"The world as a whole is getting more religious," said Professor of Politics at the University of London Eric Kaufmann, speaking at the Wilson Center for the launch of his latest book, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Due to their consistently higher birthrates, religious fundamentalists may reverse the tide of secularism within the next century, he said.

According to Kaufmann, fertility rates among the world's non-religious have dropped to the lowest rates in recorded human history. On the other hand, fundamentalist women in the developed world continue to have higher fertility rates in spite of increased incomes and education.

Meanwhile, rapid population growth in the developing world – where over 95 percent of people identify with a religion – has led to a more religious world overall, he said. This growth is mostly an "indirect effect" of religiousness, said Kaufmann. "People are not having lots of children because they are religious; what's happening is you have people who are poor, where the women have low education, who have lots of children, and happen to be religious." As developing countries go through a demographic transition in which increased incomes and access to education and family planning lead to lower fertility rates, population growth will slow. But, he said, this will not reverse the overall trend.

The polarization of religion, despite rising incomes in the developing world, has caused a rise in fundamentalism worldwide, Kaufmann said. Moderate religions "are to some extent being torn apart by two forces, one of which is secularism, and the other of which is fundamentalism." Fundamentalist religions, such as Anabaptists, Mormons, Haredi Jews, or Salafi Islamists, have grown rapidly due to their social, and sometimes physical, segregation from mainstream society. The rise in fundamentalism is partly due to "secularism posing a challenge to the established religious order and in a way religion responding and saying, well we actually have to draw some boundaries as to what we believe in because otherwise the religion is going to be eviscerated," said Kaufmann.

"The Haredisation of the Jewish World"

While the numbers indicate sweeping social and political changes within the next century, Kaufmann noted that "it's not the case that demography is destiny." But demography is a "contributing factor or a conditioning factor," he said.

In Israel, for example, there is a "major religio-demographic revolution going on within global Judaism and this is the shift from secular or liberal strands of Judaism, which currently form the mainstream, to orthodoxy," said Kaufmann. The population of Israel's Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, have been rapidly expanding. Haredi women currently average 7.61 children per woman, in comparison to the non-Haredi Jewish fertility rate of 2.27 (p. 226). By next year, secular Jews will be a minority of the Israeli primary school system and by 2050, the Haredim will form the majority of Israeli Jews.

By 2019, Haredi military exemptions will account for 23 percent of all draft-eligible 18 year-olds, which "could become a security problem" for Israeli military forces, Kaufmann writes in his book (p. 235-6). In addition, the majority of Haredi men devote their lives to full-time religious study in heavily subsidized yeshivas. In 1996, only 40 percent of Haredi men aged 25 to 56 worked and an average 70 percent of their incomes came from government transfers, according to a 2000 study by Eli Berman. Some high-ranking Israeli officials have expressed a fear that "within 10 years, the welfare state could be facing almost a situation of collapse," Kaufmann said.

Overall, "Haredi growth is nudging the central tendency of Israeli politics to the right," writes Kaufmann in his book (p. 240). The Haredim are historically anti-Zionist and support a two-state solution in order to trade majority-Arab territory for a more Jewish Israel. However, growing expansion of Haredi settlements into East Jerusalem has given them a greater stake in keeping the borders of Jerusalem intact, thus complicating their stance on the "land for peace" issue, he said. Ultimately, "the demography of Israeli Jewry will make peace harder to achieve," he writes (p. 247).

"The Islamist Crescendo"

"Demography has made a difference in the Muslim world," said Kaufmann. As the religious rural poor – who have high fertility rates – migrated to predominantly secular Arab cities, they provided a "large constituency which could be mobilized by a new Islamist movement," he said. "The great migration of the pious masses from the countryside into urban politics is the big demographic story behind the Islamist crescendo," he writes in his book (p. 120).

Due to Islamist pro-natalist and anti-contraception policies, "family planning began two decades later in most Arab states than in the rest of the developing world," writes Kaufmann (p. 127). The resulting youth bulge of economically and politically frustrated youth proved a major factor in the Arab Spring, according to Kaufmann (and others). "When the dust settles," religious fundamentalist groups, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, are likely to be "a major force," he said. Post-revolution democracies in the Arab world could very well lead to "more religious populism," he said. "We can't rule that out."

Surveys of Muslim cities show that "Muslim women most in favor of sharia bear twice as many children as Muslim women who are least in favor," he writes (p. 130). And as Arab countries develop, secular fertility rates will decline, widening the fertility gap. "Ironically, demographic radicalism will gain momentum if Muslim societies open up," he writes (p. 157). "The religious shall inherit the earth."

Drafted by Hannah Marqusee and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker
Geoff Dabelko, Environmental Change & Security Program, 202-691-4178


  • Eric Kaufmann

    Professor of Politics, Birkbeck College, University of London