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Don't Be Fruitful and Multiply

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With the school year at a close and kids across the country out and about, we're reminded just how many children live in the U.S. -- over 100 million. While America certainly has many children, our annual population growth rate is less than 1 percent. This figure is astonishing when we look at countries like Niger and Malawi, with population growth rates of 3.5 percent and 3.0 percent respectively. Economics certainly has a role to play in this difference, but how significant is religion's role in increasing world population?

Many of the countries that are listed as having the highest birth rate by the CIA World Factbook are also the same countries which were deemed the most religious by a recent Gallup report Given that correlation, it should come as no surprise that especially religious states here in the U.S. usually have higher birth rates than less religious states. Richard Florida of the Atlantic discusses this trend in a recent article by highlighting a study done by the Martin Prosperity Institute which found that the "teen birth rate is actually higher in more religious states." This tendency of religious states to have a high teen birth rate is echoed in an article by Lisa Belkin of the New York Times which shares a report by the journal Reproductive Health that found "a strong association between the teenage birth rate of a particular state and its level of religiosity."

What these studies show us is that religious belief increases the number of children an average woman will have, regardless of whether the increased religiosity of where she lives is in Mali or Utah. It also doesn't matter if the dominant religion is Islam like the 99 percent Muslim Afghanistan, or Catholicism like the 80 percent Catholic Philippines, or Latter Day Saints, like the over 60 percent Mormon Utah, or Protestantism, like the over 70 percent Protestant Texas.

The traditional religious emphasis on copious reproduction and common teachings against the use of contraception are having a direct impact on population growth, especially in countries that can't afford it. Religious mores about stereotypical gender roles that encourage women to focus their lives on children reinforce this effect. For Christians and Jews, scripture clearly says in Genesis 1:28 to "be fruitful and increase in number" and this sentiment is found in almost every other major religion and belief system.

This religious emphasis on constant reproduction is having drastic impacts on the local economy, environment, and health of families. Obviously, countries with high birth rates have a hard time educating and providing governmental support for all of those new people, and every new person born will leave their carbon footprint and contribute to environmental degradation. Wherever high birth rates are found there are also more cases of maternal and infant mortality because, as Matthew Bulger from the American Humanist Association recently pointed out, when people have "fewer children, with wider gaps of time between subsequent births, the health of those children and their mothers generally improve."

That's why it is imperative that religious groups begin to connect their positive intentions regarding advocacy for the poor to their own policies regarding gender and children. When religious allies take on the challenge of overpopulation, real progress can be made. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the largest religious groups will be changing their tone on population control initiatives anytime soon. Pope Francis has made his opposition to abortion and contraception well known and his sentiments have been echoed by leaders all across the religious spectrum.

If traditional religious groups won't change their destructive policies impacting overpopulation, secular and nonreligious groups, as well as progressive religious organizations, have a responsibility to educate on the dangers of constant reproduction while advocating to government entities for the creation and improvement of public health programs. Hopefully, as more young men and women become better educated, the religious policies that have caused such misery and hunger for so many will be rejected by increasingly larger segments of society. We must act decisively to ensure that the religious emphasis on the addition of human life doesn't outweigh the humanistic aim that those who are born are able to live a life of happiness and opportunity.