America the Catholic, t + 40 years

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Bryan Caplan points to a quote from Will Durant’s The Lessons of History:

In the United States the lower birth rate of the Anglo-Saxons has lessened their economic and political power; and the higher birth rate of Roman Catholic families suggest that by the year 2000 the Roman Catholic Church will be the dominant force in national as well as in municipal or state governments. A similar process is helping restore Catholicism in France, Switzerland, and Germany; the lands of Voltaire, Calvin, and Luther may soon return to the papal fold.

Caplan observes that I would not be surprised. Well as I was reading the first sentence I did think, “yes, this is what I talk about all the time….” I remember in 1994 telling a Roman Catholic friend that his church was projected to surpass Protestantism sometime around 2020-2030. Fifteen years later that seems to have been another false prophecy, and data show that Roman Catholicism has had a very hard time hanging onto those raised Catholic in the United States over he past generation. As for France, well:

A poll published in Le Monde des Religions yesterday showed the number of self-declared French Catholics had dropped from 80 per cent in the early 1990s and 67 per cent in 2000 and to 51 per cent today.

The data for Switzerland and Germany are easy to get because church-state separation is not an issue as it is in France (or the USA). Here are some trends (keep in mind Durant wrote in the the late 1960s):

In Switzerland Protestantism seems to be correlated with urbanism and higher SES (though the latter may simply spring from the correlation between Protestantism and urbanism) whether the canton is French or German speaking (recall that Geneva was once the “Rome of French Protestantism”). In Germany the unification in 1990 buttressed the proportion of Protestants because the Lander of the former East Germany were historically Protestant, and their residual religious population remained so. But the big story since Will Durant’s time has been the shift from nominal Christianity toward outright irreligiosity; the proportion of those avowing no religion or being confessionless has rocketed upward across the Western world. In relation to what is happening with the Protestant vs. Catholic dynamic, I think what Durant was witnessing or observing was what had occurred earlier in the Netherlands, the more thorough evisceration of establishment Protestantism as opposed to Roman Catholicism. What he did not anticipate, and was not quite as advanced in the 1960s, was the total rollback of the influence and power of the Catholic Church across much of its historic range of domination, from Quebec in North America, in much of Latin America, as well as Spain and other regions of Europe. This rollback seems to have exhibited time lag with Vatican II, as well as the collapse of the Iberian and Latin American autocracies, as well as the fall of Communism (which made Catholic identity less wedded to nationalism in Poland).


  1. Will Durant’s prediction in 1968 was a simple projection of demographic trends that were occurring in 1968. This was a time when everyone knew the noisy Catholic family down the block with the 8 kids. Durant failed to account for the possibility that when those Catholic kids grew up (baby boomers) that they might not have 8 kids of their own, but be typical boomers having one or 2 kids like everyone else.

    It simply shows that mindless projections of existing trends are not always an accurate predictor of the future. Mark Steyn should take notice of this. The question is if the birthrates of the Arab and other Muslims, both in the Middle-east and Europe, are declining as well. If so, they are not about to “take over” Europe the way that Steyn and certain European nationalists predict.

    If the Catholics went through this demographic transition from 1970-2000, perhaps the Muslims will go through it over the next 30 years. North African as well as Turkish and Iranian birthrates have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years. I have heard that second generation muslims in Europe have birthrates comparable to the white Europeans. This suggests that the Muslims are going through the same demographic transition the Catholics did and that Mark Steyn is the Will Durant of 2010.

  2. Around 1960 there was a book (Chester Bowles, “The Coming Political Breakthrough”) predicting continued Democratic domination forever based on the extrapolation of demographic trends of traditionally Democratic and traditionally Republican groups. We all know how well that worked out. Some Democrats are doing exactly the same thing today.

    I think that this is a systematic problem for Democrats. Social scientists tend strongly Democratic, and in the end they’re biased toward the normal, the average, the predictable, the long-term trend, etc., and blind to the contingent, the unexpected, the transient windows of opportunity, the exceptions, the turning points, and so on.*

    It’s becoming more and more evident that this is bad social science (fat tails, founder effects, fractals, chaos, etc., etc.), but old habits die hard, and most social scientists are both incurious and theoretically unsophisticated. Once the have their paradigm and their tenure they just grind ahead.

