Claim: “Atheists at risk of dying out” – is this true?

The UK’s Independent, and others, have latched on to the publication of a new study that claims it has evidence that Atheism is doomed. Basically the claim is that the religious will be able to out breed the non-religious.

OK, I’ll bite, let’s take a peek.

Atheists at risk of dying out due to belief in contraception, study claims

Religious people are having more babies

So where is this actual study?

You can find it within the journal “Evolutionary Psychological Science”, and it is entitled “The Future of Secularism: a Biologically Informed Theory Supplemented with Cross-Cultural Evidence“.

What did they actually do?

we examine how persons with various religious beliefs and affiliations are the descendants of parents with varying degrees of fertility.

Basically they interviewed a bunch of students …

Undergraduate college students in Malaysia and the USA comprised the samples for this study. The 2059 Malaysian students were all attending the University of Malaya (in Kuala Lumpur) while the US students were attending the following eight universities: Boise State University in Idaho (145 respondents), California State University at Fullerton (251 respondents) …

4,569 in total that breaks down to 67% female and 36% male.

In essence, the entire basis for all of this is that they simply asked a bunch of students some questions, that were designed to find the claimed conclusion, then wrote down the answers given and declared their conclusion confirmed.

Immediate observations

Fertility: How many brothers and sisters do you have?

Which religion do you belong to?


None of their answers were actually verified independently.

So what they found is what they looking for, that basically the more religious had bigger families, and so they conclude that the religious will outbreed the non-religious.

As expected, our findings suggest that parental fertility is positively correlated with the religiosity of their off- spring (Table 4), and this positive association even held true within most religious groupings

They then proceed to make these predictions …

For humanity as a whole, religiosity will increase.

Due to the fact that Muslims have the highest reproduction rates of all major religions and are the most religious, Islam will encompass increasing proportions of the world’s religious community.

As religiosity increases over the ensuing decades, average intelligence will gradually decline.

Odd Assumptions

A few immediate thoughts come to mind.

  • They only surveyed college students, a far wider range of people from different walks of life would be far more representative.
  • The assumption is also made that religious people have children. In reality often the deeply religious do not (Nuns, Priests, etc…)
  • Their questions are highly generic. For example asking about belief in a god is very vague, and can for some means a deist and not a theist viewpoint.

They also claim that genes influence religiosity and assert this as fact. There is no consensus that a “God gene” exactly exists, that is a controversial idea, and so asserting it as fact makes all this a tad dubious, but it is of course feasible that humans are naturally selected to be superstitious because that does yield a survival advantage.

They do also appear to assume that religious parents give birth to religious children, and that non-religious parents give birth to non-religious children. In reality, many atheists do have a religious background.

Fundamentally however, they are running with a key assumption that religion drives human fertility and that is the underlying flaw here, so lets explore that a bit

There are better explanations for human fertility

Two factors are in the mix here … religion and fertility. The foundation to the conclusions they leap to is an assumption, a correlation, that religion drives the fertility rate. That correlation does not establish a causal relationship. There is a well accepted far better explanation for what drives both the religiosity and also the fertility rates of humans. One word sums it up – poverty.

As you look across the planet you can clearly see that wealth does lead to a decrease of both religiosity and also fertility. Clearly it is poverty and not religion that lies at the root of all this.

A far more obvious prediction to make is that as both prosperity and also education spread, then we will observer a decline in both the degree of religiosity and also human fertility.

This has been studied, you can read more about it here.

Let me show you a small chart that clearly demonstrates a very strong and quite compelling relationship between fertility and poverty …

Graph of Total Fertility Rate vs. GDP (PPP) per capita of the corresponding country, 2015

If indeed their prediction that religion will dominate for genetic reasons then why oh why do we see a sharp increase in non-belief and a steep decline of religious belief over the past few decades right across the western world?

No really, disbelief is growing, not shrinking …

The religiously unaffiliated, called “nones,” are growing significantly. They’re the second largest religious group in North America and most of Europe. In the United States, nones make up almost a quarter of the population. In the past decade, U.S. nones have overtaken Catholics, mainline protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths.

… There have long been predictions that religion would fade from relevancy as the world modernizes, but all the recent surveys are finding that it’s happening startlingly fast. France will have a majority secular population soon. So will the Netherlands and New Zealand. The United Kingdom and Australia will soon lose Christian majorities. Religion is rapidly becoming less important than it’s ever been, even to people who live in countries where faith has affected everything from rulers to borders to architecture.

Final Thoughts

As one commenter noted, “Its good for a chuckle” and perhaps also a bit of an eye roll. No doubt various religious people will cite it as “evidence” that there specific belief is true and will dominate.

I’m really not convinced their hypothesises is correct and neither should you be, especially when they simply ignore the far more obvious factors that clearly do play a part in human fertility.

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