Be Fruitful and Multiply…Or Else

The Story: No one will blame you for being confused about Europe’s debt crisis. In short, several European countries have amassed unsustainable debt with no apparent means of paying it off. In order to avoid a larger crisis, more solvent European nations have invested in their troubled neighbors on the condition that they clean up their balance sheets and reform their ways. Megan McArdle, senior editor for The Atlantic, points out that these reforms aim to accelerate economic growth as a means of paying off debt for countries unwilling and unable to cut back their spending.

The Background: There’s just one problem, McArdle warns. You can’t grow an economy unless you’re growing children. In Italy, for example, the fertility rate is 1.4 children per women, short of the required 2.1 needed to avoid population loss.

“Not one country on the Continent has a fertility rate high enough to replace its current population,” McArdle warns. “Heavy debt and a shrinking population are a very bad combination.”

Social security programs have protected the aging from poverty, but they’ve also discouraged childbirth. Now the programs cannot be funded, because there aren’t enough young workers paying into the system with their taxes.

The United States is looking at a similar future. Population growth has slowed to levels not seen since the Great Depression, only 0.7 percent annually since 2009. The sputtering economy has led families to have fewer children or delay their conception. Recent debates over religious liberty and birth control have assumed that insurers will gladly cover contraceptives for free, since they cost much less than pregnancies. The long-term costs to society in the form of lower birthrates, however, have been largely ignored.

Why It Matters: God commanded man and woman in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Like so many other divine orders, this one is increasingly ignored in the industrialized West. We don’t need children to care for us in old age; we have the state. We don’t need children to work with us around the home and on the farm; we have machinery. The popular rationale for childbearing today is personal fulfillment. But even as children bring you bursts of joy, they incur significant costs in terms of time, money, and energy. The cost/benefit analysis simply doesn’t add up for as many parents today.

Perhaps this economic crisis will change the calculation, once Westerners realize the cost of foregoing parenthood is the demise of civilization (or at least the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed). No children, no future. It’s plain to see in the first chapter of the Bible or the accountant’s ledger.

  • Dannii

    Nonsense. You don’t need the state or your children to support you -there is a responsible way to have a reasonable elderly life: don’t spend all your money before you retire.

    That’s for the individual. For society the growth rate is sufficently brought up by immigration.

    • Collin Hansen

      The Great Recession has also greatly slowed the immigration rate. Together with low rates of childbirth, that’s why the United States has turned back the clock on population growth to the 1920s.

  • Samuel Hight

    Collin, it almost comes across that you’re saying an increased birth rate alone will solve the current economic problems. I wonder if you would comment further on this to clarify/confirm?

    Birth rates are surely only a part of the picture as many countries seem to have poor economic status with thriving populations (I’m thinking predominantly Islamic nations but others would also fit if I’m seeing it correctly).

    I think you hinted at those other economic growth factors but, with the emphasis on God’s command to “fill the earth” being the focus of this article, I think they have escaped mention.

    Thank you for your contributions. They are always fertile ground for meditation.

    • Collin Hansen

      Surely if a society simply has babies and does nothing else, there will be no economic growth. I’m just trying to point out the fallacy of planning for economic growth without changing the demographic destiny.

  • Ralph

    Ireland is in the middle of a baby boom….our population has been constantly growing over the past couple of decades. It’s not a lack of children and young people – rather the availability of cheap credit during a boom period that fueled a housing boom that undermined our normal tax base. When the housing boom crashed the tax revenue disappeared very quickly and our banks got into huge trouble. We’re now having to borrow and pay back billions for private banks as well as try and close the current account gap that has opened up due to the lack of taxes from house sales. Of course we’re a small island nation that’s not technically on “the continent”. Also you need only look at Germany that has a declining and aging population yet is a country that has been fiscally responsible and producing massive trade surpluses. Yes population decline is a worry for Europe (and the west in general), but I’m not sure you can link the current crisis directly and wholly to not having babies.

