November 2013 – Western nations are learning a hard lesson: Reality does not tolerate fools. There is the world as many Westerners would like it to be, and there is the world as it really is. Guess which one wins in the end?
One of those non-negotiable realities is that in order for a society to continue, it must somehow replace those members who die. Period.
Author and culture critic Eric Metaxas sees it that way, too. “You can never get around God’s Truth. It is not my truth and your truth, there is just Truth,” he said on American Family Radio’s talk show Today’s Issues.
To replenish its numbers, a culture can choose to welcome sufficient numbers of immigrants or it can do what societies have usually done throughout history: have enough children.
The “fertility rate” for any given society is the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime. It’s sometimes called the “replacement rate.” Across society, women must have an average of 2.1 kids to keep the population numbers stable – one child to replace the mother and one to replace the father. (The .1 in that rate covers infant mortality.)
As Metaxas noted, however, throughout Western Civilization, many younger couples have placed child-bearing and child-rearing near the bottom of their “to do” list.
Others have even embraced the pernicious lie that having a bunch of kids is downright irresponsible. This lie is founded upon the secular, and increasingly prevalent, belief that “there are too many people on the planet,” Metaxas said. “We have to decrease our carbon footprint; we have to get out of the way; we are consuming too much of the energy [and] the planet’s resources.” That belief, of course, has an additional question underneath it: “Do I believe we are created in the image of God,” he said, “or we are just pests on the planet that are taking away space from the wild animals?”
An elderly Japan
Japan is a perfect example of what is now happening in Western nations. According to the CIA – which considers fertility rates to be important enough to keep track of them for every country – Japan’s fertility rate is 1.39. That is well below the replacement rate.
As he noted in a commentary written for Breakpoint and titled “No Babies, No Future: Japan, and Eventually, Us,” Metaxas said such trends have consequences.
“Nearly a quarter of Japan’s population is over [age] sixty-five,” he wrote. “That percentage is projected to rise to nearly 40% by 2050.”
The cause of that demographic trend is clear: “Japan is getting older because the Japanese have stopped having children,” Metaxas said.
A rapidly aging population has created a nightmare economic situation for the country. Its worker-to-retiree ratio (which measures the number of younger workers paying taxes into the system compared to the number of retirees receiving benefits) has become problematic. Japan’s ratio is 2.6 to 1 – and projected to shrink to 1.2 to 1 in less than 40 years.
Metaxas said, “The cost of caring for its elderly is a large part of why Japan’s debt-to-GDP ratio is an astounding 229%, nearly 2½ times that of the United States.”
Without as many young people working, the Japanese government has had to borrow money to pay for seniors’ retirement. That can’t last forever. Metaxas cited economist Herbert Stein’s truism: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
There are other, more chilling ways to deal with a growing elderly population that has a shrinking work force to support it. Japan’s finance minister, Taro Aso, told a government panel that “the problem won’t be solved unless you let [the elderly] hurry up and die.”
He didn’t explain how that was to be done, but Metaxas said the cruel sentiment was rooted in poisoned soil.
“Doesn’t that follow?” he said. “If you are not created in the image of God, [then] you’re not this eternally, sacred, beautiful creature. [G. K.] Chesterton said we are ‘walking poems.’ … So you get old [and] you kind of get in the way every year. You are eating so much food and someone has to pay for you and there are not many kids left to get jobs to pay” to support you.
What’s truly frightening for the future of the West is the fact that 19 countries have fertility rates that are even lower than Japan’s. The U.S. rate, while not as far down in the dumpster as Japan’s, is also below replacement levels.
Jonathan Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster, said in an article for the Wall Street Journal:
For more than three decades, Chinese women have been subjected to their country’s brutal one-child policy. Those who try to have more children have been subjected to fines and forced abortions. Their houses have been razed and their husbands fired from their jobs. As a result, Chinese women have a fertility rate of 1.54. Here in America, white, college-educated women – a good proxy for the middle class – have a fertility rate of 1.6. America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves
But what about the total U.S. fertility rate? Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put it at 1.93.
“In fact, it’s probably heading lower,” Last said. “Much lower.”
As a result, we’ll hit the same economic wall as Japan. Metaxas said, “Here in the USA, our worker-to-retiree ratio is projected to be the same in 2050 as Japan’s is today.”
God and family
“In the face of this decline,” said Last, “the only thing that will preserve America’s place in the world is if all Americans – Democrats, Republicans, Hispanics, blacks, whites, Jews, Christians and atheists – decide to have more babies.”
But how does that happen? Generally speaking, many in our culture have already decided either that kids are not very important or that the world is too messed up to add new ones to it. How does such a society change its mind about children?
Ironically, by changing its mind about God. Mary Eberstadt, author of How the West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, argues that family decline and a decline in belief in God usually happen together. In an interview with the Gospel Coalition’s Justin Taylor, Eberstadt said that intact families “function as a transmission belt for religious belief.” Thus, when family life erodes – as it has in the West – so does religious belief.
“By no coincidence, religious practice in many Western precincts declines dramatically exactly alongside rising divorce rates and cohabitation rates and fertility decline and other proxies for the sexual revolution,” Eberstadt said.
The principle, she argues, is that “family disruption breeds religious disruption [and] … religious decline and family decline go hand in hand and operate as a double helix.”
It makes sense that people who believe in God might have a more positive outlook on the world and thus be more willing to bring children into it. People who believe that they have a responsibility before God to care for others might be more willing to set aside personal happiness in order to provide for children.
But faith in God – and the cultural transformation that comes from a spiritual awakening – is not something that can be purchased online or from the nearest Walmart. And why would a society that has disdained God suddenly change its mind about that?
Once again, the challenge of our times is set squarely before the church. If Christians do not take marriage and family seriously, they cannot make a case for the importance of those institutions to the broader culture. Christians are called to be salt and light, and that responsibility requires more than mere words.
Moreover, the church as a whole must get serious about revival in America. Without God, nothing else in our nation can heal. That’s a hard truth for a proud people to accept.
But Reality has come for a visit, and it does not tolerate fools.
Get serious about God … and revival
Behold Your God: Rethinking God Biblically is a 12-week multimedia study for churches, small groups, families, or individuals that focuses on the majestic descriptions of God’s character found in Scripture. Behold Your God shows how embracing these unchanging truths are foundational to true revival. For more about Behold Your God visit BeholdYourGod.org. To order visit afastore.afa.net or call 877-927-4917.
Eric Metaxas is author of the award-winning New York Times #1 bestseller Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. He is currently the voice of BreakPoint (breakpoint.org), a radio commentary broadcast on 1,400 radio outlets, including AFR. His new book, Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness is reviewed here. To learn more visit EricMetaxas.com.