A new book may explain why leading secularists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are so strident in their campaign against religion: it is not a question of driving the last nails into the coffin of religion but of desperately trying to ward off the inevitable resurgence of religious faith as a factor in political life. In, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century, political sociologist Eric Kaufmann predicts the reversal of secularism around mid-century and asks what this will mean for societies. Here he responds to MercatorNet’s questions about his book.

MercatorNet: Religious people in the West are used to — perhaps resigned to — the idea that their societies are becoming more secular. Should they be cheered up by your book?

Eric Kaufmann: This depends on your point of view. Seculars should be worried for the long-term since this argument raises question marks over the assumed “inevitability” of the story of liberal secular progress toward a world governed wholly by reason. It questions what modernity now means. Religious fundamentalists will certainly be cheered, but the mushy middle of religious moderates should be concerned, since they may wind up the biggest losers – caught between the rock of fundamentalism and hard place of secularism.

MercatorNet: You are concerned mainly with religious “fundamentalists” — could you define what you mean by that term?

Eric Kaufmann: Yes – to that extent the title is somewhat of a misnomer. I define fundamentalists as those who apply a literal interpretation of Scripture, but more than that, select and elevate the most world-denying, illiberal parts of both Scripture and religious commentaries (such as the Sunna or Sharia in Islam, Kabbalah in Judaism or parts of Canon Law in Christianity) to prominence.

MercatorNet: Your book is based on the fact that religious people have a demographic advantage over seculars. Can you give us some examples of this? What about nominal adherents to a faith — do they make any difference demographically?

Eric Kaufmann: The paradigm cases are closed sects like the Amish and Hutterites, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have 3 to 4 times the birthrates of their co-religionists. Conservative evangelicals and Mormons have 50 per cent more children than liberal/moderate Protestants. However, even practicing Catholics have an advantage: in France, white Catholic women who practice average a half child more than secular white women (a 25 % advantage) and that advantage has grown or been steady for decades.

MercatorNet: Several writers have predicted that Europe is on course to become Eurabia this century — are they right?

Eric Kaufmann: I address this in some detail in the book, as well is in a recent article in the April issue of Prospect magazine here in Britain. The short answer is that I don’t foresee a Muslim-majority Europe in this century or in the next. Why? Mainly because Muslim birthrates are plunging both in Europe and the Muslim world. Already, Iran, Tunisia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and several other Muslim countries have replacement-level fertility or below. In the UK, Bangladeshi and Pakistani fertility has halved in a generation and is now under 3 children per woman. This means their long-term growth will begin to tail off. The other part of the equation is the rise of non-Muslim immigrant groups (African and West Indian Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and other Eastern faiths) who are also increasing and therefore making Europe more plural and, in the process, rendering it harder for Muslims to increase their share of the population.

That said, Muslim membership retention and in-group marriage is exceptionally high (over 90 per cent) and they are a much younger population than the host society. So they are on course for steady growth. My colleagues and I expect their fertility to fall to host levels by 2030, but they will still make up 5-15 per cent of most West European countries by 2050 and 10-25 per cent by 2100. This is a major change from the 2-6 per cent levels of today.

MercatorNet: But won’t the children of immigrants become secularised and less fertile?

Eric Kaufmann: Yes. Here I distinguish between direct and indirect religious demography. The world is a more religious place than 20 years ago for indirect reasons: because poor, typically agricultural, people are almost universally religious, have large families and account for almost all of the world’s population growth. They therefore make up most of the world’s immigrants, whether to third world cities or to the “secular” West. They are thus making the West’s population more religious: London and other immigration gateway cities are already more religious than they were 20 years ago – despite the secularisation of natives – even though the rest of England is far more secular.

But these people have large families because they are poor and rural, not because they are religious. As they assimilate, they lose their fertility advantage. We see this in the second and third generation, but we only see it for fertility, not religion. If they are Christian, as many West Indians, Africans and East Europeans are, some will secularise. If not, they generally won’t, because religion takes on life as an ethnic marker of difference from the mainstream, which helps insulate Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities from secularism. Within their communities, religion is held in high esteem rather than being considered “uncool” and passé. This is why the second generation of European Muslims are as devout as, if not more so, than their parents.