    There have been people all along saying that this is bad social science, but they’ve been ignored. This is because normality and predictability are the goal and product of bureaucratic administration, and not only do most social sciences have bureaucratic applications and lead to bureaucratic careers, the teaching of social science and social science research themselves have been bureaucratized, so that the various paradigms of the social sciences have been established as bureaucratic procedures to be followed and enforced.

    And administrators, in theory, aren’t politicians. They just decide what should be done and what the ideal end point should be, and they move directly toward that without thinking much about persuading people or overcoming opposition. Democratic leaders seem to decide first what would be best for everybody, and then afterwards hand everything off to non-policy people and say “Here! Convince the morons of this!”

    Scientists (and administrators, and professionals, and experts) do not dialogue with non-scientists. Populism is the Other of social science. The whole premise of social science is that people cannot understand themselves, but social scientists can.

    Republicans by contrast are opportunists from business, advertising, etc., and they’re always looking for the weak spot, the exception, the tipping point, etc.. This is why Rove with one year of college has repeatedly been able to whip the asses of whole buildings full of Harvard PhDs.

    No Democrat I’ve talked to about this has ever shown any interest in this idea, so I imagine they’ll continue to retreat and to lose. Obama won as an Eisenhower Democrat and he’s governing as one. It took him a full year to figure out that the Republicans would unanimously refuse bipartisanship and do whatever they could to sabotage his administration.Social science apparently doesn’t tell you that if you put a “Kick Me” sign on your ass people will kick you, and that’s what Obama did by getting on his knees and begging for bipartisanship.

    The Reality-Based Community was made up mostly of Democratic social scientist losers. Democrats are in “power” now, but they’re still dancing to a Republican tune.

    *The most Republican social science is economics, so economists are an exception in that respect. But our present and ongoing depression is substantially the result of economists’ overestimation of the power of their models and underestimation of contingency. That, and the fact that the apparatchik economist who controlled the American economy and was praised by almost everyone was Alan Greenspan, a far right ideologue.

  3. To second Kurt’s point Rodney Stark made a similar claim about the growth of Mormonism into a major world religion. Yet, at least in the US, the overall proportion of self-identified Mormons remains close to 1%. (i.e. despite proselytizing and a relatively high birth rate relative to the average many Mormons leave the fold at about a rate enough to end up with stable growth on par with overall American growth) So I think Stark’s claim is pretty hard to buy.

    John, I never read the book but I read several intereviews with him. I think his point was more that even if Republicans have more kids they end up moving to areas where they structurally will tend towards becoming Democrats. (i.e. out of more rural areas into cities) Where I think his prediction may prove wrong is that I’m not sure the growth of big cities will continue. It’s hard to say, His point about how strongly the type of environment you live in affects your vote seems pretty dead on though.

    I sometimes wonder that if we broke up high population density areas into individual states if people would continue to vote the same way.

  4. Clark, are you sure it was the same guy? In any case, during that decade two major Democratic groups left the New deal coalition. White Southerners were a total loss, and so-called “urban ethnics” became much less reliably Democratic. The Demographics was really irrelevant, because he parties changed, the issues changed, and demographic groups switched. (There was a contrary move of old Republican stronghold like New England and Iowa toward the Democrats).

    In general, if a party is too weak it will figure out a way to wedge voters away from the other party, and if a party is too strong it will not be able to satisfy all of its supporters. That’s the dynamic of the two party system.

  5. I don’t think it’s surprising either, nor will I be surprised if the birth rates of the Muslims, Mormons, and evangelicals fall, along with massive apostasy from those religions. It was kind of a dumb prediction, because in Will Durant’s time, it was a cliche that the young generation was much different from the old generation. The birth rate had already fallen considerably, and Catholics are hardly isolated from the larger society.

