Are non-religious societies sustainable?

When talking about non-religious nations, we tend to think of European nations like Denmark.  But perhaps the most non-religious nation in the world is Japan.

A survey conducted by Asahi Shimbun in 1995 asked national voters in which religion they believe. The results were similar to ours with non-believers in the majority (63%), followed by Buddhists (26%), Shintoists (2%) and Christians (1%).

On the question whether they are religious or not, a majority of 55% of the Japanese participants answered not to be religious, and only 16% answered to be religious.

After looking at these survey results, it seems that the Japanese are very un-religious.

According to Wiki:

 According to a 2000 survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun, 76.6 percent of the Japanese polled said they do not believe in a specific religion.[27] A survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun in 2005 revealed that 72 percent of Japanese do no have a specific religious affiliation and only 25 percent said they believed in religion and 20 percent said they practice a faith.[29]

It would be interesting to study how Japan became to be so non-religious, but what is even more interesting is that if Japan is supposed to represent a Gnutopia, it surely seems to be a dystopia.

And this is because most observers of Japan believe the nation is in serious trouble – it is shrinking:

Today, Japan is an island of inertia in an Asia in constant flux. Japan’s political leadership is paralyzed, its corporate elite befuddled, its people agonized about the future. While Asia lurches forward, Japan inches backward’. And nobody seems able to do very much about it.

What drives these perceptions of Japanese stasis?

Japan now has a shrinking population and this is a major challenge in all aspects of economic, social and political life. It also affects Japan’s conception of its self in the world and its approach to international affairs.

Have a look.

Consider this analysis:

There is much talk in Japan about what to do about a growing demographic crisis that threatens to sap the life out of a nation once at the top of the world’s economic charts. But most everyone seems resigned almost fatalistically to letting the country—with its rapidly aging population and alarmingly low fertility rate—sink into international oblivion. Is there any way to avoid the phenomenon of the incredible shrinking Japan?

Japan decades ago was touted internationally as the single most dynamic country, its then young population working in harmony to boost economic growth into the stratosphere. How things have changed. China has overtaken Japan in gross domestic product ranking, pushing it into third place, and the country, suffering from a “lost decade” of economic recession in the 1990s and slow growth since then, now has a whopping national debt that is nearly twice its gross domestic product.

Japan today has the dubious distinction of having the oldest population in the world, with a life expectancy of 82.12 and more than 20 percent of its people older than age 65—a trend expected to continue. Social security expenses are rising by approximately $11.8 billion a year; at the same time, a decreasing number of young people are available to support the program as the population continues to shrink due to fewer and fewer children being born each year. Japan’s fertility rate, which was a sustainable 2.08 in 1995, has plummeted, reaching 1.21 in 2009, or close to bottom in world ranking. With the minimum rate to sustain population growth being 2.01, the United States still has a viable 2.05 rate, but it and other advanced economies are aging, too, albeit at a slower pace than Japan. Panicky demographers predict that if the declining fertility trend continues, Japan’s population, currently at 127 million, will drop to 95 million by 2050.

And then there was the recent NYT opinion piece:

“THE Children of Men,” P. D. James’s 1992 novel, is set in a future where the world’s male population has become infertile, and an aging Britain is adapting to the human race’s gradual extinction. Women push dolls in baby carriages. Families baptize kittens. There are state-run “national porn shops” to stimulate the flagging male libido. Suicide flourishes. Immigrants are welcomed as guest laborers but expelled once they become too old to work. The last children born on earth — the so-called “Omegas” — have grown up to be bored, arrogant, antisocial and destructive.


But one developed nation is making “Children of Men” look particularly prophetic. In Japan, birthrates are now so low and life expectancy so great that the nation will soon have a demographic profile that matches that of the American retirement community of Palm Springs. “Gradually but relentlessly,” the demographer Nick Eberstadt writes in the latest issue of The Wilson Quarterly, “Japan is evolving into a type of society whose contours and workings have only been contemplated in science fiction.”

Eberstadt has spent years writing about the challenges posed by declining fertility around the globe. But Japan, he notes, is a unique case. The Japanese birthrate hovers around just 1.3 children per woman, far below the level required to maintain a stable population. Thanks to increasing life expectancy, by 2040 “there could almost be one centenarian on hand to welcome each Japanese newborn.” Over the same period, the overall Japanese population is likely to decline by 20 percent, with grim consequences for an already-stagnant economy and an already-strained safety net.

These trends are forging a society that sometimes evokes the infertile Britain in James’s dystopia. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, and there were rashes of Internet-enabled group suicides in the last decade. Rental “relatives” are available for sparsely attended wedding parties; so-called “babyloids” — furry dolls that mimic infant sounds — are being developed for lonely seniors; and Japanese researchers are at the forefront of efforts to build robots that resemble human babies. The younger generation includes millions of so-called “parasite singles” who still live with (and off) their parents, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of the “hikikomori” — “young adults,” Eberstadt writes, “who shut themselves off almost entirely by retreating into a friendless life of video games, the Internet and manga (comics) in their parents’ home.”

All of this raises a question.  Is there a link between an abandonment of religion, a decline in birth rates, and a societies eventual decline?

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3 Responses to Are non-religious societies sustainable?

  1. peterc says:

    one wrinkle i would add to your inquiry is that japan’s neighbor, south korea, also has an extremely low fertility rate of 1.2 or so, at least as of 2010-11. however, south korea is a much more religious country, with 46% nonreligious, 22% buddhist, 29% christian (catholic and protestant). maybe there are other factors to the decline?

    by the way, i enjoy your blog very much. keep up the good work!

  2. I’m pretty skeptical about hand-wringing about population decline, which can be found in both liberal and conservative quarters.

    First, world population is still expanding, and arguably is or will soon be higher than can be supported for the long term. So a peaceful, voluntary decline in population, especially in high-consumption societies like Japan, might not be a horrible thing at all. More for the rest of us, basically.

    Second, even if a country’s population declines by half or 3/4, that shouldn’t be shocking or wildly concerning — after all, if you go back 100 or 200 years, that was the population size back then, and it wasn’t the end of the world.

    Third, birth rates are pretty obviously very changeable by culture. So any long-term extrapolation is folly, since cultures have changed their birth rates radically in the space of just a few decades.

    There are various problems with population decline, e.g. the high ratio of old-to-young people, but it’s a much smaller problem than the opposite situation of exponential growth, which simply cannot go on forever.

  3. Michael says:

    The problem with population decline is tied to the sustainability of the welfare state. As one of the articles from above notes:

    What could be carried in the way of economic and administrative inefficiencies, in a country whose population was young and still growing and in which the opportunities for catching up to the industrial world were palpable now are huge dead weight burdens in a mature industrial economy with a declining workforce and population.

    At 190 per cent of GDP, public debt could become a crisis tipping-point. While the debt is overwhelmingly domestically held and sovereign risk appears low, unless there is a clear, well-timed strategy to finance it over time, at some point the market will lose confidence in the country’s ability to manage its fiscal affairs and put a crippling premium on funding it.

    And in the news that may perhaps be somewhat related, the Nazis are starting to make a comeback in Greece:

    Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn warned rivals and reformers Sunday that “the time for fear has come” after exit polls showed them securing their entry in parliament for the first time in nearly 40 years.

    According to updated exit polls, the once-marginal party will end up winning over six percent of the vote and sending 19 deputies to the 300-seat parliament on a wave of immigration and crime fears, as well as anti-austerity anger.

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