As I was reading Eric Kaufmann’s Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? I started thinking about the issue of religious accommodation in liberal democracies. Obviously people should be able to practice their religious beliefs so long as they don’t break any laws or violate peoples rights. And, whether we like it or not, parents often indoctrinate their children with whatever stuff they happen to believe in. Depressingly, as Kaufmann points out, fundamentalist religious denominations are the ones that have been successfully increasing the retention rates of their offspring. Furthermore, the more conservative religious sects tend to have much more children. As a powerful example, he points out that the Old Order Amish sect in the U.S. only numbered 5,000 in 1900 – they number close to a quarter million today. Thus we get Kaufmann’s thesis: that, given time, and given decreasing reproduction rates amongst more secular people, the religious will (by simple force of demography) overtake the secular in terms of population.
But not only population. As religious fundamentalists take up larger portions of the demographic, they will also take up larger pieces of the political pie. Religious fundamentalist groups have values that fly in the face of modernity – the attitudes of many religious fundamentalist groups regarding women, homosexuals, and crime & punishment frequently come right out of the stone-age. Even in the context of a liberal society they often hold fundamentally illiberal values.
We can see the difficulty with religious accommodation already. Back in 2005,Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty denied the Muslim community in that province the ability to settle family disputes through faith-based arbitration (which would utilize Shariah Law.)
I was thinking about possible solutions to this problem. Given the possibility of impending demographic doom, how do we ensure that Canada does not become some type of illiberal theocracy? Assuming Kaufmann’s thesis is at least partially correct (which I think it is), the harsh reality is that unless we want people with fundamentally illiberal values to start outnumbering us, we have to do something. One idea I came up with was targeting education.
The problem might be mitigated if we can instill the values of liberal democracy, critical thinking, et al into the children of fundamentalist parents. However much I absolutely detest the idea, it might be necessary to re-evaluate the freedom we give religious minorities to teach their children if we want to keep our society secular, assuming Kaufmann’s ideas are not totally wrong. (If his ideas are utterly wrong, the matter is not so urgent, however I think there’s good evidence to suggest that many of his ideas aren’t wrong. Also, please keep in mind I’m just performing thought experiments and considering ideas in this post, so don’t take anything too seriously.) Under the current system people are allowed to establish and send their children to religious schools, and, in some provinces such as Alberta, Catholic and Protestant schools are publicly funded. Again, combine this permissiveness with Kaufmann’s thesis and we might have a recipe for a much more illiberal and much less secular Canada.
So, if we believe Kaufmann’s thesis is substantive, it might be pertinent to begin evaluating strategies to ensure that values fundamental to Canadian liberal democracy are instilled into all Canadian children – and that the children of fundamentalist parents are no exception. I don’t want to be an alarmist, so please take everything with a grain of salt. But, if we don’t keep an eye on the issue, we might find Canada a much less friendly place for us or (assuming our children end up secular too) the few children we do have.