    But – what about the men in black hats? The Amish, the Chassidim, the Hutterites, the FLDS, maybe the Mennonites. I don’t have time to do a lot of research right now, but I think these groups have somewhere between 1/2-1 million members between them. All of them have high birth rates and low out-conversion rates. When the times are a-changin’, these groups are completely impervious to that change because they have little contact with the outside world. In fact, change just makes them more alienated from the outside world as it becomes more alien to them. These groups thrive while other religious groups tend to lose members or become liberalized. If modernism was an antibiotic, these groups would be multi drug resistant organisms. I don’t feel confident about making predictions about the future, but if there’s one thing I will dare to predict, it’s that men in black hats will continue to have big families absent a Malthusian check, persecution, etc.

    At a doubling rate of 25 years, the 1/2 million estimate gives them 250 years until there are about 500 million of them. I don’t really believe that will happen, but the interesting thing is that if it doesn’t happen, that will mean that something bad has happened to them, or else that they decide to reverse centuries of tradition for reasons that are completely unfathomable now.

  6. Polygamist churches produce a lot of involuntary apostates because they dump their boys on the greater society so that the elders can have the girls. I can’t see them increasing a lot.

    Mennonites have a normal rate of outmarriage and falling-away, I think. There are a lot of different groups of that description, and they don’t have a communal lifestyle. I have found out that people were of a Mennonite background a number of times after I’d known them awhile. (Same for Adventists and JWs, not mentioned.)

    I also think that a lot of Chasidim leave and either secularize or follow some other kind of Judaism.

    The Amish, the Hutterites, and the Mormons are a different story, but only the Mormons seem to be much of a factor, and they’re a missionary religion.

  7. Losing surplus boys isn’t going to affect the growth of polygamists. Women are the bottleneck, not men. If you got rid of 3/4 of the men while marrying off all of the women, the population would be 5/8 what it would have been with the men, and will grow just as quickly. 5/8 * 2^10 * current population is a pretty big number.

    I don’t know much about the Mennonites, but low Chasidic retention rates contradicts what I’ve read. I can’t find any real data, but a brief search finds lots of references to their high retention rate (uncited in blog posts, newspaper articles & the like). Maybe you’re thinking of Orthodox Jews, who do have a relatively low retention rate?

    Mormons are kind of a wild card. They have high birth rates but also high apostasy rates:
    It’s hard to say what will happen to them in the future. I doubt their missions will do much good, because their religion is blatantly stupid. Who in 2010 would convert to Mormonism after googling “mormonism” for any reason other than the desire to marry a Mormon or get ahead in a Mormon community?

    Sure enough, Mormon conversions are down since the internet became ubiquitous:

    My hunch is that their birth rates will drop and their apostasy rates will go up in the short-moderate term future, sort of like what already happened to the Catholics. They’re not detached enough from the larger society to not feel its effects.

  8. John Emerson, I agree with most of your post except the comment about Republicans refusing bi-partisanship. This seems to put the onus completely on the right and ignores the extremely feeble (to the point of non-existent) efforts on the left to promote bi-partisanship.

    Unless you expect one party to simply comply with another parties’ program. That isn’t what the parties are for. They are supposed to fight. In the long run this acts as a balance against the country moving too quickly in any one direction. I see no particular value in bi-partisanship except in cases of national emergency.

  9. First, Obama isn’t left, he’s center.

    Look at the healthcare bill. Obama ignored the left almost completely. The left wanted single-payer, medicare buyin, public option in about that order. and Obama fought them the whole way.

    He spent months catering to Grassley and Snowe, even though Grassley announced in the middle of the negotiations that he was voting no. He kissed Olympia’s fat ass for another couple of months and got nothing.

    Obama made several mistakes. First, he told the Republicans right at the beginning that he wanted a bipartisan bill very badly. Second, his initial offer was alrady a compromise; he cut the majority of the Democratic Party out of the negotiations at the beginning. Even though h initial offer was an enormous compromise (people compare it to Remnetcare in Massachusetts) the Republicans had to fight against it, since taking Obama’s initial offer wouldn’t seem tough.

    But in my opinion, Obama’s big mistake was trying to be bipartisan at all. He had hefty majorities, since the Republicans shit the bed last time they were in power, and he should have used his majorities. The Republican Party was not in good faith, and the tiny handful of sane ones (Snowe, Collins, Voinovich, Lugar, Grassley) were afraid to deal, probably because of the fear of the teapartiers and Grover Norquist.

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