    • Collin Hansen

      Directly and wholly? No one is making that argument. But it’s hopeless to plan for economic growth if you don’t have the human resources to do the growing. Not even Germany is immune from this problem in the long run. Even so, while Greece, Italy, and the rest of Europe sort our their demographic challenges, they would be better off with sensible plans to reform their entitlement programs and encourage initiative in the business realm. The same goes for the United States.

      • Ralph

        Sorry, saying “directly and wholly” was completly wrong on my part.

        I agree that there is current and looming problems across Europe because of an ageing population. I just don’t see the necessary link with the current crisis. Also the ageing/declining population issue is being addressed in many ways.

        – Many countries are raising the age at which a state pension kicks in as part of the response. In Ireland it is now up to 67 years of age.

        – Child birth is being encouraged. Countries such as France have very generous incentives when it comes to having children e.g. extended periods of paid maternity leave, state funded pre-schools etc. In Ireland we have very generous childrens benefit (about €140 per month per child).

        – Money is being put aside for future pension entitlements. In Ireland we have been putting money away into a national pension reserve fund to provide for future pension needs – instead of assuming that there will be sufficient funds available from current income when the current generation retrires.

        Of course Europe has many different countries and many different approaches. Some countries are burying their head in the sand, but others are trying to deal with the issues that are arrising.

        I just don’t see the how low birth rates in some European countries is a significant factor in the current crisis. Looking at the birth rates of Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy (countries in trouble) I suspect the compare favourably with the likes of Germany, France and Holland (countries not in the same trouble).

        Always interested in any analysis that on the current problems here – they are complex and no doubt require multiple levels of solution.

        • Collin Hansen

          Appreciate all the insight from someone living on the other side of the pond. Thanks, Ralph!

          • Ralph

            As I appreciate the insight from the other side of the pond :)

            It’s been really hard to diagnose and agree on the source(s) of the current crisis over here. It’s certain that conintually borrowing money to fund current expenditure and relying on unlimited and continual growth to pick up the bill is unwise. The current solution being tried involves a “fiscal compact” that will compel EU member states that subscribe to it to legally enforce balanced budgets (103% of GDP or less) at a constitutional or equivalent legal level. This may address another Greece, but was never an issue in say Ireland we had a budget surplus for many years, right up to where it all went bang in 2007. It’s locking the door after the horse has bolted.

            The adjustments and auesterity being imposed now may however be the opportunity we need to address some of the issues around an ageing population and over generous welfare provisions and state salaries across Europe. So the current crisis may help eleviate the future pension time bomb by reducing expectations and allowing governments to push through much needed reforms.

  • Arthur Sido

    Between our plummeting birth rate and the tens of millions of aborted children, the West is rapidly killing itself off. In America alone we have wiped out a whole generation of future tax payers who would fund the ridiculous social programs we are locked into. As people live longer and insist on retiring at 65, the proportion of taxpayers to government beneficiaries continues to skew toward those taking out of the system instead of paying into it. This is a recipe for cultural suicide, a path Europe is blazing for us that we are charging headlong down.

    • Lindsey

      In the current situation we aren’t seeing families hold children dear in value, they abort them. Choosing Not to have many children means this large flux of baby boomers retiring will have less young working professionals to put into the economic pot, including social security, and other tax based programs.
      Soon we will have fewer trying to take care of SO many ahead of them. Isn’t that the point of the article? It’s not what we see right now… It’s what we will see in years to come from Choosing not to have children.
      As Arthur says… Cultural Suicide

      • Melody

        If you really want to see people’s attitudes about children then go to the facebook page of 19 Kids and Counting. It doesn’t matter that all those children are being raised to be beautiful contributing people to our society. Even the Christians have a problem with them allowing God to decide how many children they have.

        • Heather E. Carrillo

          @Melody: True story. It’s very sad when Christians start adopting the world’s attitude toward those whom God calls “blessings.”

