- The fertility advantage associated with holding traditional gender role attitudes has indeed decreased over time. The religious fertility advantage, however, did not wane. Tweet This
- Secular fertility has been bolstered by gender egalitarianism, but religious fertility has been even more resilient. Tweet This
During the second half of the twentieth century, women who worked in the paid labor force tended to have fewer children than homemakers. The superwoman who could do it all—succeed in a full-time career while raising happy, healthy children—did not stand the test of time. Career women, in fact, compromised family size.
Having reached the twenty-first century, it is much more acceptable to admit that nobody can do it all. Simone Biles is a multifaceted hero, winning acclaim for dominating with her prowess as well as for withdrawing when the all-around was too much. Feminists today are not championing the superwoman as much as they are trying to change structures in order to keep women's potential from being suppressed.
This is the context in which Brad Wilcox, Pamela Leyva Townsend, Javiera Reyes Brito, Spencer James and I raised the question of whether religion might be losing some of its pronatalist force in a new article published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. While female labor force participation was on the rise, one of the many ways that religion promoted childbearing was by commending women who valued family over career. Traditional gender roles used to support fertility by allowing women to specialize in homemaking and men in breadwinning, but traditional gender ideology is an obstacle to childbearing for working women because nobody can do it all.
Policy makers in developed countries who want to encourage childbearing for economic growth and old age support are not looking for women to do it all. Withdrawing from the paid labor force is not an economically practical option for the majority of families, so then the question becomes how to combine work and family. One of the answers has been generous maternity leave coupled with job security, but in some ways, that is just a more realistic context in which to ask women to do it all. Feminism has been called "the new natalism" because it challenges the status quo even more: it demands that fathers be expected to participate as fully in childrearing as mothers are expected to do. It is hardly suprising that working mothers whose partners are devoted family men are more likely to have a second child than their counterparts who already feel like a superwoman raising just one. The prospect of a second child can seem more like a piece of kryptonite than an opportunity to flex.
So has the new natalism reduce the religious fertility advantage? We know that religious people still have more children, but we wondered if one of the components of their past advantage was rooted in gender traditionalism, was the religious fertility gap closing?
We used World Values Survey data from 1989-2020 to determine whether the religious fertility advantage has changed over the last three decades, with a particular focus on low fertility countries where egalitarian gender role attitudes are most likely to support childbearing. The fertility advantage associated with holding traditional gender role attitudes has indeed decreased over time—a finding quite consistent with the idea that feminism is the new natalism. The religious fertility advantage, however, did not wane. In other words, secular fertility has been bolstered by gender egalitarianism, but religious fertility has been even more resilient.
Religion provides symbolic and practical support to parents: family friendly norms, social networks that are family-oriented, and a nomos that is often family centered.
How? Gender equality is not expected to be the new natalism if it means only workplace equality: it is men’s sharing of the second shift—their involvement at home—that is expected to support sustainable fertility. Here religious men may even have an advantage because the familistic ethos many of them embrace fosters involvement in family life, and particularly with children. Domestic tasks like diaper changing are not necessarily incompatible with religious concepts like “male headship” that undergo reinterpretation in more contemporary contexts, even among those fully devoted to the concepts. Recent international work affirms that religious men's family-centeredness includes taking care of the house.We suspect that religion retains its pronatalist force by encouraging the kind of involved fatherhood that does not leave women with the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities.
Further, not all egalitarian attitudes are pronatalist. We suspect that a large part of the reason why the effects of religion on fertility have been largely independent of the effects of gender role attitudes on fertility is that there are "multiple egalitarianisms," and liberal egalitarianism does not support fertility as well as egalitarian familism does.
Childbearing among religious individuals can thus be supported by both egalitarianism and familism. Religion provides symbolic and practical support to parents: family friendly norms, social networks that are family-oriented, and a nomos that is often family centered. These factors reward fathers' involvement and provide religious men and women with motivation and support to have children.
Nonetheless, we emphasize that our work showed that these advantages seem to accrue disproportionately to the most religious. The religious fertility advantage is much greater when comparing those with the lowest and highest religious salience or the least and most frequent attendance: more nominal religiousness (including mere affiliation) is more modestly associated with fertility. This is in keeping with recent work showing that nominally religious men do less housework than both highly religious and non-religious men.
Thus, while our analysis shows that the emergence of gender equity as the new natalism is not causing the religious fertility advantage to erode more quickly than otherwise expected, it supports the proposition that intensity of religion—not just religion—will matter for both future population size and religious shares of the future population.
Laurie DeRose is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Catholic University of America, and Director of Research for the World Family Map Project.