I can still remember when I first encountered someone with strong convictions about overpopulation and children. I was a graduate student attending an Evangelicals for Social Action initiative, funded by the Pew Foundation (before it secularized). The wonderful program created by Joel Carpenter paired Christian graduate students with Christian faculty for intellectual mentorship. I am indebted to both Joel Carpenter and Ron Sider for this enriching experience.
In my second year of attendance, one graduate student became particularly upset in a group conversation about the Christian tradition’s failure to advocate for more population control. Although I had seen plenty of heated exchanges in my graduate classes, her screeching outburst was one of the few times in an academic setting that I found someone’s emotional eruption completely undermined the argument she was trying to make. At the time of her outburst, I remember realizing that I had no clear convictions about children and population control, so I was particularly persuadable. Yet, she undermined her case by her desperate anger and hopelessness.
I find virtually all of my graduate students have a similar theological blind spot about children–the same one I had when I was a graduate student. When asked, almost all of my students have not thought theologically about the decision to have children or even about the number. It’s largely a lifestyle choice or personal preference for them mixed with financial or health risk considerations. This pragmatic approach to what throughout the Bible is one of life’s biggest blessings seems incredibly odd for Christian students, many of whom are educated in Christian universities, where every square inch of life is supposedly corum Deo.
While doing research across the nation regarding how college students think about their life purpose and the good life, I have found the same lack of theological or philosophical thinking about children. Thus, students are largely guided by overarching cultural trends and personal emotions. The first group is not surprising in light of Western individualism and abundance. When asked about the good life, they specifically state they want an “enjoyable job” as well as a “comfortable,” and a limited or unencumbered family life—which means no children. North America has produced a significant number of self-oriented hedonists.
For a second, related group of students, children are something scary (and a possible impediment to comfort and happiness). One of these students explained:
I would like to have a house and be comfortable in my house and not worrying about how to pay for it. Um, I would like to have a job that I’m happy in. I would have at least like three dogs. I don’t know about kids cause that’s just horrifying. I’ll stick to the dogs and my boyfriend’s cat.
Another student said in an interview, “I’d wanna be married…um, I don’t know about children. I’m an emerging adult so the idea of children scares me.” We found that not wanting to have children or being scared of children goes both with hedonism and a desire for comfort.
Overall, this new trend I see in my research with college students is part of what one scholar calls “The Rise of Childless America.” Actually, America is far from alone or even the major country experiencing the highest percentage birth rate decline (that would be South Korea and then China).
Based on my research experience, I hypothesize that these two reactions toward children are reinforced by a third cultural stream we find in the world today. It is the one that bothered me the most from the evangelical graduate student I mentioned in the introduction: hopelessness. In other words, I contend that Christians should recognize this worldwide trend for what it signals—a loss of faith and hope in God and/or the future (sometimes even unconsciously). We see it reinforced by our current obsession with dystopian literature and movies (especially in adolescent literature). I think we should not be surprised that secular, hedonistic cultures lose their imagination for the future. It appears they run out of hopeful creativity that requires delayed gratification, suffering, and sacrifice for higher goods.
I saw this phenomenon during my time living in Russia in the 90s and early 2000s. It was a culture that lacked both faith and hope in God. Thus, virtually every family only had one child. The families with more than one child tended to be Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists and Muslims. In the midst of a dysfunctional society saturated with corruption, alcoholism, and violence, it was primarily the religious believers who still had faith and hope in the future. My colleague here at Baylor, Philip Jenkins, has noted this trend on a global scale in his 2020 book, Fertility and Faith. As a whole, atheists throughout the world have fewer children and devout religious believers have more children.
What I find unusual about this third theme is that it is reinforced by particular academics who have an odd intellectual and moral confidence supporting their hopelessness. This perspective is illustrated in the headline from this 2017 article, “Science Proves Kids Are Bad for Earth, We Need to Stop Having Them.” Of course, as my undergraduate independent reading in the philosophy of science taught me, anyone who uses the phrase “Science proves…” should be disbelieved immediately. Some impersonal entity known as “Science” does not prove things. Scientists and social scientists offer empirical evidence for particular conclusions.
Furthermore, scientists’ apocalyptic predictions based on faulty presuppositions and evidence can be wrong. My undergraduate reading from the Club of Rome, particularly Stanford biologist’s Paul Ehrlich’s misguided and arrogant Population Bomb, is one thing that made me slightly suspicious of the graduate student’s arguments I mentioned in the opening example (Ehrlich reminded me of a secular version of Hal Lindsay). I would hope that Christians would also be suspicious of hopelessness peddled either through questionable theological or supposedly scientific reasoning.
Indeed, the group that I find most puzzling are the religious believers, like the one I encountered in graduate school, who have imbibed this “scientific” hopelessness. For example, this decade-old CT article describes the threat of increasing overpopulation—ironically it includes a quote bemoaning population increase in Africa—which has actually become the area of Christianity’s greatest growth both in terms of adherents and institutions. In fact, Jenkins wrote in 2020, “What has become more glaringly obvious over time is that, as predicted, Africa will indeed contain the world’s largest Christian population, and that around one-third of Christians will live on the African continent” (p. 188). Thus, one does not have to be a Quiverfull adherent to realize that we should raise questions about the kind of thinking found in this old CT article.
In addition to simply having healthy skepticism about apocalyptic scientific predictions that reinforce the vice of hopelessness, Christians have others reasons to resist this approach. First, a hopelessness that feeds arguments against having children goes against the creation mandate found in Genesis 1 (not mentioned in the CT article).
Second, we know of one biblical example where the temptation to a hopeless situation is to stop having children. In Jeremiah 29:4-7 God had to remind the God’s people in exile that such an approach is a faithless and hopeless response:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
What is striking is that for this group in exile, God reaffirmed the creation mandate from Genesis 1. The Israelites were not to despair and give up faith and hope. They were to demonstrate their faith by trusting God that the exile would not last forever and pursuing the creation mandate in the midst of despair. Keep stewarding God’s creation, keep creating human culture, and keep creating children. I suggest that Christian exiles in this fallen and sometimes seemingly hopeless world (I Peter 1:1 and 2:11) should do the same.
Christian educators should also make their students aware of these cultural pressures shaping thinking in this area and alternatives based on theological thinking. Currently, I do not think they are. In the over 500 nationwide college student interviews my research team has undertaken over the past decade, we have often asked about students’ visions for the good life. For the seriously religious portion, that vision often does include marriage and kids. Yet, I do not recall one that has appealed directly to Christianity to explain their views about children. We also rarely come across a student who speaks positively about having kids. That’s why when one did, it stuck out to me. It was a Hispanic female who talked about the celebration of family and motherhood in her culture. She talked excitedly about children in a way that expressed this faith and hope even as she also acknowledged fear. She shared,
I’ve always wanted to be a mom. I know a lot of girls that don’t feel like they can say that anymore, but I’ve always thought it was really exciting and even just the prospect of growing a whole human sounds really cool, and some girls are really afraid of that. It’s kind of scary, but I think it’s so cool that I get to. Boys don’t ever get to do that. That sucks, but I get to have a whole human inside of me and grow someone in my body and take care of them. So, that’s something I’m sort of excited for.
I wish for at least this “sort of” excitement about children for my students. I also pray Christian students called to marriage recover the hope and faith in God needed for loving hospitality toward future children. As Christian educators, we should also help them acquire theological thinking about children and help them resist the hedonism and hopelessness they’re currently absorbing from secular sources. As I have suggested before, I think a theologically-informed required general education class about marriage, singleness, and the family would help (a course lacking at virtually every Christian university).