  • rc sproul jr

    “Immigration will solve the problem”? That’s like arguing that our business makes up for its losses with volume. Nice piece Collin. Of all God’s commands, few upset modern Christians more than the first.

    • David Axberg

      Amen and amen brother

  • Ted

    you equate civilization with modernization and entreat us to create new taxpayers to fund it. I instead would like to see a Ron Paul driven step back to a sustainable currency so my children can grow up as stewards not slaves.

  • Mel

    You could get rid of health care for people that retire. Then everything would be balanced again. Seriously though, is it really that wise to bring children into this kind of world? Are you watching the middle east at all?

    • Caroline

      What does God say about wisdom?
      Psalm 111:10
      “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
      A good understanding have all those who do His commandments.
      His praise endures forever.”

      What did God tell captive Israel as they faced more than 100 years of captivity in Babylon?
      “4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from
      5 Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. 6 Take wives and BEGET SONS AND DAUGHTERS; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may BEAR SONS AND DAUGHTERS—that you may be INCREASED there, and not diminished. 7 And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”

  • Kendra Fletcher

    Mel, when has it ever been wise to bring children into this kind of world? Loving children because God loves children is enough of a reason for me.

    • Melody

      and I have eight but as the next generation starts to arrive I get scared for them all over again.

  • Jason

    Good piece Collin. It is obvious what you are driving at, and I am glad you brought this up. Our culture in America no longer considers children a blessing and a heritage from God as much as it once did, but more so a “what can you do for me” proposition, or a burden to be rid of, or to pay someone else to deal with while we pursue our own interests. The reason we got to this point, as you allude to, is the reason for most other problems we have…we have forgotten God as a society, and are instead focussed on ourselves.

    There are many problems that result from a low birth rate, and you point out an important one. Another is the loss of culture. Consider the birth rates of other groups, such as the muslims or the mormons, who have much larger families. Over 2-3 generations, a large birthrate gap between groups can result in a considerable change in the cultural landscape of a nation. Look at France.

  • Heather E. Carrillo

    Yes. Amen.
    I don’t like that even as Christians we just take it for granted that we want to only have one or two kids, and those crazy families with a ton of kids are obviously to be laughed at by our more sophisticated selves. I mean, are we getting that from the bible or Christian tradition, or the world. Maybe we should examine our hesitancy in having children.

  • Bill Elliff

    My grandfather, a godly farmer, had 10 kids who lived to adulthood, all believers, who averaged 4 kids each, all believers. If that continues, his seed will produce 2.6 million children through 10 generations.
    If he’d only had 2 kids who produce 2, etc., it would produce 1,024 children.
    My 8 kids, of whom 6 are in the ministry or headed there, are grateful.
    The church fails to recognize the incredible implications for the gospel of fulfilling the first commandment.

  • Ralph

    I’m personally thankful that God saves those that don’t come from believing homes (my own salvation) and those that do (I hope he saves my children). God is soverign in his work of saving – I’m glad it doesn’t rely on believing parents but also glad that he chooses to use us.

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  • Grace

    This article is really bothering me.
    1) Are we sure that bolstering the American economy (and the materialism on which it is based) is really a priority of God’s? I don’t believe the “lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed” is really all that valuable to God. (I recommend the book Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society

    2) Is the Gen. 1:28 command universal and eternal? If earth reaches carrying capacity, is unlimited procreation the responsible Christian choice?

    3) What would all you who have commented positively recommend? 4 kids? 8? 14? How are you judging what the “right” number is?

    4) Is being “fruitful and multiplying” only to be interpreted as sexual reproduction? In the 1st century when Christ left behind the teeny-tiny band of Christians, overwhelmingly outnumbered, why did He tell them to “make disciples of all nations” instead of “get busy reproducing because you need to grow your numbers”?

    4) What was the birth to death rate ratio in pre-history? Should we continue to shoot for the same birth rate even though medical advances have drastically lowered the death rate in developed countries?

