Religions, Population Doctrines of

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The questions about religious doctrine of interest in the field of population studies have usually been those referring to its effects on reproductive behavior. Two kinds of effects have been studied: the direct effects of doctrines about reproductive behavior itself, and the indirect effects on this behavior of doctrines that concern the status of women. This essay reviews doctrines of both kinds in the five religions that together represent the dominant religious affiliations in countries containing over two-thirds of the world's population. These religions are Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The first section presents a summary of each religion's doctrine on sexual and reproductive behavior. In each case, this is the version believed to represent the official or conventional doctrine. Often of course this may have little in common with the doctrine understood by lay adherents and even less with their conduct. Each description is preceded by an outline of the origin of the religion and of the core beliefs regarded by those who espouse them as legitimating its doctrines. In subsequent sections, the views of sociologists on the social functions of the doctrines are described.


Introducing an encyclopedia of the world's religions, R. C. Zaehner divides them into two main traditions. Western religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–are those that were born in the Near East and owe their origin, directly or indirectly, to the Jews. Eastern religions–largely Hinduism and Buddhism–are those that either originated in India or have been profoundly influenced by Indian thought. Zaehner notes the profound difference in content between the two traditions. Each of the Western religions claims that it is a direct revelation of the one true God to humans, that he created the world, that his sovereignty is absolute and his will must be obeyed, that life on this earth is a preparation for an immortal life to come, and that the nature of that life will be determined by God's judgment of the individual's conduct during the life on earth. In contrast, salvation in the Eastern tradition means escape, by one's own efforts or with the grace of a God, from the process of reincarnation. The dominant preoccupation is not with duty to God, but with the deliverance of the immortal soul from the bondage of the body. Given the immense differences between these two worldviews, notable differences might be expected in their doctrines on sexual and reproductive behavior. In the event, it is the similarities that are more striking.


Judaism is the religion of Jewish believers in Israel and throughout the world. It also played a formative role in the early history of Christianity and Islam. According to traditional belief, God revealed himself to the ancestors of the people of Israel three and a half millennia ago, using the prophet and leader Moses to communicate teaching and commands that became embodied in the Hebrew bible. Over the centuries, biblical teaching has been interpreted and supplemented by rabbis–Judaism's teachers and scholars–and they continue to be the source of guidance on conduct that will conform to God's will. The diverse and changing circumstances that Jews have encountered, especially since the late-eighteenth century, have led to the creation of separate movements within Judaism that differ in what they will accept as an interpretation of divine will.

The Hebrew Bible idealized a patriarchal and pronatalist model of the family, and this ethos is evident in the contemporary doctrines of orthodox Judaism. It is a religious duty for men (but not women) to marry. The man also bears responsibility for procreation. The couple is expected to have at least one child of each sex, in conformity with the biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply." Premarital sex is forbidden. Adultery is forbidden. Divorce is permitted but requires the husband's consent if sought by a woman. Abortion is permitted to save the life of the mother, but there is contention about other possible justifications; life is considered to begin at birth. Contraception is permitted if the motive is acceptable and if the method (unless used for medical reasons) does not impede full sexual union. On all these issues, non-orthodox movements within Judaism are more permissive than the orthodox and more likely to leave decisions to the individual.


Christianity had its origin in a Jewish movement that emerged after the death around 30 c.e. of the Jewish preacher Jesus of Nazareth, later known as Jesus Christ or simply Christ ("Messiah") and believed by Christians to be an incarnation of God. The religious doctrines are based on accounts of the life of Christ written by disciples after his death and forming the core of the New Testament which, with the Old Testament (essentially the Hebrew Bible), became the authorized scripture of Christianity. According to traditional Christian doctrine, the way of securing salvation from the consequences of sin and ensuring that death will be followed by eternal life in paradise is to accept God's grace and to follow the teaching and example of Christ. Essentially this requires the adoption of a way of life dominated by love of God and obedience to his will, and by love of one's fellow human beings. In the early twenty-first century, the main institutions of Christianity–inheritors of the disciples' function of propagating Christ's teaching–are the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and a large number of Protestant churches.

In most respects, Christianity's early teaching on sexual and reproductive behavior, which was based on the Old and New Testaments, reiterated the traditions of Judaism, though with divorce and remarriage after divorce added to the forms of conduct that were condemned, and with celibacy newly valued as a way of expressing a special devotion to God. Early Christian teaching continues to be endorsed to this day by the Roman Catholic Church. A valid marriage is a divinely established institution and is indissoluble. It is written within marriage that conjugal love achieves its divine purposes, that of uniting the couple and endowing them with children. Premarital sex and adultery are prohibited. Abortion at any time is prohibited because life is believed to begin at conception. Any act, including sterilization, specifically intended to prevent procreation is prohibited. Periodically these doctrines have been elaborated by holders of the office of Pope, in whom the ultimate authority of the Roman Catholic Church is vested. For example, in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which was widely greeted with dismay, Pope Paul VI stressed "… an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life … frustrates His [God's] design which contradicts the norm of marriage, and contradicts the will of the Author of life." In an apparent concession to changing times, and one regarded within and outside the Church as a major innovation, couples with acceptable motives for wanting to avoid conception have increasingly been encouraged to restrict intercourse to the infertile period of the menstrual cycle. It is claimed that this method acknowledges the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative purpose of intercourse, and enriches the couple's relationship by promoting dialogue, mutual respect, shared responsibility, and self control.

