In the dog days of August, when few were paying much attention, came news that is pregnant with significance in more ways than one. Britain is living through a baby boom, the prime cause of a population rise of 419,900 for the year 2011-12, a level last seen in 1972. The increase in births means the UK’s population is now predicted to overtake France and Germany within a few decades. This demographic surge was unexpected: economic downturns are usually accompanied by falls in fertility, as we are now seeing in the United States. Southern and Eastern Europe still have declining populations, while Germany’s modest growth of 166,200 is due to immigration rather than fertility, which remains far below replacement rate. Indeed, only France and Ireland are above it.
Where does this demographic surge leave the prophecies of Europe’s crisis of civilisation? Catholics in particular have drawn attention to the fact that Europe’s progressive detachment from the God of the Bible has meant the neglect of the first biblical commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply.” In 2003, Pope John Paul II issued one of his last documents, Ecclesia in Europa, in which he warned Europeans that they were “somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony”, their “practical agnosticism and religious indifference” having found expression in a “fear of the future”, an “inner emptiness” and above all “the diminished number of births”. In 2005 the Polish pontiff’s American biographer, George Weigel, followed this remonstrance with his own jeremiad, The Cube and the Cathedral, which argued with that this “crisis of civilisational morale” was causing Western Europe to commit “what looks alarmingly like demographic suicide”. Weigel went further, warning that “Europe’s depopulation, and the consequent immigration from the Islamic world, have opened up the possibility that [Islamist control of Europe] will be achieved not by conquest but by the ballot box”.
So, does the British baby boom demonstrate that this diagnosis was wrong? Not necessarily. And yet this least zealous of nations is apparently voting for the future with the patter of tiny feet. Is the boom simply the indirect consequence of mass immigration, due to a higher birthrate among immigrants? The figures show that foreign-born women are still considerably more fertile than those born in Britain, with 2.2 compared to 1.9 children respectively, and that the former are relatively more numerous than a decade ago. A quarter of children are born to immigrant mothers today, up from a sixth a decade ago. Unless immigration falls substantially, which cannot happen as long as Britain does not control its borders, it is likely that this proportion will continue to rise. However, it is also true that 75 per cent of the 813,000 births in 2011-12 were to British-born mothers — more than 600,000 of them. These children alone would be enough to give Britain the highest birthrate in Europe.
We do not know yet how high a proportion of the British baby boom will be Muslim, but it is certain to be much higher than the 4.8 per cent in the 2011 census. Eastern European birthrates tend to be lower than in Britain, so it seems likely that the higher fertility of mothers born abroad is largely explained by the Muslim factor. True, the authoritative Pew Forum predicts that Muslims will only reach 8.2 per cent of the UK population by 2030: once here, their fertility declines. But this leaves out of account a third factor, hitherto less significant than immigration and fertility, namely conversion. Long before Muslims achieve majority status in a community, conversion may become advantageous to non-Muslims. While the main driver of conversion today is intermarriage, a proselytising Islam may strive to fill the faith vacuum. Yet the fact that people of all faiths and none suddenly seem to be having children suggests that there is nothing inevitable about an Islamic Europe. Indeed, the next generation of Europeans may be more robust in preserving their civilisation precisely because they will have rediscovered its Judaeo-Christian origins, and hence are less apologetic about its virtues than their elders.
Prophecy is always an inexact science. As Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, argues, following Maimonides, the test of a true prophet is good news, not bad. God often relents and forgives, so that calamities foretold do not in fact happen. If the worst does not occur, it may be that people have heeded the prophet’s words and repented. But God never revokes his promises and the true prophet who offers hope will be vindicated. Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“the Light of Faith”), is largely the work of his great predecessor, and we can hear Benedict XVI’s quietly admonitory voice when he speaks of “a massive amnesia in our contemporary world” which fears fanaticism so much that it rejects any connection between religion and truth. “The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory,” he writes, “for it deals with something prior to ourselves . . . It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path.”
That deep memory is perpetuated when each generation passes it on to posterity. In the phenomenon of birth, our civilisation renews itself. We say: where there is life, there is hope. But the converse is also true: only where there is hope will there also be life.