Is natalism a religion?

Is natalism a religion? This question may seem cheeky, but there is something to be said for the connection.

First, let me set aside the traditional definition of religion, which is connected to the existence and worship of a god. Although natalism is strongly associated with religious fundamentalism, one does not have to be a religious fundamentalist to be a natalist.

This definition is usually seen as overly narrow. A more interesting distinction is that between the sacred and the profane, accompanied by a moral code, feelings of awe, rituals, and a social group bound together by belief in the sacred.

But natalists have nothing sacred, you might say. Of course they do! They say it themselves: childbirth is a miracle, childbirth is sacred, childbirth is the greatest thing that can happen in your life. If that doesn’t qualify, then what does?

Procreation comes with its own rituals (marriage, baby showers, “gender reveals,” hospital-run hypermedicated births, family rituals), its own sense of awe (towards the child), and social groups based around parenthood.

There is not one single moral code revolving around parenting, although many have been proposed and continue to be proposed: they’re called pedagogy (and, as Alice Miller would say, all pedagogy is poisonous). If we look at Christianity, we can observe many different moral codes ostensibly derived from the Bible; why should natalism be any different? Whether we’re talking about Dr. Spock’s “leave babies to cry” nonsense, helicopter parenting, or quiverfull doctrines, they are all ultimately taken on faith (for the sake of the discussion, I will simply define “faith” as passive or unthinking acceptance).

But beyond faith in pedagogy, natalists share one major faith: their faith in the benevolence of life. They believe without question that nothing wrong with happen to their child, and that nothing wrong will happen to them (obviously anything that incapacitates or kills one of the two parents would be greatly harmful to the child’s well-being as well).

And this is not an assessment of risk. Have you ever heard a prospective parent rationally assess the risk of their child being born with a birth defect, of contracting leukemia or whopping cough (with all the fucking anti-vaxxers around), of dying in a car accident, of bring raped, and so on and so forth? I would be genuinely curious to hear if this sort of thing has ever happened. My guess is, it’s extremely rare.

I have already discussed the conflict between the “benevolent universe” premise and the “malevolent universe premise,” pitting Objectivists to antinatalists. While I don’t think all natalists must adhere to this sort of fanatical optimism like Objectivists do, and may be pessimists about all sorts of things, I don’t see how they can be anything but fanatical optimists about their future children. Who would reproduce if they really confronted the risks to those they are supposed to protect?

This is one difference between natalists and the religious: while natalists believe in the benevolence of life, religious people believe in the benevolence of the afterlife. I’ve already pointed out that anyone who believes in Hell and decides to have children must logically either have faith that their children will not go to Hell (by losing their faith at some point in their lives) or be depraved beyond reckoning.

But that difference aside, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to call natalism a religious movement, or at least religious-like.

But now consider a specific kind of natalism, secular natalism which justifies itself through the theory of evolution. According to this view, evolution entails that we have a moral duty to procreate, and by doing so we inscribe ourselves within an endless (or at least, four billion years old) lineage of “successful” lifeforms. We are so “lucky,” they say, to be alive, one chance out of a billion.

At this point I would say we have a full-blown religion. Granted, this sort of belief has not yet been codified and organized, but if it was, such an organization would definitely be called a religion. It tells people their place in the universe, it has a singular moral code, it has an originator of the moral code (the theory of evolution, as they mangle it).

I’m sure some smartass will reply that ho hum, antinatalism is a religion too! Why, you all have faith that life is terrible and you all worship death (or something).

But this is a misunderstanding of the comparison. Natalism is the default, like religion was (and in most places in the world, still is). It takes a lot of mental effort to get out of the religion trap and the natalist trap. This effort is an effort to deconstruct dogma and confront how badly it measures up to reality. The end product in both cases is the freedom to think, and if some people become antinatalists because of it, how is that religious in nature?

Certainly some antinatalists may operate on faith, like some atheists also operate on faith, but that’s not the defining characteristic of the position. In both cases, the defining characteristic is the exact opposite: the desire to confront reality (such as confronting life’s pleasures and pains, unlike natalists, who only think about the pleasures). And the reasoning proposed by natalists, I think, is ample demonstration that they, like the religious, are guided by one principle: the refusal to confront reality.

One thought on “Is natalism a religion?

  1. pandaduh April 26, 2015 at 20:22 Reply

    They think they can live on in their children and future generations. It is a belief in immortality, much like heaven or anything promising a non-death or an escape from it. Great post!

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