In the current issue of The Atlantic, Megan McArdle writes about the role of demographics in Europe’s financial crisis. Excerpt:

Strong growth by Europe’s troubled debtor nations would of course offer a different, and less painful, way out. After all, if you make $30,000 a year, a $10,000 credit-card balance is crippling; but if you make $300,000 a year, it’s fairly trivial. The faster Italy’s economy expands, the more manageable Italy’s debt becomes.

But that’s where the dearth of workers comes into play. Everyone agrees that rapid growth would be much nicer than higher taxes and slashed pension payments. The hitch is that over the past five years, growth in the Italian economy hasn’t averaged even 1 percent a year. Soaring growth will be tough to achieve, because more and more Italians are getting too old to work—and fewer and fewer Italians have been having the babies needed to replace them.

Italy’s fertility rate has actually been inching up from its 1995 low of 1.19 children for every woman, but it is still only about 1.4—well below the number needed to replenish its population (2.1). As a result, even with some immigration, Italy’s population growth has been very slow. It will soon stall, and eventually go into reverse. And then, one by one, the rest of Europe’s nations will follow. Not one country on the Continent has a fertility rate high enough to replace its current population. Heavy debt and a shrinking population are a very bad combination.


“The problem,” says Canning, “is that aging is a new thing. We know quite well what the effects of going to low fertility are—but we’ve never seen this sort of aging before, so it’s hard to make predictions.”

One prediction is safe, however: aging will present challenges that, as of now, no nation has adequately prepared to face.

This is a familiar story to longtime readers of this blog. TMatt wonders why the story didn’t feature anything about the role of religious belief, and how it’s changing, in its report. Excerpt:

At this point, we are left with some interesting questions: Why is the birth rate so low in Italy? Might this have something to do with changing norms among Catholics? What is the birth rate for Italian Catholics, these days?

This leads to another question or two: If Italy’s birth rate has ticked up a bit in the wake of recent waves of immigration, where precisely are these immigrants coming from? Would Morocco be a likely source?

To answer either of those questions, journalists will need to ask some religious questions. The answers to those questions will lead to a final pair of questions: Is there a connection between high birth rates (or even normal, sustaining birth rates) and religious faith? What is this connection?

I don’t think it’s fair to fault this particular story for not exploring the religious element of this issue. It’s a fairly straightforward analysis of the long-term economic impact of low fertility and high aging, written by the magazine’s business editor. Still, I would love to see an Atlantic piece in the future examining the dynamic relationship among fertility, religious belief, and modernity. Fertility rates have fallen off the cliff all over the world — even in Muslim countries. True, Western nations began our demographic decline before Muslim nations did, but this is a near-universal phenomenon. Latin America, source of most of America’s illegal immigrants, has suffered a steep fertility decline, such that it’s now just about at replacement rate.

To be sure, it is interesting to consider the role religion, and religious ideas about fertility, play in this dynamic. It is quite clear that whatever the Catholic Church’s teachings about fertility and contraception are, the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the world do not live by those teachings. What interests me about this is how popular practice affects our understanding of religion, and, over time, religion itself.

Here’s what I’m talking about. I’m reading a great book now, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War. Its author, historian Graham Robb, pedaled his bicycle around the country for four years, researching this book. His argument is that our idea of France — France’s idea of France — is a fairly recent fiction concocted by Parisians, and intellectual and cultural elites who saw the entire country through a Parisian, nationalistic lens. The wild linguistic and cultural variety of France was simply not seen as important, if it was seen at all, by the modernizers. Robb is fantastic talking about la France profonde — the France that existed off the grid, in which most French people lived until basically the day before yesterday, but which wasn’t thought of as important because all eyes were on Paris. He writes about everyday life for these people in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how staggeringly difficult it was.