But a second aspect to what I see is direct religious demography. Whereas most immigrants tend to be moderate in their faith, certain closed fundamentalist sects in the developed world are mobilised against secularism. They erect boundaries against the mainstream society and have low membership loss and high fertility. The Ultra-Orthodox Jews (in the West and Israel) are one example; Orthodox Calvinists in Holland and neo-fundamentalists in the United States are another. The Quiverfull movement, which believes in God as family planner and envisions a 200-year plan for American domination is perhaps an extreme case of direct, deliberate religious pro-natalism. The other side of the coin is the stunningly low fertility of seculars – caused by individualism, materialism, feminism, present-ism or even in some cases pessimism and environmentalism.

MercatorNet: What trends do you see in the Christian population of Europe and the West generally? Is it still succumbing to secularism?

Eric Kaufmann: This is a complex picture. We see strong secularism among the mass of the population in most Catholic countries, such as Spain or Ireland; we find some of this among state Protestant churches like the Lutherans in Germany and Anglicans in England. On the other hand, the rate of secularisation has flattened to zero in most of Protestant Europe and France – the places where secularism began early and religious observance is low. By 2050 we should expect to see the end of secularisation in northwestern Europe and a slow, gradual rebound of Christianity (and other faiths). Finally, Christian immigration and fertility has arrested secularism in major cities like London, where Christian attendance is almost the same today as in 1989. This is an illustration of how demography affects secularism, but part of what we are seeing is an exhaustion effect whereby secularism has creamed off those most partial to leaving while the remnant remains increasingly resistant to its charms. Immigration then helps shift the wind in a religious direction.

MercatorNet: What about the Jewish population — is it following the same trend?

Eric Kaufmann: Yes – interestingly, the Jewish population is probably in the lead on all trends. Thus we see the ultra-Orthodox at 75 per cent of Jewish births in Britain despite being only 17 per cent of the Jewish population. Their growth is now affecting the Jewish population as a whole: it has produced the first Jewish population increase (in 2008) in Britain since the war. In Israel, a third of first graders in the Jewish sector are ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), up from several per cent in 1960. We now see increasingly vocal Haredi activism, from consumer boycotts of ads and companies to roadblocks during Shabbat to mass demonstrations.

MercatorNet: What political consequences do you foresee? Would they be good or bad in your view?

Eric Kaufmann: We already see fundamentalists setting the agenda in the Muslim world on family planning, freedom of expression, veiling, sharia law, crime and punishment, alcohol and minority rights. This is the case even though Islamist parties have failed to take power outside Iran, Sudan and Turkey. In Europe, Islamist activism constrains public criticism of Islam and is an influence on foreign policy. In the US, fundamentalists are a minority, but have exerted pressure on issues from abortion and gay marriage to the curriculum and Israel. In certain states, like Texas and South Carolina, they dominate the local Republican Party. In Israel, Jewish fundamentalism has many political effects on the peace process. The religious Zionism of the modern Orthodox results in the expansion of settlements and opposition to handing back an inch of the Territories. The doctrinal fundamentalism of the ultra-Orthodox leads to restrictions on other Jews’ marriage, burial, conversion and even citizenship rights. Their population pressure to new towns across the Green Line has stiffened them against concessions to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the Territories.

MercatorNet: It looks very much as though secularism is a dead end. What conclusions do you draw from your research?

Eric Kaufmann: Long term, I think these trends will force us in the West to rethink some of our assumptions. Chief among these is the belief that there is a direction to history, and that its endpoint, to cite Francis Fukuyama, is liberty, democracy and reason. It may not be that “decadent” secular liberal societies will be sacked by more socially cohesive barbarians from without, as classical thinkers like Cicero and Polybius believed. Instead, we may see cohesive minorities slowly hollowing out secular society from within.

In my view, only a creed that touches the emotional registers can lure away the children of fundamentalists. The secular competitors to religious literalism, notably socialism, have been humbled by their excesses. Yet for me the answer is not a retreat into multiculturalism or postmodernism, but rather an affirmation of the traditions of secular nationalism and perhaps the moderate religion which is associated with the nation in the West. Yet these are emaciated traditions that are haemorrhaging members and it is not clear how they can respond. I think the answer must involve a repudiation of multiculturalism. Perhaps a new syncretistic religion or ideology will rise in its wake. We shall see. At this point I have more questions than answers.

Eric Kaufmann is a Reader in Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, University of London. He participated in the recent conference on “Causes, Consequences & Responses to Low Fertility,” hosted by the Social Trends Institute, Barcelona.