quite difficult to highlight at times. Usage of Birth Control is ridiculed in many religions and who formed these religions…the people who practised these religions of a certain cultural denomination.

    I can say here that your observation on the population explosion in India is true in few cases but not always.
    In india, the reason for population explosion as also seen in many other Asian countries have multiple reasons:
    1. Cultural like you mentioned as women have a higher status if they have more kids….mostly prevalent in rural and low income groups.
    2. More Male dominated society…Urban India is much better in that women have a voice and more independent but rural and lower income group’s women don’t have that priviledge..also seen in many western rural societies.
    3. Lack of recreation for both men and women in rural societies in India…we see that all over as in US, Australia etc where the rural families are huge.
    4. Need for more hands like in the farms where the work is more labor intensive…the underlying reason for having large families.
    5. Lack of birth control medications or resistance to use birth control in rural areas…..due to religious reasons (common gripe the world over), alien to the concept, Males may not be ready etc.
    6. The lack of education and the assessment power to rationalize the effect of a large family on their financial security and future.

    Now as the Indian Society gets more modern and women get more educated and financially independent and have their voice (like in urbane India), we will see a change in the family sizes. For example, my parents generation had huge families and they were joint families. Our current generation (after 1980 born) is very different in that, they all have nucleus families, very often the both the partners in a urban family is working and the family size has reduced to an average of 4 ( parents and two kids) mostly or less. So I think education, financial independence for women, questioning of religious and cultural traditions and availability of resources for family planning all go hand in hand in reducing the population growth not just in India but the entire world.

    It will be great to know you opinions…:)

    • 2 Aug ’12    

      Very insightful analysis Arka, thank you for sharing!

      “Education, financial independence for women, questioning of religious and cultural traditions and availability of resources for family planning” can be then summed up to education for critical thinking (including in regards to religions, economic and political institutions) & developing ethical institutions for the management of resources… I think this would not only help tackle population growth in India, but it would dramatically help create peace with justice in the world.

      Ok, so we know what needs to be done. I suppose the next question is: HOW DO WE DO IT?

      How do you develop education for critical thinking? And how do these critical thinkers then develop institutions for ethic management of resources???

  2. Arka
    2 Aug ’12    

    Thanks Juliet.

    I like reading your blogs and sharing my thoughts.

    On the population explosion what sacres me is the consumption of resources more than the total headcount. For example, based on a study, the world has 7 Billion people and they could all fit in a piece of land as big as Texas having a population density of New York city. Now that’s not bad in terms of population density as Tokyo or Mumbai will have more population density. What’s concerning is usage of resources and consumption. If every individual in India and China were to have TVs and cars, you are looking at huge need for natural resources. Because of thickly populated, the empty lands or forests are dissapearing in India. Excessive stress on the environment and the way Asia is getting built up is mind boggling. Similarly the per capita consumption of resources in the west is huge and huge amount gets wasted. Right from Bigger cars and trucks, everything diposable, per capita consumption of energy etc. Also we forget that because of this population explosion, rain forests are dissapearing as we have seen in Brazil, where many are cut down to give rise to cattle farms. A large part of the african coastline gets swamped with waste from Europe as dumping ground and the poor African countries take it for the sake of money but at what cost. So whether we live in a richer country or poor, it does not matter. We are all responsible for it, some more than the other.

    In developing countries and let’s take the example of India here, there are huge signs of change in some areas and in some none. “Education, financial independence for women, questioning of religious and cultural traditions and availability of resources for family planning” . In this statement, Education and standard of living for Indian’s have improved considerably in the last 2 decades specially for the middle class. We have one of the biggest pool of women engineers and professionals in the world mostly from the middle class and upper middle class families. Now middle class and upper middle class population accounts for almost 600 Mil in India which is 50% of the population and very significant just not for India and but for the world. So if India’s population was 600 Mil, we would be a developed country today but that’s not the case currently. I also think with the rise of living standards, the availability of resources for family planning are available specially for that 500 Mil population. So we are talking about a population figure which is almost 10% of world’s population having a decent standard of living.
    Now the big question and that it will take ages for people to question or probably not is to question some of the cultural and religious traditions. I have seen while happen to talk to many of country mates that even though they are highly educated, they are defined by certain boundaries and don’t want to talk or challenge some of the religious and cultural obligations. And That’s a problem not just in India but also in many western countries where religious traditions and belief take over analytical reasoning. For example ” Anti Abortion” rallies and mass anti “pro choice” stance in US is an outcome of the strong religious belief and “Religion is right” attitude. In India, many educated indians dont seem to challenge some of the redundant and antiquated practices during weddings or religious festivals. In most parts of the world and including many parts of west, gay and lesbian rights are a “no no” again due to religious prejudices. Adoption for many wealthy indians is totally out of question.

    So my point here is that, apart from education and upliftment of living standards, what we need in this world is an open mind to question and accept others. WE have see examples of highly educated people in India and the West speaking very very antiquated and sticking to religious texts which may not have any meaning in the modern world. This is one of the major hindrances and will continue to be. I have seen education advances you but not necessarily opens your mind (enlighment). There were and are lot of people more educated than some of the social reformers we have had in India and the world but what separates the social reformers are their open mind to question and analyze every stituation, cultural and religious traditions. Until that changes, our world will always be smaller and short sighted.

    It is great to share our opinions. Are you in Australia nowadays or touring? I live in the US and close to great lakes region.

    Have fun while travelling.

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