    Disclaimer: I’m writing this as a mother with the highest regard for children and a desire to serve God by parenting, but with no compulsion to serve the American economy or to compete with other religions by out-birthing them.

    • Collin Hansen

      Grace, you raise a number of interesting questions. But I’m not sure you’ve answered the central one that provoked this article: how can a society thrive, even survive, if adults no longer feel like having children? Notice, you’re talking about the earth reaching something you call “carrying capacity,” but the reality is that many Western nations aren’t even reaching replacement levels. The economic situation is just an extension of the problem: adults demand social services that cost a great deal but don’t have children who would care for them or at least pay taxes to support these programs. Certainly you could tell the nations to shut down all these programs because affluence is idolatrous. If you read the context of the article that got me thinking on this topic, you’ll see that the European nations have already rejected such “austerity measures” in favor of “pro-growth” strategies likely bound to fail because they don’t have the manpower to implement them.

  • Alvin Sawyer

    Wow. So Genesis 1:28 is about multiplying babies??? That’s poor theology if you ask me. The “be fruitful and multiply” is more of a missional mandate to fill the earth with the “image of God” which humanity was created in. It’s about humanity carrying God’s presence into the world, not about more babies. And to carry God’s image and to “subdue the earth” that is “to serve” the creation is to take care of God’s world. Increasing population doesn’t get at the real economic problem which is lavish and selfish living with a high sense of entitlement to a belief that I should get what I want when I want it. If we wish to truly live out the Genesis 1:28 mandate, it isn’t about more babies it’s about wholesale lifestyle changes, simplicity, sharing and loving our neighbours.

    What a ridiculous article.

    • David Axberg

      Alvin I believe you are in the wrong here dude. Gen 2:24 gives a clearer picture of marriage. This whole idea of being fruitful and multiplying is carried through the scriptures. Gen 17 and the covenant to Abraham and his offspring. Carried all along to Malachi 2:15 and the end of the OT Malachi 4:6. Yes, Christ makes it even more clearer that it is not just to be to the family but to the whole world, but never negates the family to be Fruitful and Multiply. God Bless Now!

  • Christopher Lake

    Of course, as a “consistent Catholic” (who actually submits to and agrees with the Church’s teaching on artificial birth control), I have to say that, at least in terms of America and the U.K., birth rates would probably be much higher if Protestants hadn’t accepted artificial birth control, beginning with the Anglicans at the Lambeth Conference in 1930, with other Protestant denominations soon following…

    Prior to that, from the 1500s until 1930, *every* Protestant denomination had the same view of artificial birth control as the Catholic Church still holds. Perhaps it’s time for Protestants to seriously rethink this issue?

    To be sure, I’m not saying that many Catholics are especially *obedient* to the Church in this area– many of those in the *West*, that is.. Africa and the Philippines are a different matter! However, the official teaching of the Church remains what it has always been, and if we want to improve our birth rates, looking at why the Church teaches what she teaches on this issue might help. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, “Humanae Vitae,” is a good start.

    • Melody

      Every time I hear about a couple at church, or anywhere for that matter, struggling with infertility I wonder. How long did they stay on birth control before deciding that “okay now would be a good time to have a baby”, only to discover that the world and life really isn’t under their control. Is there a connection? I don’t mean anything by it but it’s just something I wonder about. Especially when I talk to young people at church and they voice the opinion that there is nothing wrong with wanting to be financially stable before starting a family. I don’t understand where God comes into it for them. It’s like a little piece of their life that they keep separate.

  • Kendra Fletcher

    Melody, when we were pregnant with our third, a Christian couple said to us, “How will you take your kids to Disneyland now? You can’t ride with three on the rides.” When we were expecting our fourth, a Christian couple said to us, “We stopped at two because we wanted to be able to take our kids skiing.”

    I think we’ve got our priorities a little out of whack.

  • Single Mom Minister

    Society has placed so much pressure on people to stray from God and family. Kids don’t need $150 tennis shoes. We don’t need all the stuff that we have. We need to get our focus back on family. Great article.