In the eleventh century, as a result of doctrinal differences and a refusal by the Eastern part of the church to accept that authority should be vested in a single head, the Eastern and Western parts separated and the former became the Eastern Orthodox Church. Like its Roman counterpart, the Eastern Church maintains a strong commitment to the ideas of the early Church. Great emphasis is placed on the importance of home and family. Sexual intercourse must be confined to marriage. Divorce and remarriage are allowed, but remarriage in church is possible only if church authorities have granted the divorce as well as the state. Abortion and permanent sterilization are condemned. Previously, contraception was also prohibited but the views coming to prevail are that the responsible use of contraception within marriage is acceptable, and that decisions on family size should be left to the individual couple, according to the guidance of their own consciences.

In the sixteenth century, a reform movement within Christianity led to the establishment of a Protestant branch of the religion that rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and many of its beliefs and practices, though not its view that procreation was the principal purpose of marriage. Protestantism spawned many denominations, which differ among themselves and from Catholicism in their population-related and other doctrines. Until the 1930s, the doctrines of Protestantism about contraception had been as rigorous as those of the Roman Catholic Church. The break with tradition started with the Lambeth Conference of the Church of England in 1930, when the use of contraception was allowed if abstinence was not practicable. After another three decades, the 1958 conference rejected the primacy of procreation as the purpose of marriage and approved the use of contraception by methods "admissible to the Christian conscience." Similar changes have since occurred in the doctrines of other mainstream denominations. The Anglican and other denominations have also become more tolerant of divorce and remarriage. Some of the relaxations in doctrine, including those allowing the acceptability of abortion in some cases, have been vigorously opposed by the more conservative denominations.


Islam was founded by the prophet Muhammad (570–632 c.e.) who reported a series of revelations from God. Embodied in the Quran, these revelations, together with the collected accounts of the Prophet's life and teaching, are the principal source of the beliefs and practices of Muslims. According to the Quran, Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets (that included Moses and Jesus) who, like him, had received revelations from God and had been required to propagate them. As individuals and as a community, Muslims are required to submit to divine will, as revealed (with the help of Muslim scholars) in the Quran and accounts of the prophet's teaching.

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam in its classical form endorses the biblical injunction to "be fruitful and multiply" and to do so only within marriage, an institution recommended to everyone able to afford it. Sexual intercourse outside marriage is forbidden. A husband may divorce his wife simply by declaration, though he is required to be considerate in his behavior toward her in the process. A wife may obtain divorce with the husband's agreement or by other procedures if he does not agree. Islam allows a man to have up to four wives, but only if he believes he can treat them equitably. Contemporary scholars stress that the teaching did not commend polygyny, but permitted it in some circumstances. It is thought to be a way of providing a husband for a woman who would otherwise be without one, including widows with children.

Birth control is not prohibited and the majority view among contemporary Muslim scholars is that the use of contraception is permissible with the wife's consent. Sterilization is seen as contrary to divine will, and is approved for medical reasons only. According to some scholars, abortion is permitted if it takes place before the fetus acquires a soul or to save the mother's life, but there is disagreement about the stage of fetal development at which ensoulment occurs. Others argue that, in the light of modern scientific knowledge about the early stage at which human life can be recognized in utero, abortion is always unacceptable unless carried out to save the mother's life or prevent the birth of a severely handicapped child.


Hinduism has no single founder and no orthodox version. Instead it comprises a family of related traditions and customs that have developed in the Indian subcontinent over a period of at least 3000 years. It encompasses a wide variety of beliefs and practices, has a vast store of sacred scriptures, and acknowledges numerous deities but (usually) one God as the creator and preserver of the universe. Some core beliefs are common to most versions of Hinduism. The most important is the conviction that all living things (human, animal, insect) have the same kind of soul–one that is destined, when the body dies, to be reborn in a different body. The particular form of the latter will depend on the individual's karma, the effect of good and bad deeds in the life that has ended and in previous lives. Accumulating merit by living dutifully increases the probability that the next life will be an improvement on the current one. The ultimate aim is liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Like the religions of near-Eastern origin, Hinduism accords fundamental importance to the family and views it from a male-oriented perspective. Women are regarded as subordinate to men, though Hindu codes urge that women be treated with kindness and respect, especially if they are mothers. Premarital chastity for women is highly valued. Marriage is a sacred and, ideally, indissoluble relationship, but hallowed texts specify various circumstances in which wives may be replaced. Childbearing, especially the bearing of sons, has been accorded importance in the Hindu tradition from earliest times. Traditionally, failure to bear a son was a justification for the husband to take another wife. Because life is believed to begin at conception, abortion is not approved, though it may be permitted if the continuation of the pregnancy would put the mother's health at risk. Hinduism is permissive toward contraception and sterilization. Methods of avoiding conception were mentioned in its earliest texts.


