Stockholm university

New research challenges views on religion and childbearing

What roles do religion and region of origin play in childbearing? In contrast to earlier research, a new doctoral thesis on the subject of sociological demography demonstrates that region of origin has a greater bearing than religion on ideal number of children, fertility intentions and achieved number of children.

Woman with child
Photo: Mostphotos

In one of the dissertation’s studies, the researcher uses data from surveys to examine relationships between religion and region of origin and three different aspects of childbearing: opinions on the ideal number of children in a family, fertility intentions over the coming three years, and the actual number of children at age 40.

“There is a stereotype of Muslims as a highly fertile group. But when one compares Christian and Muslim immigrants originating from the same region, they tend to have not only similar perceptions concerning the ideal number of children in a family but also similar intentions and total number of children,” says Erik Carlsson, who recently graduated from the Department of Sociology at Stockholm University with a PhD in sociological demography. 

Erik Carlsson.
Erik Carlsson. Photo: Leila Zoubir/Stockholm University

The results are in contrast to previous studies of the link between religion and childbearing among immigrants. Erik Carlsson believes that the likely cause of this disparity is the method used in earlier studies, which compares immigrants from countries with a majority Muslim population with those from countries with a Christian majority, an approach he feels may well be deceptive. 

“This might give the misleading impression that religion is the significant factor when in reality region of origin is the most significant.” 

In his own study, Erik Carlsson compares Christian, Muslim and non-religious immigrants from the same region of origin, such as the Middle East and North Africa, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. This offers greater clarity concerning which factor most influences childbearing: religion or region of origin. 

His conclusion is that both region of origin and religion are significant to understanding childbearing among immigrants. 

“But the correlation between religion and childbearing is primarily a matter of disparities between, on the one hand, non-religious immigrants and, on the other, Christian and Muslim immigrants, rather than between Christians and Muslims. Both Christians and Muslims had a higher ideal number of children, greater intention and actual births than non-religious individuals,” says Erik Carlsson.

According to Erik Carlsson, the disparities in ideal number of children and actual births between non-religious and religious individuals are less than many people believe; most groups thought the ideal was under three children and in most cases the average actual number of births was between 1.5 and 2.5. 

That said, the thesis does show a distinct correlation between religion and ideal number of children and actual births within the non-immigrant group. Those who are not religious have the lowest ideal and actual number of children, while these figures are somewhat higher among members of the Church of Sweden. Members of free churches have the highest ideal and actual number of children among non-immigrants.

“There is a link between a higher level of religiosity and having more children, but given that the degree of religiosity within the Church of Sweden is so low, to some extent it was surprising to find a higher number of children there than among the non-religious. The difference is relatively small but, still, there is a distinct variation in both ideal number of children and actual births,” says Erik Carlsson. 

He believes there are many important reasons for studying childbearing in different demographic groups, including immigrants. 

“First and foremost, to understand childbearing in the population in general we need to understand variations between different demographic groups, so we can discern trends over time and how these will develop in the future.”

Still, as he sees it, perhaps the most important reason for studying the topic is that it is such an emotive and widely debated issue among certain groups in society. In France, for example, a main plank of the far right’s campaign in the recent presidential election was the idea of the “great replacement”, that Muslims and other non-White minorities with higher birthrates were said to eventually replace the native population. 

“This makes it important to prepare facts: what is the situation in reality? We need to provide a more nuanced and reasonable perspective on these things, otherwise, simplifications and stereotypes can easily take hold,” says Erik Carlsson. 

How the study was conducted

The study, which is part of the doctoral thesis Fertility Behavior and Preferences Among Immigrants and Children of Immigrants in Sweden, is based on two rounds of the Generations and Gender Survey conducted in 2012/13 and 2021. The questions concerned opinions about the ideal total number of children, short-term fertility intentions (whether the respondent is planning to have children during the next three years) and the actual number of children by the age of 40. The study compares Christians, Muslims and non-religious individuals from the same region of origin (e.g., the Middle East and North Africa, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa), as well as different religious groups without a migrant background. 

Here you find the thesis Fertility Behavior and Preferences Among Immigrants and Children of Immigrants in Sweden  by Erik Carlsson, PhD in Sociological Demography