For me, the biggest revelation — and the one most challenging to my idea about the past — is Robb’s discussion of religion. I don’t suppose it should surprise me, but it’s made me reflect on how my idea about Christianity in the European past is distorted by the same intellectual habits, or forces, that Robb identifies as suppressing (intentionally or not) the true wild nature of life as it was actually lived in France back then. Put simply, I wrongly confuse the history of (theological) ideas with the history of the culture. Robb points out in his narrative that the Christianity these country people — Catholics, mostly — practiced was in many ways very different from the official, formal Christianity taught by the Church. In general, it was far more paganized than people today realize, paganized to a degree that would give traddie types like me conniptions if it were to be found in parishes today. For example:

The great cathedrals of France and their numberless flock of parish churches might appear to represent a more powerful common bond. Almost 98 percent of the population was Catholic. In fact, religious practice varied wildly. … Heavenly beings were no more cosmopolitan than their worshippers. The graven saint or Virgin Mary of one village was not considered to be the same as the saint or the Virgin down the road. Beliefs and practices centred on prehistoric stones and magic wells bore only the faintest resemblance to Christianity. The local priest might be useful as a literate man, but as a religious authority he had to prove his worth in competition with healers, fortune-tellers, exorcists and people who would apparently change the weather and resuscitate dead children. Morality and religious feeling were independent of Church dogma. The fact that the Church retained the right to impose taxes until the Revolution was of far greater significane to most people than its ineffectual ban on birth control.

There are plenty of detailed accounts subsequent to this, but I’m too lazy to type any of them in. Robb doesn’t appear to have any axes to grind against the Church. He appears simply to be trying to determine what the lives of ordinary people were really like — the kind of people whose experiences haven’t been thought of as historically significant by the kind of people who write histories.

Reading this book makes me question what I thought I knew about the past of my own religion. It’s made me aware that I have this idea that the past — the Christian past — is a lot neater and cleaner than it actually was. I tend to think of this period in Christian history as a golden age of faith. Everybody believed in God. Everybody went to Mass. Religious orthodoxy was pretty much a settled matter (except for that unpleasantness with the Protestants, of course). Etcetera.

Reading in Robb about how actual religious and parish life was in 18th and 19th century France, outside of the cities — and the overwhelming majority of the French lived outside the cities — makes me wonder if we really are any worse off today, in terms of heterodoxy and heteropraxy, than Christians of earlier ages. This ties back to the question about religion and fertility in that it makes me wonder if our religious ideas and practices aren’t more driven by material and cultural realities than material and cultural realities are driven by religious ideas. To be sure, I don’t think it’s an “either/or” causal path. It’s an ebbing and flowing dialectic. Still, the Robb book, aside from being wonderful on its own, is challenging the settled ways I had of thinking about our Christian past, especially in relation to the post-Christian present.

UPDATE: I’ll give you another example from the book. It’s shocking and heartbreaking to read about how the children of the poor lived, and died, in France of this era. I’m not talking about children taken by disease. I’m talking about children who lived in a time and among people who didn’t have enough to eat. Robb talks about “angelmakers,” village women whose job it was to kill newborns whose parents didn’t want them or couldn’t afford them:

In 1869, over 7 percent of births in France were illegitimate, and one-third of those children were abandoned. Each year, fifty thousand human beings started life in France without a parent. Many were sent to enterprising women known as “angel-makers” who performed what can most kindly be described as postnatal abortions. A report on the hospice at Rennes defined them as “women who have no milk and who — doubtless for a fee — feloniously take care of several children at the same time. The children perish almost immediately.”

Before 1779, the nuns who ran the foundling hospital in Paris were obliged by law to take the infant overflow from the provinces. This emergency regulation produced one of the strangest sights on the main roads of France. Long-distance donkeys carrying panniers stuffed with babies came to the capital from as far away as Brittany, Lorraine and the Auvergne. The carters set out on their 250-mile journeys with four or five babies to a basket, but in towns and villages along the route they struck deals with midwives and parents. For a small fee, they would push in a few extra babies. To make the load more tractable and easier on the ears, the babies were given wine instaed of milk. Those that died were dumped at the roadside like rotten apples. In Paris, the carters were paid by the head and evidently delievered enough to make it worth their while. But for every ten living babies that reached the capital, only one survived more than three days.

These tiny, drunken creatures made epic journeys that dwarfed the journeys of most adults.  …

I never imagined that there was a time when abortion didn’t exist. What I honestly hadn’t imagined was this sort of thing. It’s hard to take in. But it’s part of why I love reading history: it helps me understand my own time, and my judgments of it, better.