"I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history." -Cardinal Francis George

Monday, April 1, 2013

Orthodox Demographic Winter

Global Orthodoxy will steeply decline in numbers this century. Just my opinion, and I am no expert, but the data seems to point to this outcome.

I asked the guy who knows about this stuff, the very competent Eric Kaufmann, whose book Shall the Religious Inherit The Earth has captured my attention for quite a while, this question on Facebook:

"I am interested in how the demography of Eastern Europe will affect the global Eastern Orthodox population (230 million). 93.2% of Eastern Orthodox live in 20 countries of Eastern Europe and Greece. The average TFR of these 20 countries is 1.37. The top 82% of Orthodoxy is located in Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Greece, Belarus, and Bulgaria, which also have a combined TFR of 1.37. With fully half of the world’s E.O. in Russia (TFR 1.42).

What I am interested in is if there are higher fertility groups of Orthodox within these nations that will outbreed their low fertility neighbors? The data is hard to find though. Orthodoxy seems set for an unusually steep decline in population compared to Catholics, Protestants, or most Muslim groups. Am I right about this?"

Eric Kaufmann:
"Yes, I think that's right. Though I believe Orthodox attenders have, as elsewhere, somewhat higher fertility than seculars or nominals (see Tom Frejka's work[*] on European survey data on this). What they are lacking is a closed, fundamentalist group with high fertility a la Dutch Calvinists or Finnish Laestadian Lutherans or Orthodox Jews."

Eastern Orthodoxy has it's population center of gravity in Eastern Europe (including Russia) and Greece. So the demography of Eastern Europe will affect the global Eastern Orthodox population (230 million) in the future quite heavily. This is of course assuming there are no large sub populations of Orthodox with high fertility rates. I had not heard of any, and Kaufmann seems to confirm that there are not.

And another aspect is that theologically, the Orthodox appear to accept contraception, so even the more religiously conservative Orthodox fertility in these countries, while higher than their secular neighbors, will still be tempered by these factors. If significant sub-groups of high fertility endogenous growth sects of more conservative Orthodox were present in these nations, then these groups would be the future of Orthodoxy in these countries. But it appears there are not.

Of the factors that affect religious population positively the 2 biggest are:

1. Growth from within. Religious populations within countries with high fertility rates due to prolonged demographic transition, eg. Africa and Latin America. In these societies, large, young populations of adherants (even nominal ones) will still have a  much higher fertility rate than their counterparts in countries further into their demographic transition.

2. Endogenous growth sects. These are the groups Eric calls "closed, fundamentalist groups". So this is not only the Amish, Hutterites, and Ultra Orthodox Jews, but less closed (yet still self consciously seperate) groups like the Mormons, Quiverfull type Protestants, and conservative Catholics. Each of these groups is closed to some degree from worldly influence and has intentionally high fertility rates while rejecting contraception.

On the flip side, nations who are far into the demographic transition have very low fertility and high secularization, with aging populations and actual population decline... right now. Not future decline, but right now decline due to people not procreating.

 The other major Christian groups have eggs in all of the above baskets, and have more geographic diversity as well. Orthodox have none. Somehow Eastern Orthodoxy has managed to be most populous in the lowest fertility countries on earth, So while Catholics in Italy (1.4) and Spain (1.48) do have a fertility rate just as bad as in Ukraine (1.29) or Greece (1.39), there is the crucial difference that Catholics are not only in Italy and Spain, while demographically, it can be said  that Orthodox are only in Eastern Europe. Sceptical? Look at my research in this chart:

93.2% of Orthodox live in Eastern Europe and Greece.

That chart is staggering. 93% living in Eastern Europe and Greece?? None of these contries have anywhere near the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. Compare with this chart from the Pew Research center of the worlds 1.2 billion Catholics:

 Here are maps showing the same data, although keep in mind they do include Oriental Orthodoxy, which I did not.

The Orthodox:

The Catholics (from Pew Research):

Comparing these charts and maps we see not only a geographic isolation in Orthodoxy, but the countries it is isolated to are among the lowest fertility in the world. Protestantism and Catholicism on the other hand are diverse in geography and fertility.

If 92% of Catholics were located in Italy, Spain and Brasil (TFR 1.82), I would be predicting that there would be a huge plunge in the number of Catholics in this century. But the Catholic Church is spread wider and has a significant presence in high fertility Africa the Phillipines and other high fertility areas of the globe, and looks ready to keep growing significantly alongside Pentecostalism.

It would not be shocking if Eastern Orthodoxy, which is now second in numbers to Catholicism as a "denomination" (for lack of a better word), will be overtaken within a couple generations by an actual denomination: the Assemblies of God. Pentecostalism as a movement (279 million) is already larger than Orthodoxy. But if we nail the Protestant jello to the tree for a moment and count denominations before it falls, we see there are 64 million Assemblies of God members currently. Given their expansion rate and the swift contraction rate for Orthodoxy, they could easily switch places within a generation.

So what does this mean? Just as with historical recurrence we say with confidence with Mark Twain that "history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme", we can say with equal confidence that demography is not destiny, but it is pregnant. And we can look at the parents and reasonably expect what the child will look like.

We know that religion in general will gain in strength both of numbers and of force in the coming century. The future is one of religious fundamentalists gaining prominence, while the candle of the secular enlightenment is slowly suffocated and extinguished in the early 22nd century. The future of Christianity is going to look Catholic and Pentecostal, while Orthodoxy, sidelined by demographics, will implode alongside secularism until a core of true believers is revealed. Oriental Orthodoxy will grow during this time, thus increasing their percentage of global Orthodoxy. I am not sure what this will mean for Catholic Orthodox reunion efforts, or for Oriental Orthodox reunion efforts with each group. Unfortunatly my suspicion is that once the nominal Orthodox in Eastern Europe have left this earth, having aborted and contracepted  themselves into the grave, the higher fertility attenders who are left will be the ones sending their children to Mount Athos, and thus Orthodoxy will go from being 230 million and willing to discuss reunion, to being 40 million and hardened against it. Who knows. But one thing is certain, and even Eric Kaufmann agreed with me, that Eastern Orthodoxy looks set to decline dramatically compared to other religious groups. It will be interesting to check back in 10 years and see where things are.

*This is the article he is referring to possibly.


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  2. A most informative article, thank you.

    Professor Jenkins of Penn State University has predicted that, due to massive Anglican growth throughout the Global South, (especially in Africa) that the Anglican Communion will pass the Eastern Orthodox as the second biggest Christian church on the planet in the next few decades. The Anglican Communion with well over 90 million members has quite a head start on the Assemblies of God denomination, but both groups are growing fast compared to Eastern Orthodoxy which is declining steadily and consistently.

    It is possible that the Eastern Orthodox may reconcile their ancient differences with the Oriental Orthodox and once again become one communion which would give them over 300 million members all together. Possible, but unlikely.

    This is a very interesting point in history for the whole Christian Church in its various communions and denominations. The demographic changes taking place are truly amazing. Another example is that 20% of Latin Americans are now protestant Christians ( spread variously across the Pentecostal, Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, Methodist, Adventist etc traditions). Some Latin American countries are approaching populations that are 40% protestant. We indeed live in interesting times.

    1. interesting point about Anglicans. I may look into that. One thing I have come to understand since I wrote this is that Africa will maintain a high TFR far longer than South/Central America. And I believe Anglicans have a much stronger presence in Africa, so your point is well taken.