Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: A. Introduction

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How and to what extent religion influences population policies and the practices of individuals, couples, and larger groups is a very complex question. Although specific religious teachings about marriage, ideal family size, and the permissibility of birth control or abortion would seem to bear on reproductive decision making, the actual effects of these religious beliefs and teachings are not easily assessed. Explicitly pronatalist doctrines that espouse the value of having many children and oppose birth limitation sometimes have little effect on reproductive behaviors or policies, while other aspects of religion, seemingly remote from reproductive decision making, may have powerful demographic effects.

Until recently, most major religions stressed marriage as a religiously sanctified state and were pronatalist in outlook; such teachings reflected the perilous demographic circumstances in which these religions were formed. Although Eastern Orthodox Christianity and most Protestant denominations have come to accept the use of contraception for family planning, other major traditions have concretized traditional religious pronatalism in specific beliefs that discourage the use of birth control. Roman Catholicism continues to prohibit contraception and sterilization; Orthodox Judaism forbids use of the condom or any male methods that prevent insemination. Classical Islam, Hinduism, and Confucianism, while more permissive regarding use of birth control, share the traditional religious bias in favor of marriage and large families. Although abortion has played an important role in societies that have undergone population stabilization, no historical religious tradition favors the use of abortion for purposes of limiting the size of the family.

Other features of religious practice and teaching would seem to have a strong pronatalist effect. Many traditions stress the importance of offspring, especially sons, in carrying out vital religious rituals and in maintaining family continuity. The Rigveda (VI.61.l), Hinduism's foundational sacred text, terms a son a rnachyuta, one who removes the moral debts of a father and spares him from hell. Recent studies suggest that preference for sons leads couples in India to continue building their family until they have a son (Arnold, Choe, and Roy; Vlassoff). In Judaism, key rituals emphasize the importance of children, especially male offspring: a son's bris, or circumcision ceremony, is a major source of religious joy; children play an important part in the Passover service; and the kaddish rite for the dead is ideally performed by a surviving son.

In African tribal societies, veneration of the ancestors is a central religious activity. Whatever immortality awaits the individual after death depends on survivors' continued performance of family rites. Individuals without progeny are viewed as pitiful figures who may become marauding spirits after death (Molnos). Since ancestors profoundly affect the circumstances of the living, family prosperity and health require the existence of an ample number of descendants to maintain the family cult. In contrast to Western views, popular opinion in some African societies favors providing a scarce, lifesaving medical therapy to a bachelor over a family man (Kilner). This reflects the belief that an individual's religious and social significance is not established until he or she founds a family.

In addition to formal teachings, the whole tapestry of a religion's beliefs, its "bioethical sensibility" (Green), must be taken into account in understanding its bearing on demographic behaviors. Thus, although Judaism is historically pronatalist, it also tends to privilege women's interests in reproductive matters. This has led Jewish women to be among the most enthusiastic acceptors of female birth control measures. Popular religious beliefs, as opposed to formal teaching, must also be factored into thinking about reproductive behavior. Orthodox Islam, for example, does not actively prohibit the use of birth control, and most Muslims live under governments with official family planning programs (Omran). But popular attitudes about kismet, or fate, and the idea that Allah appoints each couple the children they have contribute to a widespread reluctance to adopt family-planning methods (Fagley; Knodel, Gray, Sriwatchacharin, et al.). In Africa and elsewhere, popular beliefs about reincarnation or the existence of "souls in heaven" awaiting birth contribute to a reluctance to employ birth control.

Teachings and practices regarding women are another significant aspect of religion that contributes to high birthrates. There is a growing body of evidence that women's autonomy is a key factor in promoting the practice of birth limitation (Dharmalingam and Morgan; Hindin). As a result, those aspects of religious belief and practice that reduce women's autonomy can contribute significantly to high fertility and population growth. Many features of traditional religions have this effect. For example, Hinduism regards women as of lower karmic status, able to effect spiritual ascent by having children and fulfilling family duties. In different ways, most other traditional religions echo these beliefs, removing women from the central sphere of political and religious life and locating whatever spiritual fulfillment that is available to them in the home (Ruether; Carmody).

