High Christian Birthrates and the Growth of Early Christianity
I’m in the middle of a book entitled: The Rise ofChristianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the DominantReligious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries by Rodney Stark. The book does not attempt toattribute the rapid growth of Christianity to anything supernatural, but lookspurely to natural explanations for why Christianity flourished.Interestingly, one reason the book gives for this is that Christians had muchhigher fertility rates than their pagan contemporaries.
Within the first five centuries A.D., abortion, infanticide,and the use of birth control were widely practiced in the pagan world.Greco-Roman literature reveals that abortions were common even though they wereextremely dangerous. Women sought abortions to hide sexual activity, to avoidhaving children that could not be afforded, especially if a woman was poor, orif rich, to avoid sharing the estate with many heirs. Men, as heads ofhouseholds, could also legally order a woman to have an abortion. There weremany methods available to women for obtaining abortions, but most were damagingto reproductive organs and/or deadly. Thus, the practice of abortion not onlyreduced the number of births, but also either killed women before they had anychildren or led to infertility. Added to this, pagans in the Greco-Roman worldpracticed infanticide. The practice was advocated by law and by philosophers(e.g., Plato and Aristotle). If a child were born a female or with deformities,Roman legal code allowed these to be exposed as infants. Commonly, infanticideinvolved leaving newborns outdoors or throwing them into sewers. With thepreference of male children over female, this largely reduced the capacity forpopulation growth. As far as birth control, those in the pagan world took avariety of measures to avoid fertility. All these things contributed to theextremely low birthrates among pagans. There was for certain a shortage ofwomen, but more specifically a shortage of woman with the capacity to bearchildren.
Christians, to the contrary, had high birthrates. Forstarters, Christians highly valued women. The average woman was afforded a muchgreater level of respect and privilege within Christianity than outside.Second, Christians emphasized that one of the primary purposes of sex was tobear children. Thus, having children was a marital duty. Third, Christiansprohibited abortion and infanticide, considering both to be acts of murder.Being against abortion, Christian women were less likely to have damagedreproductive organs or die from the practice. Being against infanticide, morefemales, and thus more with a capacity to bear children, were born intoChristian households. Fourth, Christians were far less concerned aboutpreventing childbirth with birth control. All these things made for extremelyhigh birthrates among Christians.
In conclusion, while pagan birthrates were low, Christianbirthrates were high. This is one reason why Christianity grew so rapidly.Their attitudes toward sex, women, pregnancy, children, and abortioncontributed to their birthrates being much higher than society around them.