Otago-led study to look at religion, family size and child health

child health

The John Templeton Foundation has recently allocated almost $4 million to conduct an Otago University-led study – The Evolutionary Dynamics of Religion, Family Size, and Child Success.

The research will be led by Dr John Shaver, University of Otago’s Religion programme head, with Otago Research Fellow Dr Joseph Watts, who will conduct fieldwork in The Gambia.

The study will 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.

The Templeton Foundation notes that despite scholarly projections of the demise of religion, religious groups in many parts of the world are growing.

A great deal of this growth can be attributed to the higher fertility of religious people compared to their secular counterparts.

An unexplained paradox

Studies of diverse human populations demonstrate that parents in modern societies sacrifice the number of children they have for quality of children.

Even though children born to large families are expected to suffer physiological, psychological and social obstacles to flourishing, children born into religious communities appear buffered from the detrimental effects of high fertility.

Currently, this paradox of religious fertility is unexplained.

Shaver said preliminary work in New Zealand suggests 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.”

Over the next 30 months, a team of seven anthropologists and demographers will conduct cross-cultural studies of 6,050 Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim participants in Bangladesh, India, Malawi, The Gambia and the United States.

In addition to Otago University, the project involves researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Connecticut.

The John Templeton Foundation supports independent research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and emergence to creativity, forgiveness and free will.


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