Multiple demographic consequences follow from this history of marginalization of women and treatment of them as "second-class" religious citizens. Early marriage is associated with larger completed family size. Religious values that encourage child marriage, as in India, or that discourage women's education and career preparation before marriage are therefore major contributors to higher birthrates. The existence of highly differentiated social roles for men and women also may lead to larger completed family size, since sons and daughters are less "interchangeable" in terms of their ability to fulfill parental needs (Johnson and Burton). When religiously influenced values consign women to the home, their social, economic, and spiritual value comes to depend on their reproductive success. In polygynous African tribal societies, a woman's standing among her co-wives depends on the number of her children. Her material wellbeing also depends on the number of progeny she has to help her with home-based economic tasks and agriculture (Molnos). Although the consequences of religious teachings and institutional practices about gender have not been measured, they may be among the most important and persistent religious influences on fertility.

These beliefs and practices affect fertility through the behavior of individuals and couples. At the institutional and policy levels, religion can affect population through its impact on national and international family-planning programs. During the early 1970s, the Roman Catholic Church's opposition to contraception made it difficult for the governments of some Latin American nations to mount familyplanning programs (McCoy). This opposition was vigorously expressed by the offical Vatican representative at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population (Martino) and continues to influence Vatican responses to the population policies of the United Nations and other national and international bodies. Opposition to abortion by Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian groups has repeatedly led conservative U.S. administrations to deny support for international family-planning programs that offer abortion services or counseling. This was shown most recently at a December 2002 Bangkok Conference on Population when the administration of George W. Bush sought to strike from the conference's document endorsements of "reproductive health services" and "reproductive rights" because these can include abortion and abortion counseling in nations where this procedure is legal (Dao). In contrast to these oppositional positions, some religious pronouncements on behalf of responsible parenthood by religious leaders in Islamic countries may have contributed to the success of family-planning programs. On balance, it is not clear how much difference religious involvement in population policy or programs makes. For example, official Roman Catholic opposition to birth control and abortion has had little or no effect on altering the very low birthrates in Catholic countries such as Austria, Ireland, or Italy.

Whatever the influence of religion at the level of national policies, there is considerable evidence that explicit religious teachings about birth control or family size are only one of many factors that play a role in couples' reproductive decision making. Decades ago, sociologists noted that socioeconomic modernization is normally accompanied by a "demographic" transition—from the high birthrates of agricultural and traditional societies to the lower birthrates and family-planning practices of urbanized societies (United Nations). Once economic and social modernization begins, this demographic transition occurs regardless of the religious basis of the society, casting doubt on the importance of religion in reproductive behavior.

Demographers and social scientists have tried to determine the precise role played by religious, economic, or social factors in reproductive decision making, and the relative importance of these factors in influencing demographic behaviors. Three main hypotheses about the religion-fertility relationship have been advanced and variously tested by use of survey data or historical case studies (Johnson). The "characteristic" hypothesis stresses that socio-economic determinants are the primary causal factors in behavioral change, often eclipsing specific religious teachings about family size. For example, Joseph Chamie's 1981 study of fertility and religion in Lebanon shows that whatever their traditions teach, educated, urban, middle-class Catholic or Muslim couples make similar decisions about family size and reproduction; and lower-income, agricultural families have higher birthrates, regardless of their creed. In both cases, social and economic circumstances are determinative. The impact of purely religious doctrine on fertility appears significant only while a society is going through economic and social transition, when such doctrine may delay acceptance of birth control.

A second, "minority-group status" hypothesis holds that if a religious group is a minority and holds strong pronatalist views that are heightened by opportunities for group reinforcement, there may be some independent impact of religious teachings on fertility (Kennedy; Day; Williams and Zimmer). Studies of Mormons in the United States, for example, suggest that a pronatalism deeply rooted in Mormon theology and family values, and heightened by intragroup reinforcements, contributes to higher birthrates among Mormons than would be expected among groups of similar social and economic standing (Heaton and Calkins; Heaton).

Only the third, "particularistic theology" hypothesis sees religious belief as an independent causal variable affecting fertility. This hypothesis has drawn some support from studies of demographic patterns widely separated in time or geographical location (Brown and Guinnane; Knodel, et al.; Sanders).

Taken together there is good reason to believe that while religious teachings and doctrines have some direct influence on reproductive behavior and population growth rates, this influence is probably less than the amount of attention given inside and outside religious communities to specific teachings on marriage, birth control, or abortion would suggest. Furthermore, among religious teachings, those less directly related to reproductive decision making, especially the religiously sanctioned subordination of women, may have the most powerful impact on fertility.

ronald m. green (1995)

revised by author

SEE ALSO: Authority in Religious Traditions; Eugenics; Family and Family Medicine; Feminism; Fertility Control; Infanticide; International Health; Public Health; Sustainable Development;Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Population Ethics subentries


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Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: A. Introduction

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Population Ethics: III. Religious Traditions: A. Introduction