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Hans Rosling on Religion and Babies

Data-visualization guru Hans Rosling recently gave a fascinating TED talk contemplating the relationship between religion and babymaking. (For more examples of his wizardry, see here and here.) Watch the full lecture below:  As usual, Rosling does a nice job of pointing out high-level trends and prompting us to think more deeply about the cultural and religious implications of economic prosperity. Yet throughout his talk, there’s a subtle undercurrent indicating a lack of attention or concern when it comes to the economic implications of culture and religion. For one, I’m not at all eager to strive for an average global birth rate of two babies per woman, as Rosling and his audience seem to yearn for. As I’ve written elsewhere, under the right conditions and through the proper moral orientation, more humans is a good thing (and only partly for the cause of economic prosperity). Second, Rosling’s main focus and takeaway is the link between babymaking and economic status (and all the perks that come with it). The more prosperous a society, the more each of these factors is likely to reign. According to Rosling, babies per woman decrease when:
  1. Children survive
  2. Many children are not needed for work
  3. Women get education and join the labor force
  4. Family planning is accessible
i.e. Religion has nothing to do with decreasing birth rates, but getting out poverty does. Ah, but what hath religion to do with that? As I’ve also written previously, economists have a tendency to shy away from and/or mistreat any factors that might rattle their neat categorical frameworks and cause “#VALUE!” to pop up throughout their intricate Excel spreadsheets. Observing countries according to “majority religion,” for example, provides little insight into the unique cultural differences and political climates of the countries involved while also failing to take into account which portions of the population are outpacing others and whether that matters. Rosling admits to his analysis being high-level, and although it certainly provides value to the extent that it shows a few notable features on one side of the relationship, we needn’t dismiss the roles that religion and culture play based on these types of one-dimensional analysis. Uncovering the other side—the nuanced ways in which religious institutions and spiritual development impacts our socio-economic activity—will be much trickier than consulting a Wikipedia map and tracking surface-level developments in economic progression.