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A child-free ‘now’ leads to a more religious tomorrow

A child-free ‘now’ leads to a more religious tomorrow

Steve McAlpine

By Steve McAlpine (adapted by Alasdair Belling from ‘A Pregnant Pause’ on the Delorean Philosophy podcast)

Would someone think of the children?

In a previous article, I mentioned the movie Children of Men a brilliant near-future dystopian piece set in England in which humans are no longer able to procreate. The last child is born on the planet and then that’s it. Confusion turns to despair turns to anger turns to societal collapse.

But what if we put a little twist in the tale what if instead of a society that is unable to have children we end up with a society that – although able to does not want to have children?

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald pointed out this fact about Australia; not only is one in four households child-free in 2022 but it’s predicted that between next year and 2029, the number of couples living without children will overtake the number of couples who have kids.

As the article goes on to point out, deciding not to have children as opposed to “childlessness”  (the inability to have children) is now becoming an increasingly popular choice across the West.

I want you to note the emotion-laden language and the difference between the two terms; childlessness – which speaks of loss- and child-free – which speaks of freedom. The language we use to define something is critical in how we assess it. The article includes interviews with several single people, as well as couples, who have decided that child-free is for them. Here’s what one couple had to say; “I can’t say what’s wrong or right for anyone else, but for me, the benefits to living childfree have been immeasurable. (My partner and I) have plenty of time to devote to creative projects and travel. There’s so much more we’d like to do and see.”

The environment also comes into play; considering what we’ve witnessed over the last few years with climate change and the pandemic, it reinforces our belief that we’re better off not bringing children into this world.

There are plenty of benefits to not having kids. We have more time to enjoy, more time for fun, hobbies and travel, and the ability to keep discovering who we are as individuals. We can also focus on building our careers and finances without having to worry about anyone else.

There’s a lot to be said for not having children but I want to unpack a little more some of the contradictions in those statements.

We don’t want to bring children into a world that is so bad with climate change, and yet – from the same person – by not having children we have more time to travel, make a career, build finances, and have hobbies.

Can you see the contradiction in that? On one hand, the world is so bad we don’t want to bring children into it – but on the other, the very same world is so good that having children will mean we will miss out on it.

Something has to give, and in a cultural setting in which choice is the highest value commodity then if the stats are any indication, the childfree choice is the flavour.

Is this childhood’s end?

The child-free option has come at a time of great cultural turmoil, and part of the child-free move is a batten-down-the-hatches approach in a best-of-times, worst-of-times era.

The classic song ‘Life in Wartime’ by Talking Heads contains these lines;

“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around no time for dancing, or lovey dovey, I ain’t got time for that now.

We live in war-time – be it culture wars, economic wars, geopolitical wars, or personal battles within; people are scared.

Even Jesus, when speaking to his disciples, predicted the need for his followers to flee the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Army – and he said this about having children during wartime.

‘Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days.”

Kids will weigh you down – that’s been my experience – and some would think having children seems dangerous these days. I was reading an article in the New York Times about child-free life and in the comments, I was struck by often this line was said; “having a child is dangerous”. The safest place to have a child anywhere in the world at any time in the world would surely have to be a modern city such as New York, but there it was –  having a child in the modern world doesn’t simply threaten your lifestyle but your very life.

This move towards child-freeness is a demographic timebomb. If by 2029 half of all households in Australia are child-free then rest assured we are in for a shrinking population and a shrinking economy – which means a shrinking tax base,  which means a shrinking lifestyle. We’ll end up with child-free couples for whom the first two-thirds of life might be fulfilling. But the last third? It could get complex.

Nations such as China once espoused a one-child policy to curb population growth and policed it strictly – and sometimes brutally – but unforeseen consequences (an ageing population is one of them) have led China to the equivalent of trying to balance the ph level of swimming pool water tinkering with the policy trying to get it just right.

Peter Costello, former treasurer of Australia, pushed money towards families to encourage them to have two children for themselves, and “one for Australia”.

Despite this, the future in the West may not be as secular as you either fear – or hope.

Religious communities, by and large, have much bigger families. Whatever the reasons given, many younger secular couples in the West have decided not to have children. If that’s the case, then more religion, not less, is our future.

The future of the West might be religious, especially if demographics are any indication. There’s a view among secular thinkers that, given a generation or two, ethnic-religious minorities smooth out the bumps and westernise their thinking.

This is both arrogant and naïve. Religious families who migrate to the West are often shocked at the lack of a familial safety net and the lack of community.

Among my friends, those with the most children by far are religious people – and not just those in country towns, but white-collar inner urban families, and even young church folk.

I recently attended a religious dedication service at my local church near the city. It was awash with children –  young children, young couples in their early thirties with two, three, or even four children already. Culturally, many of them tick the boxes of people who would otherwise stereotypically be child-free. They live in the same types of areas and deal with the same stresses and strains. Modern people, with good careers and juggling life, but this time with a whole lotta kids.

The spread of children is uneven. Religiously observant people – though increasingly a minority in the West –  seem to be having more children. Working-class people too have bucked the trend – the solid mums and dads where Dad works in the mines and mum packers shelves at the grocery store three nights a week. Many may not be churchgoers, but they’re happy to send their kids to local youth groups.

The standard riff is this; the less religious you are the fewer children you will have. American author and cultural commentator Mary Eberstadt posited that maybe this correlation works the other way and we’re reading the data inversely. Maybe having more children will make you more religious.  “Faith and family are the invisible double helix of society—two spirals that when linked to one another can effectively reproduce, but whose strength and momentum depend on one another”, she said. Break the family, link break the faith link, reconnect the family link reconnect the faith link? We shall see!

Apart from not rushing to judge child-free people, it’s always worth exploring the drivers behind the stated decisions why – for example- do faith communities  – even those made up of people who are very much the same culturally, sociologically and situationally  – have more children than their secular counterparts?

Perhaps it’s to do with what hopes we have for the future, or more to the point, what the future even is? Hope and fear – are two sides of the same coin.

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf observes that in the West, the vision of human flourishing has shrivelled to personal fulfilment. “Our satisfied self is our best hope”, he states. Maybe faith communities – especially those with a belief in not just a vague afterlife but an embodied new creation such as the bible teaches –  maybe they’re not putting all of their literal eggs in the “now basket”.

A vast gulf exists beneath the surface similarities between secular and religious communities in the West. Similarities such as education, income and location mask a huge difference in where hope lies. If the Christian belief in a new creation where all the bad is done away with means anything, it means that the fear of missing out on the good stuff is taken out of the equation.

Having children does mean you will miss out on some stuff – lots of stuff in fact, and not just unbroken sleep. You will miss out on lots of stuff that our culture values. But what if what is coming beyond this age is a far better world than we could imagine? What if it’s better than the fractured and tenuous world we are bringing our kids into now?

If it is then it makes sense to bring as many people with you as you can. Or to build on what the former treasurer of Australia said; perhaps having two kids for yourself and one for the world that is yet to come is the kind of liberty that child-free people can only dream of.

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