So will a fertility bust destroy religion? No, or not exactly, for two reasons. The first is that the fall of religious institutions does not necessarily destroy faith as such, or eliminate spiritual hunger. Witness the upsurge of pilgrimage across supposedly secular Europe. The question that then arises is how long private and individual faith can endure without institutions, and we simply do not have the historical records to answer that question.
Also, presently at least, the fertility decline is patchy. There are large areas of the globe it has not yet affected—above all, Africa. For a generation at least, that continent’s two great faiths, Islam and Christianity, will be flourishing in that setting, if not elsewhere. After 2050, the crystal ball becomes distinctly cloudy, but it is highly likely that even Africa will eventually move to the low-faith and low-fertility model.
The Times study demands that we think beyond simple secularization and through the linkage between the size and structure of families—and about what churches actually do. Only when we take children out of the picture do we realize just how much of what churches have always done has focused on the young. Besides Sunday school, this means bringing them through the rites of passage, from baptism, confirmation, and first communion to summer camp and vacation Bible school. Such activities are what binds people to religious communities. If you want to see churches where the young are largely absent, then look to Europe, and worry. In the words of the prophet Joni Mitchell, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone….