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Teach Them to Read and They Won’t Have Kids — Or Go to Church

learning to read

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

1979: Marla, a college classmate of mine, had just returned from a stint as a Peace Corps community health educator in Ethiopia. Her work entailed, among other things, teaching health and “life skills” to school children. She interpreted “life skills” in her own way, she told me. That meant she was “encouraging young women and girls to have agency over their own bodies” in a country where, even today, women’s and girls’ access to resources and community participation is restricted, even though they do most of the agricultural labor. (An Ethiopian co-worker has told me as much.) Among other things, she tried to teach those young women that they had a right to gynecological and reproductive health care—and to decide whether or not they were going to reproduce.

One day, Marla said, she had an “epiphany”: She realized what would do more than anything else to promote women’s health care, and cut the birth rate “in half.” It’s something that she found herself doing, even though “it wasn’t part of the job description.”

What was the most helpful thing Marla, with her degree in microbiology, did for the women and girls she met in Ethiopia? She taught them how to read. Most of them didn’t know how, in any language, when she arrived. Her literacy sessions, she said, were more effective than all of the lessons she gave in hygiene or contraceptive usage.

What Marla’s experience taught her has been borne out, not only in Ethiopia, but in other parts of the world. To put it simply, the more educated women become, the fewer children they have. And, the fewer children people have, the healthier those children are likely to be.

I found myself thinking about Marla’s experience after writing about how the Roman Catholic Church is rapidly losing followers in the US, western Europe and Australia. So are other traditional mainstream Christian churches. Even the children of Evangelicals are starting to drift away.

One reason why young people are disengaging from the Church is, of course, the clerical sex-abuse scandals. One need not be a victim of such exploitation to lose one’s trust, not only in priests and other “representatives of God,” but in the institutions they uphold. But even if people were not coming forward (as I did nearly two years ago) with accounts of long-ago molestation, the “shepherds” would have a hard time keeping the young in their fold and, needless to say, in their influence.

Church officials could blame the Internet, video games or any number of other things for the loss of young congregants. But if those leaders really want to know why they’re “losing Europe” and other places, they should pay attention to what Marla and others have observed.

Actually, they may have. Why else would they insist, even at this late date, upon female subservience? Why do they still teach that abortion is wrong, even if it saves the life of the mother?

I can’t help but to think that such doctrines are a tacit admission that churches need high birth rates—which, of course, means restricting the rights of women—in order to continue in their present forms. The vast majority of any church’s followers didn’t consciously choose to be members: Either their parents raised them to be congregants, or they made a “profession” or “admission” of faith under duress, or at a least without a true understanding of what they were pledging. The surest way to ensure growth in the church is, therefore, to have more children. And it’s in those areas where women are less educated and more oppressed—and thus give birth to more children– where the church is growing.

Of course, there are a number of reasons why educated women have fewer children. One is that the more time they spend getting an education, the later in life they’ll have children—which means fewer children. Another is that education shows women (and men) that whatever the rewards of having children, there are other ways to find fulfillment in life. They are less likely to “be fruitful and multiply” – as well as other Biblical dictums—literally, if at all.

Thus a cycle begins. Smaller families tend to be less religious, or at least less religiously orthodox, than larger families. While religiosity often leads to large families, it can’t be said that a lack of religion is a cause of smaller families. Still, the inverse correlation between piety and family size cannot be denied. And kids raised with less religious indoctrination are less likely to see the need for it or, for that matter, for having lots of kids when they grow up.

Oh, and if a girl in a small family grows up with an educated secular mother, she is also as likely to see the value of education as she is to not see the value of religion in her life. So, for that matter, is a boy: Moreover, he is less likely to believe that a woman can’t, or shouldn’t, do whatever a man can. If his mother can head a corporation or university, why not a religious institution? He, not to mention his sister, can’t be blamed for wondering why women aren’t allowed to say mass, let alone take on any other prominent role in the church. If that boy or girl has children, he or she is less likely to bring them to such a church.

Many observers are now talking about ways in which the church needs to do to “reform” itself. While the current Pope may be sincere in his intention to root out predatory priests and to re-focus the church’s mission on helping the poor, I am not holding my breath when it comes to the church’s position on abortion or female subservience. Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but to think if the Church is indeed “giving up” on Europe, it still finds hope in the Global South of high birth rates and other forms of gender inequality. There, the Church will continue to grow—until, of course, the women get educated and stop having babies. Marla was right, and Church leaders know it, whether or not they know Marla.


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    Thanks for a thought provoking post. On a practical level, so much more of the world now lives in cities, in small homes/appartments and anyway the higher cost of living there means limiting one’s family. China had a one-child policy for decades. now that’s gone, but apparently folk are saying they only want one child, millions and millions of chinese live in high-rise small appartments. And relatives who’ve travelled to poor parts of Africa and Asia all say how much education is valued. Friend gave pads of writing paper and biros to a village school in Kenya and the kids danced and sang for joy, they had supplies for another month. Malala is on the right track, bravely advocating for the education of girls. Eucation of one member is what lifts a whole family out of poverty. The UN says if a woman has any money, she invariably uses some of it to send her kids to school. I’ve been to Manila and seen the poverty of large catholic families, so I was pleased to read recently the RCC there is losing members rapidly too.

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    Though my grandfather was a deacon in a Southern Baptist church, his #1 mission with me was to hammer home the message that my education MUST come 1st so that I would never be financially dependent on a man. Period. He saw my mom drop out of college (where she had a full scholarship, mind you) for a year long failed marriage followed by a 5 year long failed marriage and a kid,a 3rd marriage to a hardworking guy who could barely read and ended up disabled 10 years after they married so she had to support them and their kid. My grandfather was determined I would have a better life, and I did. Thanks to education and my grandfather’s insistence on it.

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    It’s already happening. Birth rates in most of the Third World have fallen dramatically over the last few decades as education has risen (Subsaharan Africa is the one major exception), and one can already see the social results — most clearly in Latin America, where church attendance is dropping and country after country is legalizing gay marriage. The rest of the world is following the same pattern as the present-day developed countries — just a few decades behind.

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    Education is the key to everything, said my mother who was denied an education beyond high school for lots of reasons: the mores of her time, a lack of money, her honest desire to be a wife and mother. Unfortunately, the man she married back in the early 50’s didn’t share her dream of raising children and departed as soon as possible leaving her with four children to raise (three of them daughters). She raised us with Catholicism because that’s what people did in our family, community and ethnic group back then, but she emphasized getting a good education and learning in general way more. And my sisters and brother and I are grateful. My husband and I have raised our daughter in a secular environment, although we taught her about the faith of her ancestors. My biggest fear was always that she’d somehow get involved with some kind of fundamentalist religion. I equated toxic religion with drug or alcohol abuse in my fearful mother’s mind. I am happy to report that she is a smart, confident, well-read, and sassy recent college graduate ready to take on the world, and unlikely to fall for the whims of extremist religion.

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    heard all the rants against education in the Pentecostal movement. they like ignorant illiterate people because they are easily controlled via lies/fear. my parents and inlaws ruined their lives over nothing but lies and conjecture. they endured misery and tried to create it for their kids in the name of the poor doctrine being taught by those leaders who could barely read or write. the whole thing just boggles the mind. it seems so simple once a person is out, but for many reasons folks in the thick of it have difficulty finding the way out. keep exposing this trash for what it is. its the only way,

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    Brian Vanderlip

    You know, it is especially religion that restricts the wide and wonderful world and reduces a biped to such a degree that the dope can finally brag, “There is only one book worth reading and I carry it everywhere with me, praise Jesus!”
    I once had a deacon of the Baptist church say something quite similar to this, that nothing else needed to be read but the Bible. Sad that such harm is done by religion and we allow it to be tax-free!

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