Goldman suggests that sociologists have been wrong in the way they include religion as just one factor among many, when looking at a civilization, no more important than political structures, language, and climate, for example. But religion, he says, is a more important factor in civilization success than any other.
In the introduction, Goldman asserts,
The repudiation of life among advanced countries living in prosperity and peace has no historical precedent, except perhaps in the anomie [breakdown or loss of social norms, uprootedness] of Greece in its post-Alexandrian decline and Rome during the first centuries of the Common Era. But Greece fell to Rome, and Rome to the barbarians. In the past, nations that foresaw their own demise fell to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Plague, Famine, and Death. Riding point for the old quartet in today’s more civilized world is a Fifth Horseman: Loss of Faith. Today’s cultures are dying of apathy, not by the swords of their enemies (p. xiii).
What is this loss of faith? Where does it come from? Can we see it coming and prevent it? Because knowing that most of the world is in collapse is rather overwhelming if we can’t learn something useful from the awareness.
Goldman proposes that there is a relationship with our need to overcome death. Is there something of who we are that lives on? “The truth is that humankind cannot survive without faith, specifically faith that our lives have meaning beyond the mere span of our years. Civilizations that lose their faith also lose their desire to continue and fail to reproduce themselves” (p. 16).
Simple faith in a religion equals sustainable fertility—but it is not enough. If the faith is tied to culturalism or nationalism (seeing the tribe or nation as central), the faith slips once the other purpose fails. Once a traditional society—one of believing people, usually rural and agrarian—enters the modern world (high education, urbanized, governmental usurpation of family responsibilities such as caring for the elderly), the clash frequently leads to secularization hand in hand with drop in fertility.
Goldman examines several places where fertility decline was sudden, and coincided with a precipitous decline in religious observance: Quebec, Poland, Spain, and Ireland. From the mid-1930s for several decades,
Quebec was more Catholic and more fecund [had a higher fertility rate] than any province in the industrial world. In 1960 attendance at mass was 88 percent, the highest in the Catholic world, and the average Quebecoise had four children. By the 1980s the fertility rate had fallen to just 1.5, and Mass attendance to 20 percent (p. 180).
Quoting a report by Catherine Krull and Fran Trovato, called “Where Have All the Children Gone,” the book notes,
By 1982, more than 42 percent of Quebec men and women still in their reproductive ages had undergone voluntary sterilization. Moreover, in the period 1978-1998, abortion increased from 17.9 per 100 live births to 41. The 1998 figure is in fact much higher than the ratio for the same year in Canada as a whole” (p. 181).
The failure of the culture coincides with the failed efforts for Quebecois nationalism (separatism from the rest of Canada and preservation of French language and culture). Religion there was tied together with the sense of chosen-ness. When the dream died, religious belief died with it.
Poland’s fertility collapse is somewhat similar. In the 1950s, Polish families had 3-4 children. By 1979 (when Pope John Paul II visited), families still had 2-3 children, a drop, but still high by industrial world standards. Now, a single generation later, fertility is at 1.25 (children per woman), about half replacement level, and among the lowest in the world. What happened? The Cold War ended. That should have been a good thing. But Poland had viewed its Catholicism as resistance to Soviet-imposed atheism. Their faith and heroism contributed to the end of the Cold War. But without the need to resist, they seemed to lose their purpose—along with their reason for survival.
In Ireland there is the usual secularization pattern: rising prosperity and urbanization. But just as in Quebec and Poland, “the Irish stopped having babies and families—and shortly afterward stopped going to church” (p. 185). In 1965 Irish women had four children. By 2010, that number was two. And Mass attendance dropped from 91% in 1973 to 34% in 2005. This coincides with the cease in hostilities against Great Britain.
Spain was another country that combined nationalism and Catholicism, particularly under Francisco Franco. The fertility plunge began in 1975, the year Franco died. Up till then, Spain had enjoyed one of the highest fertility rates in Europe, around 3 per woman (about 2 more than the rest of Europe). Within a mere twenty years Spain plummeted to the lowest fertility in Western Europe. Spain was “the most extreme turn away from family life observed anywhere in the world—until Iran’s population plunge of the past fifteen years” (186).
When a culture either achieves some grand goal it is seeking, or recognizes that it is doomed to failure regarding that goal, it loses its will to live. But if it’s going to lose the will to live either way, where is there hope?
Hope must be what we find when we look at the exceptions, particularly America and Israel. What is different about these two nations that allows for faith to continue, even to thrive, in the modern world? Goldman describes the difference as having to do with our understanding of God, his covenants with us, and inalienable rights. And it comes down to what we choose to love. More on that in the next post.