New international research project to study religion’s impact on family size and child health


New Delhi: A major international, multidisciplinary project is set to shed light on how religion impacts family size and child health, following a multi-million-dollar grant. Project co-leader Dr John Shaver, University of Otago’s Religion programme head, recently received almost $4 million from the John Templeton Foundation for the study – The Evolutionary Dynamics of Religion, Family Size, and Child Success. Over the next 30 months, a team of seven anthropologists and demographers will conduct cross-cultural studies of 6050 Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim participants in Bangladesh, India, Malawi, the Gambia, and the United States.

“In post-industrial societies child number is inversely related to child success. In these same settings, religious people have more children. This would lead to the prediction that children born to religious parents would be less successful, yet such children often thrive. Currently, this paradox of religious fertility is unexplained.”

“Better understanding of these processes will lead to important insights into how religion impacts core biological processes, and how these effects are altered by recent, broad social changes,” he says. Dr Shaver and Otago Research Fellow Dr Joseph Watts will conduct fieldwork in the Gambia to examine the impact of globalisation on practical support available to mothers, and how this support impacts women’s fertility and their children’s health and development.

In addition to Otago, the project involves researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Connecticut. “Understanding the evolutionary dynamics surrounding religion’s influence on family size and child success is not just of interest to the scholarly community; it will have applications for governments, policy makers and non-government organisations, and be relevant for economic and public health initiatives, and demographic projections.”

“Our work with long-running demographic and health surveillance system sites in Africa and South Asia, moreover, may encourage researchers working at similar sites to expand their focus beyond traditional demographic and epidemiological concerns, and draw their attention to the importance of religion in these parts of the world.” In conducting innovative research of concern to academic, government and public audiences, Dr Shaver hopes the research will usher in a new scholarly field focused on the “evolutionary demography of religion”.

Among a host of research and international engagement outputs, which include hosting conferences and contributing journal articles, Shaver says the project will train young scholars to advance this new field and inform public debates on “the resilience of religion in the modern era”.

“Preliminary work in New Zealand suggests that co-operation in faith-based communities extends to childcare. What we don’t know yet is whether shared childcare among co-religionists may help to mitigate the costs of high fertility, positively affecting both fertility and child health. This project will examine these issues across the world.” Division of Humanities Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Tony Ballantyne says the project underscores the cutting-edge work that has been undertaken in the social sciences at Otago.

“I’m delighted Dr Shaver and his project-partners have gained such a significant grant with a truly global scope. This project, with its blending of quantitative and qualitative methods, marks a significant development in contemporary anthropological research and it lays the foundation for an evolutionary demography of religion. It is great seeing our outstanding researchers like Dr Shaver working at the frontiers of their disciplines.”