I’ve written before about the dim future of secular liberalism. Folks like me and my friends – and, in all likelihood if you’re reading this, you and your friends – can’t be bothered to have more than one or two kids, if we get around to reproducing at all.
Meanwhile the religious folks – Christians and Muslims and Jews of various stripes – are breeding their bellybuttons off. Today I learned (from an interview in the New Humanist with Eric Kaufmann, author of Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?) about an American religious movement called Quiverfull,
a coalition of neo-fundamentalist protestant denominations and communities, dedicated to biblical literalism, deeply patriarchal and morally conservative and separatist in mindset, [with] a 200-year plan, a “self-conscious strategy for victory through fertility”, as Kaufmann calls it. “They look around and see the low birth rate amongst the secular population, and the success of the sects, and they say, ‘Hey, we can take over here and quickly.'”
Consider the stunning population growth of Orthodox Jews in Israel:
From a trace element of the Israeli population in the 1950s, one out of three children in grade one are now Orthodox. They have achieved this with a fertility rate of 7.5 babies per woman.
The Israeli experience suggests that though fundamentalist sects might start out “uninterested in politics or imposing their values on others,” as they get bigger they will eventually awaken to their own political clout, and begin to vote and lobby for more socially conservative policies. A few tens of thousands of Hutterites or Amish we needn’t worry about, but when in fifty years or so there are dozens of Quiverfull adherents sitting in Congress, we shouldn’t be surprised when they start telling the rest of us what to watch, where to pray, and who to screw.
The article goes on to ask what I think is the key question: What the heck can we do to prevent this? Kaufmann’s answer – paraphrased by the interviewer – is that we
need to displace the multicultural “celebration of difference” model of toleration with one that contains a far more robust sense of common values and a far more stringent rejection of reactionary fundamentalism. “We need a stronger sense of liberal values,” Kaufmann told me. “We should answer back to all fundamentalisms.”
Frankly, I think we’re doomed if that’s the best we can come up with. But I haven’t got any better ideas, and I’ve been grousing about the problem for years. Since my comments are buried in the archives, for the benefit of newer readers I thought I’d reprint them here:
March 16, 2006.
Probably our descendants, sitting in Bible-study class in their ankle-length skirts and kerchiefs, will look back on our licentious era with horror, as a dignified Victorian gentleman might have looked back upon the bear-baiting excesses of Shakespeare’s age. The Victorians of the future will regard their litany of petty taboos as signs not of repression but of enlightenment, and, just like every culture, will celebrate what stifles them. They’ll be content. But we don’t have to be. Although we won’t survive long enough to be appalled by the backwardness of those who come after us, we’re alive right now, and we have every right to worry that our cultural heirs might be a bunch of prudes and uptight a-holes. If only we could disinherit them, and pass on our culture – with all its kinks and perversions intact – to someone who could be trusted to preserve it – a race of space aliens, maybe, who would continue masturbating to internet porn, and quoting liberally from old Seinfeld episodes, and neglecting to procreate, just as we’d wish them to, beneath the surface of one of Saturn’s water-bearing moons.
But till those masturbating aliens come along, we’re stuck with the dilemma of how to preserve our culture here on the planet earth. As I see it, there are three possible strategies:
1) We outbreed the cultural conservatives.
2) We prevent them from breeding.
3) We corrupt their offspring before they get old enough to start bullying the rest of us around.
Option 1 is a non-starter, unless we develop new reproductive technology to enhance our fertility. Maybe if all the downtown-dwelling bachelors and bachelorettes could be convinced to clone themselves, we could keep pace with the rural South Dakotan housewife who thinks permanent pregnancy is her sacred duty to God and the Founding Fathers. But the technology isn’t developing fast enough for this solution to be viable. By the time I drag Michael v2.0 naked and shivering from his fluid-filled sac, the demographic battle will already be lost.
Option 2 isn’t really feasible, either. To coercively limit the birthrate, as the Communist Party did in China, goes against the very principle of liberty that we’re trying to preserve. Which leaves Option 3 – the one we’re already pursuing, by default – the corruption of the youth. This is a delicate operation. Obviously in order to coax the kids over to our side we need to make decadence and unrestrained free expression as attractive as possible – which isn’t difficult – but, if we go too far we’ll provoke a reaction from their vigilant parents, who’ll just lock their sons and daughters in the basement, slap a V-chip on the television and an internet content filter on the computer, and ignore the outside world as it parties itself to extinction. Also, we can’t cop to our strategy or else the parents will figure out what we’re up to – you can already hear them muttering about “activist judges” and the “homosexual agenda” – so it’s difficult to coordinate our scattered efforts to undermine the traditional family.
Unfortunately, we’re not likely to live long enough to see whether our plan has been successful. Or maybe that’s a blessing. If these really are the Last Days of the Roman Empire, as the survivalists and conspiracy theorists have been ranting for years, we can only hope for a pleasant death in a nursing home, with Seinfeld reruns on the TV, while the barbarians glower at us through the windows.