The barbarians are copulating at the gates

A new book hysterically imagines that the crisis of Western liberalism is being brought about by fecund foreign fundamentalists.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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This article is republished from the June 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

At a packed London lecture hall in London in 1939, the then-revered historian Arnold Toynbee offered his verdict: ‘The modern Western civilisation is likely, on the showing of all the precedents… to break down and disintegrate and finally dissolve.’

Eric Kaufmann, in his elegy to the way the West lives now, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, admits to thumbing through his father’s set of Toynbee’s works, marvelling at their ‘green and purple text-boxes, heavy clay-enriched paper and evocative illustrations’. Clearly something of Toynbee’s morbid forewarnings has rubbed off on Kaufmann. I wouldn’t be surprised if a bit of Oswald Spengler’s history-as-organic-growth-and-decline hadn’t crept into junior Kaufmann’s mind, too. Because regardless of the number of statistics or well-presented case studies, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? is not the objective study it would seem. Rather, like its interwar antecedents, this is the product of someone for whom a sense of social crisis, a sense of an ending, has been transformed into an historical inevitability. And the agent of that collapse is demography.

Kaufmann’s thesis is seductively simple: the barbarians are copulating at the gates. For years, his book tells us, people have assumed that as societies develop, as public institutions become secular and the culture liberal, religion would effectively dry up. Secularisation was seen almost as a sort of destiny. And from falling rates of church attendance in the West to the gradual loss even of a belief in God, plenty of stats and surveys seem to back such a picture up. But the problem is that a liberal democracy, encouraging people to pursue their own lives as they see fit, seeking ‘this-worldly’ pleasure as Kaufmann puts it, also places too few demands on the individual to pursue the greater good. And one of the side effects of slack, comfortable lives is that people in liberal democracies are having fewer children. After all, in a ‘me first’ culture, there’s little reason to have three children.

Kaufmann’s gentle complaint against the baby-boomer generation wouldn’t amount to much if that were it. But he not only holds a disapproving attitude towards decadent liberalism – he also wields the index of its collapse: demographical data. ‘Secularism, like DDT, wiped out much of its opposition but also gave rise to new, resistant strains of religion’, he writes. And the thing about these ‘resistant strains of religion’ is that their adherents seem determined to have lots of children. He offers numerous examples of the fecundity of fundamentalists. Old Order Amish, for example, double in population every 20 years: numbering just 5,000 in 1900, their congregation stands at 250,000 today. Or take Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews – they now make up a third of that country’s schoolchildren.

But it’s not just the exponential growth of specific sects that frightens Kaufmann. Globally, secular societies are in demographic retreat. In 1950, Europe alone had two-and-a-half times the population of Africa. By 2050, Kaufmann predicts Africa will have four times Europe’s population. Which is not surprising given that just 11 per cent of the world’s under-15s currently live in Europe (including Russia) and North America. In non-Muslim Asia (China, Vietnam, and southern India), populations are likewise aging as fertility rates decline. But in Sub-Saharan Africa and much of the Muslim world, fertility rates are rising. This is not a simple fact for Kaufmann, it’s a source of terror: ‘Demography is a coiled spring’, he trembles, ‘whose explosive potential is only just being released’.

What’s worse, the religious buggers are migrating, too – 17million, in fact, are estimated to have moved from the developing to the developed world between 2000. Kaufmann writes: ‘Even if we assume that ethnic minorities will assimilate into the dominant culture and secular ideas prevail over religious ones – two big ifs – the question remains: how can we be sure that religious demography won’t simply overwhelm secularism much as waves of nomadic Turks erased the lettered Byzantines?’

That is how Kaufmann presents population data. It is not a bald quantitative fact; it is a qualitative force. Just as the Ancient Greeks gave way to the prosaic Romans, and in turn the Romans gave way to German barbarians, or the ‘lettered Byzantines’ lost out to the Turks and Mongols, so Western liberals look set to be overwhelmed by fundamentalist hordes. And the reason: there’s more of Them. Tellingly, not to mention worryingly, Kaufmann repeatedly mentions the numerical basis of military force in this regard. Which is to say, without the bodies, secular society lacks the necessary cannon fodder to combat the fundamentalist threat.

Yet the collapse of civilisation Kaufmann attributes to the procreating foreign force in our midst is a fetish pure and simple, something writ large in the title of chapter two: ‘The Hidden Hand of History: Demography and Society’. Population changes are no more the driving force of social change than hair colour. The idea that demography appears to be the ‘hidden hand of history’ operating behind the backs of historical actors says more about Kaufmann than it does about fertility rates. For here what you have is liberal disillusionment transformed into the ascent of fundamentalist religion. A lack of purpose in secular society is projected as the civilisation-destroying force of religious fundamentalism.

Little wonder that Kaufmann seems to find it hard to say anything positive about Western liberalism. Often he seems more in tune with its critics. He quotes the historian Polybius who was writing at the time Greece was yielding power to Rome: ‘“In our time all Greece was visited by a dearth of children and a general decay of population. This evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention, by our men becoming perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life”.’ Kaufmann’s view of the Western malaise is not dissimilar: ‘In our glitzy consumer world of status competition and hedonism, you have to admire the restraint of world-denying fundamentalists… There is unquestionably an optimum degree of hedonism, sexual permissiveness and freedom beyond which we no longer derive added value.’

And that’s the problem. What Kaufmann attributes to demography has its roots in the existential crisis of the West. That militant Islamists or, heaven forbid, Republican-voting Mormons are seen to pose such a threat to Western liberalism reveals just how threadbare is the faith of its seeming adherents.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century, by Eric Kaufmann, is published by Profile Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the June 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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