- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- A new study suggests that the social circles provided by regular church going make raising kids easier.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.
When you think about it, religious ritual is kind of strange. People invest time, energy, and resources into pageantry that doesn’t appear to produce any immediate return on investment. From an evolutionary standpoint, this doesn’t make a ton of sense—we might expect cultures with elaborate, energy-intensive rituals to be less successful than their neighbors who invest their resources elsewhere.
However, we see religious rituals of various kinds all around the world and across history. Examples can be found in the most enduring empires and the smallest territories. We know of the rituals in both the most impressive cultures and those that merely passed by on the world’s stage. The constant presence of religious ceremonies in our history suggests that there is some functionality that more than justifies the upfront costs. Precisely what this functionality is and how it works is increasingly the focus of many studies in the social sciences.
One such study, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, suggests that the social bonds formed by religious communities provide support that differs from those of secular communities and allows women to have more children without the typical costs of a larger family.
Scientists in the United Kingdom collected data on more than 13,000 mothers and their children. Most of them were religious, but 12 percent were not. The data included information on their church habits, social networks, number of children, and the scores those children achieved on a standardized test.
In line with previous findings that religious women have more children than secular women in industrialized countries, a connection between at least monthly church attendance and fertility was confirmed. However, religious parents showed they could avoid the pitfalls that having more children can bring.
Typically, more children in a family leads to reduced cognitive ability and height in each child. Some studies find that children do less well in school for each additional sibling they have. This makes a kind of intuitive sense, as parents with more children would have to divide their time, energy, and resources among more people as families expand. One would expect that the larger families would also lead to things like lower test scores.
Despite the expectation, the children of religious parents didn’t have lower scores on standardized tests. There were small positive relationships between the size of the mother’s social network, the number of co-religionists helping out, and the children’s test scores. However, this association was small, didn’t show up in all of the testings, and was unrelated to other variables.
These effects might be explained by the size and helpfulness of the social networks around the more religious. Women who went to church at least once a month had more extensive social networks than those who never go or who attend yearly. These social networks of co-religious people mean that there are more people to turn to for help with child-rearing, a point also demonstrated in the data. The amount of aid women got from their fellow churchgoers was also associated with a higher fertility rate.
Conversely, an extensive social network was associated with fewer children for secular women. This finding is in line with previous studies and suggests that the social networks comprised of co-religious individuals differ from those found elsewhere.
The study is not without its faults, and more investigations into the relationship between fertility, childcare, ritual, and social networks are needed.
These findings all show correlation, not causation. Though it might be said the results point towards causation, various alternative interpretations of the data are apparent. The authors note that most religions are explicitly pro-natal. It is possible that religious women have internalized these values and simply choose to have more children than secular women do.
This idea is similar to a potential interpretation of why large social networks have the opposite effect for secular women. The authors suggest that, in some cases, these more extensive social networks are associated with work and exert an anti-natal influence. Again, the people who build such networks may be people unlikely to have large families under any circumstances.
However, the researchers’ hypothesis endured. The help religious women get from their church-based social networks allows them to have larger families than those who lack these support systems. In some instances, these support systems also prevent the adverse effects of larger families.
As we’ve mentioned before, religion offers a community, and a community provides social capital. As religion continues to decline in the West, the social bonds of faith communities that used to tie social communities together begin to decay. However, as has been noted by a variety of observers for the last few decades, fewer and fewer new organizations appear ready to replace religion as a source of community in our lives.
While many different organizations might offer social support that religion once provided the whole of western society, this study shows that different social circles can differently affect the people in them. This finding must be considered by those trying to find new communities to join or the authors of future research.
The community offered by religious groups provides real benefits to those who join them. As this study shows, having the support network religious community offers allows some parents to avoid pitfalls that bedevil those lacking similar support. It suggests that previous studies demonstrating that group ritual offers benefits like increased amounts of group trust and cooperation are onto something and that those benefits have a variety of applications.
While this study is not without its blind spots, it offers a strong starting point for further investigations into the nature of ritual in our modern lives and how local support networks remain vital in our increasingly globalized world.