- Among the highly religious in Britain and France, women with higher education had more children than their moderately-educated sisters. Tweet This
- In Britain and France, highly-educated women who attend religious services have higher fertility than their moderately-educated—but just as religious—counterparts. Tweet This
- Part of the practical support that religious communities offer to parents comes from economies of scale, e.g., enough demand to support church-run preschools, which then make childbearing more practical for highly-educated moms. Tweet This
Oftentimes, we see lower fertility levels linked to higher female education. But Nitzan Peri-Rotem’s investigation published in the journal Population showed that this does not hold across the board when religiosity enters the picture. In Britain and France, highly-educated women who attend religious services have higher fertility than their moderately-educated—but just as religious—counterparts.
Peri-Rotem begins by laying out the common explanations for why highly-educated women typically have the fewest children. These reasons focus on educationally-formed aspirations that compete with traditional family roles, plus the fact that educated women give up more money when they divert time from paid activities to childrearing (in economic jargon, the opportunity costs of childrearing go up with education).
So why doesn't the same pattern of more education leading to fewer children hold among the most religious women?
Britain and France were used as the case studies, with Britain being primarily Protestant (Church of England) and France being primarily Roman Catholic. Although religious participation has declined over time in both countries, the majority still identify with the respective religion. Peri-Rotem then distinguished levels of religiosity into three groups: women who report having no religion, women who are nominally affiliated (who attend church less than once a month), and practicing religious women (who attend church at least once a month). The study sample included 6,028 women ages 40 to 80, about half from each country.
The results showed that secular low-educated women had more than 2.3 children apiece, while those with the most education had about 1.5 children apiece (a little more in Britain than in France). This is the typical pattern of more education, fewer children. Also as expected, more religious women in both countries had more children. The new finding was that among the highly religious, women with higher education had more children than their moderately-educated sisters.
In low-fertility societies, coupling socioeconomic resources with religious resources can help people achieve their fertility goals.
In France, nominally Catholic women looked just like secular women with respect to the way education was related to fertility—more education, fewer children (though education made less difference than for the unaffiliated: the fertility gap between the least and most educated was about 0.4 children rather than closer to 0.8). Among practicing Catholics, however, moderately- educated women averaged about 2.0 with the less educated having more (2.3) and the highly educated having the most at 2.6.
This "U-shaped" pattern—where fertility levels go down when moving from low to middle education but up when moving from middle to high education—was also found in Britain among the most religious (both practicing Catholics and practicing Protestants). In Britain, the least educated still had the most children, but it was the moderately educated, rather than the most educated, who had the fewest.
Peri-Rotem suggested several reasons why high levels of education promote fertility among the most religious even though they suppress fertility overall:
- First, religion promotes a family-centered ethos that makes family a more important source of rewards. This makes career aspirations and opportunity costs less salient than in the general population.
- Second, since religiosity tends to centralize children and family life, it then inculcates “social approval and higher status within their community". There are greater social rewards to childbearing for those in religious communities.
- And lastly, religious communities also often offer practical support for those who expand their family, e.g. through preschool programming and informal care-sharing.
Overall, Peri-Rotem sees religiosity as increasing the perceived benefits and decreasing the perceived costs of children. In other words, religious women want more children, but it is also less costly for them to have children because their communities support that socially and practically.
However, these reasons do not quite answer why religion plays such a significant role in fertility among highly-educated women. For this, it is helpful to remember that many Europeans want more children than they actually have. Highly-educated women generally have the financial resources to support childrearing, but they nonetheless face higher costs than highly-educated religious women. First, "workism" (the elevation of work and career advancement to a very high place in individual values) may be more accepted in secular women's communities. Workism is associated with lower fertility, which, in turn, means that there are not many other women having multiple children in workist communities.
In contrast, because religious communities stress familism, they typically have many members that can take in additional children without deviating much from their usual routines—a favor that supports parents who need a date night, or even who both need to work late on the same night. Part of the practical support that religious communities offer to parents comes from economies of scale, e.g., enough demand to support church-run preschools, which then make childbearing more practical for highly-educated moms. In low-fertility societies, coupling socioeconomic resources with religious resources can help people achieve their fertility goals.
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. Anna Barren is a graduate of the Philosophy program at Christendom College and is the administrator of the Sociology department at the Catholic University of America.