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Demographic Transition Theory

According to this theory, fertility and mortality rates change in a predictable manner, when a society evolves from a traditional to a modern form. Initially, death rates are high, because of the primitive technology and economic poverty of a traditional society, so birth rates were also high to sustain a stable population. At the beginning of modernization, technological and economic progress reduces the death rate, but the birth rate remains high through social inertia, so there is a population explosion. Eventually, the birth rate comes down as well, and the result is a stable population with low fertility and mortality rates. A classic statement comes from Kingsley Davis. 

By the mid-1980s, however, it was apparent that most advanced industrial or post-industrial societies had birth rates that were too low to offset even a greatly diminished death rate, and after the distorting effect of the changing age distribution had worked its way through, these societies seemed doom to population collapse. The immediate relevance to religion is two-fold, because low birth rates undercut some of the family-related variables that encourage religious participation and because one of the few factors that could sustain fertility at the replacement level is religion. However, as Nathan Keyfitz pointed out, only fundamentalist religions, like radical Islam, may have sufficient fertility, and thus society ironically may become more religious through modernization rather than less (Keyfitz 1987).

This perspective has been used to explain the relative success of more conservative religious movements, in spite of the high numbers of disaffiliates in post-industrial world.


Barker, Eileen. 1984.The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers

Davis, Kingsley. 1963. “The Theory of Change and Response in Modern Demographic History.” Population Index 29: 345-366.

Hout, Michael, Andrew M. Greeley and Melissa J. Wilde. 2001.  “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States.”  American Journal of Sociology 107:468-500.

Norris, Pippa and Ronald Inglehart.  2004.  Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Skirbekk, Vegard, Eric Kaufmann and Anne Goujon.  2010.  “Secularism, Fundamentalism, or Catholicism?  The Religious Composition of the United States to 2043.”  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49(2):293-310.

The following Concepts can potentially capture some of the ideas of this theory.
The three main economic roles that people play in religion - consumers, producers, and investors - fit together to create markets. Social outcomes (markets) constitute the equilibria that emerge from the aggregation and interaction of individual actions on both the productive and consumptive sides of religion (Iannaccone and Bainbridge 2009:468).  Markets vary widely in the diversity of choices offered, depending on the relative population size, history, and level of regulation/repression of certain forms of religion occurring in a given context.
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