Buddhism was founded in India in the sixth century b.c.e. by Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as the Buddha ("enlightened one" or "awakened one"). According to the scriptural accounts, the prospective Buddha, like the philosophers of Hinduism, searched for a way of escaping the suffering that the endless cycle of death and rebirth imposed on humankind. Having eventually found it, he undertook to teach others how they too might find enlightenment. To this end he established a monastic order, the members of which continue to act as teachers and advisers to lay Buddhists.

According to the Buddha's teaching, life is permeated with suffering and this is caused by craving. The extinction of craving, and therefore of suffering, can be achieved by adopting a way of life that requires virtuous conduct, meditation, and finally the achievement of the transcendental wisdom necessary for liberation. The process takes numerous cycles of death and rebirth, but serenity and insight can eventually be achieved in a final lifetime, when the notion of the permanent self is seen for what it truly is–an illusion. Death is then followed by nirvana, a permanent state of transcendent liberation. Virtuous conduct entails not taking life, avoiding sexual misconduct, and developing ways of thought that will encourage selflessness and moral and compassionate behavior toward others.

It seems to be generally agreed by experts on its doctrines that Buddhism does not regard marriage and childbearing as sacred obligations. On the other hand, the encouragement to act virtuously and the concept of rebirth could help to sanctify the observance of whatever norms of family formation and reproductive behavior prevail in the Buddhist's own social setting. There is no doctrinal bar to contraception and sterilization, but there is contention about abortion. The most common view is that because life (the transmigration of consciousness) begins at conception, abortion entails killing, but other positions have been proposed.

The Social Functions of Religion

The sociology of religion is concerned with the social functions of religious belief and practice. One main tradition of enquiry has focused on the general significance of religion for society. The other main tradition has been concerned with the interaction between religious belief and actual social experience. Both traditions can illuminate the social significance of the doctrines described above.

The first of the traditions mentioned was established by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, he proposed that the latent function of religious worship in a society was to encourage veneration of society's institutions. In his classic and influential work, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), he argues that a society necessarily and naturally generates a collective and sacred ideal of itself. This ideal is symbolized and sustained by religion, the doctrines of which express the nature of sacred things and of the relationships they sustain with each other and with profane things. From Durkheim's standpoint, the doctrines described above could be seen as epitomizing religion's function: encouraging veneration of marriage and procreation and a collective commitment to the social order. For him, falling birth rates and rising divorce rates–evidence of the weakening of domestic solidarity and therefore of social solidarity in general–reflected the social malaise that had befallen European societies in the process of their development.

Sociologists who have focused on the relationship between religion and the material conditions of life often have a different perspective on doctrine. In his treatment of the historical development of the family, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) sees monogamous marriage as closely connected with the emergence of private property, and enforced by religion and law to secure the stable transmission of property between generations. In his study of the relationship between the development of capitalism and Protestant asceticism, Max Weber (1864–1920) emphasized its rigidly biblical view of the purpose of marriage. A contemporary sociologist, Bryan Turner, draws on these and other sources to argue that religion has been important historically for the distribution and control of property in society, and has had its effect by providing beliefs and institutions that support the control of children by parents and women by men. A similar view is taken by those who, on behalf of women, campaign against constraints on their autonomy and status and maintain that religious and related doctrines often serve the interests of men at the cost of women's control over their sexual and reproductive lives.

Procreation and the Sacred in Modern Societies

It is a commonly held view that, with the waning of attachment to traditional doctrines, religion has lost its social significance in modern societies. Against that view, Thomas Luckmann argues that all societies, including modern societies, necessarily generate sacred beliefs that have the social function of explaining the ultimate relevance of the social world and human conduct. From a similar standpoint it can be argued that, because the reproduction of the social world and its sacred beliefs depends on a continuing commitment to procreation, it is reasonable to expect procreation itself to be the subject of sacred beliefs. The form these take in modern societies may continue to owe something to traditional doctrine, but may be experienced primarily as collective reverence for parenthood as a feature of a particular and hallowed way of life.

See also: Animal Rights; Euthanasia; Future Generations, Obligations to; Induced Abortion: Legal Aspects; Population Thought, History of; Reproductive Rights; Reproductive Technologies: Ethical Issues.


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John Simons

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