Big Gods and Babies

Do Big Gods trade-off between vertical and horizontal transmission?

Posted May 30, 2014

Hiding from the Pizza Delivery Man 

              The Iran Job is a film about Kevin Sheppard’s first year playing professional basketball in Iran’s highest level professional league.  Sheppard, who played at Jacksonville University, signed with the team A. S. Shiraz, which had not previously known much success.  Sheppard was brought in to lift the team into playoff contention. 

              The Iran Job not only captures the ups and downs and the excitement and drama of A. S. Shiraz’s season.  It also portrays Sheppard’s views as well as ordinary Iranians’ views of life in the Islamic Republic.  Three young women befriend Sheppard and, at some risk, visit him and his seven foot Serbian roommate at their apartment.  Hiding when the pizza delivery man arrives and departing carefully so as not to be seen, the women speak with surprising candor about their frustrations with the regime’s interpretation of Islam and about their desire for freedom and opportunity.  The film depicts Elaheh’s frustrations with her parents’ constant efforts to arrange a marriage for her.  The film’s postscript states that in the turmoil following the controversial 2009 presidential election Laleh was repeatedly arrested for protesting the regime and that “Elaheh rejected all her marriage proposals and moved to Tehran to live by herself.”

Heading in Opposite Directions?

                Laleh and Elehah’s choices are consonant with trends that Stanford University professors, Abbas Milani and Israel Waismel-Manor, report in their recent article entitled “Are Iran and Israel Trading Places?”  Although the Iranian government continues to impose formidable constraints on the lives of women especially, much evidence suggests that many young women are no longer abiding by traditional ways.  Most revealing, perhaps, has been the precipitous drop in the birthrate in Iran, which in this century had fallen below replacement level, until quite recently when the government instituted new incentives for having more children.  Milani and Waismel-Manor explicitly associate declining childbearing with “growing secularism,” which is the principal worry of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

                Milani and Waismel-Manor contrast the trends in Iran with developments in Israel.  There, they argue, religion, culture, and politics are shifting in the opposite direction, that is, toward increasing religious orthodoxy and the transformation of Israel’s government into a theocratic state that subordinates secular values.  Orthodox parties and religious parties on the right currently hold about one fourth of the seats in the Israeli Knesset.  The authors maintain that there is every reason to suspect that this general trend and these parties’ influence will only increase in the future.  Their reason, in short, is demographics.  Of a piece with the analysis in my previous blog, Milani and Waismel-Manor point to the widely divergent birthrates among different groups of Israeli Jews. 

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match

                In a new paper Barbara Okun furnishes the most up-to-date findings about fertility and marriage in contemporary Israel.  The total fertility rate (TFR) among the Ultra-Orthodox has risen over the past thirty-five years from 5.5 to 6.5 per female.  Meanwhile, the TFR among secular Israeli Jews has hovered at replacement level or slightly below it during the same time period. 

                Okun holds that one of the most obvious reasons for this disparity in fertility rates is that significantly higher percentages of religious Israeli Jewish women and Ultra-Orthodox women, in particular, marry than do secular women.  A further consideration is that these religious women also give birth to their first children at younger ages than do their secular counterparts.  This, of course, leaves them more time, on average, to have more. 

                Religious groups can grow two ways, either by means of vertical or horizontal transmission.  Vertical transmission is the handing down of religious beliefs and practices from one generation to the next.  By contrast, horizontal transmission focuses on conversion.  It involves proselytizing non-kin, regardless of which generation they are a part of.   Judaism relies on vertical transmission, exhibiting virtually no interest in horizontal transmission.  Other religions with Big Gods such as Christianity, Islam, and the Latter Day Saints began as proselytizing religions, emphasizing horizontal transmission, but have all eventually come to rely on vertical transmission primarily.  It seems a reasonable conjecture that the comparative success of Big Gods’ followers at vertical transmission across the generations will tend to relieve any sense of urgency that they may have about horizontal transmission among the unenlightened.    

                Big Gods need big groups.  They like lots of followers.  The tightly knit religious groups such Big Gods inspire, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or others, encourage women to marry early and reproduce often.  Frequently, that is all they need to succeed.

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