At the end of May this year, Bloggingheads.tv hosted an hour-long discussion between Amanda Marcotte, an atheistic feminist, and Michael Brendan Dougherty, a traditionalist Catholic, which covered a range of topics including a report on the Catholic sex abuse scandal and the sexual behavior of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger, which were occupying a great deal of the news coverage at the time. However, the parts that I found most interesting were their discussions about fundamental questions of social organization and this came out most in their discussion of marriage toward the end of the diavlog.

In the first few minutes of their dialog, Amanda Marcotte summarizes some prescriptions she made for the Catholic Church in an article she wrote for The Revealer a few days before talking to Dougherty:

…the Catholic Church has failed in a way that a lot of Protestant denomiations have not in order to retain its reputation and keep existing believers from going out the door, especially in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, and the way I put was, they have no feminism, no love of feminism. The way I see it is, I’m a feminist atheist; I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “feminist religion” really, but that’s personal for me. I do think that feminist critiques have been incorporated into many religious faiths and it’s been to their benefit.

I said that I feel like if the Catholic Church just gave a little on any single issue that perplexes their believers right now they would get so much credit and everyone would act so releaved and grateful. I suggested that they could let women be priests, they could revoke the celibacy requirement for priests. The biggest thing they could do, in my opinion, is get rid of the injuction against contraception. Any one of those, I think, would go a long way to getting back a lot of people that have left the faith because they just feel it doesn’t speak to them any more.

While as an outside observer, I am none too fond of the celibacy requirement or the Church’s injuction against contraception and I don’t particularly care whether the clergy is all of one sex or the other or a mix, I think that all three of Marcotte’s suggestions on that front would be a poor strategic choices if enacted by the Church. To illustrate why, I want to look at their discussion of the culture surrounding marriage:

If you have time to watch the 25 minute clip, it is an interesting exchange, but for the sake of this post, let me distill the messages of the two interlocutors. First, Amanda Marcotte takes a very laissez-faire attitude toward how couples form and maintain their relationships, seeing marriage as an option that people take when it makes sense for them. Michael Brendan Dougherty, on the other hand, accepts the freedom of communities to set their norms in this regard, but would prefer to see a much more robust standard of expectations for couples and wishes to see this grounded in tradition. To reduce these positions into quotes, here is something that Marcotte says 14:27 into the clip above (56:00 into the original video):

When you give people choices, they are surprisingly good at making the correct ones. They might not follow tradition, but to my mind that says that maybe traditions were wrong.

A minute and a half later, Dougherty says this before being cut off by Marcotte:

It’s funny you say that you can’t have all that information, but that’s precisely what’s hidden in in traditional wedding vows. For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…

These attitudes match up very well with the overall strategies of perpetuation employed by the ideologies espoused by these two interlocutors: feminism and Roman Catholicism respectively.

Horizonal versus Vertical Transmission

Feminism and Roman Catholicism have very different modes of transmission. With a few notable exceptions, most Catholics are born into the faith. That is, they are raised by their parents to accept the teachings and customs of the Roman Catholic Church in what I’ll call “vertical transmission”. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Northern Ireland.

Feminism, on the other hand, cannot sustain itself on vertical transmission, as its main demographic, educated women, have below replacement fertility; Amanda Marcotte herself is currently childless in her mid-thirties. In many ways, it resembles slow-motion Shakerism in that it must actively convert those from a non-feminist background to sustain its numbers.  In contrast to transmission via the indoctrination of children, I’ll call the conversion of non-relatives that sustains feminism “horizontal transmission”.

Given that feminism has a predominantly horizontal transmission strategy whereas Catholicism’s strategy is mainly vertical, the respective positions than Marcotte and Dougherty take, whether knowingly or not, play to the advantages of each’s particular ideology.  If a society’s customs are pluralistic as would be envisioned in Marcotte’s laissez faire attitude toward long term relationships and marriage, it is easier for a conversion-sustained ideology like feminisim to maintain a foothold, as it is easier to lead people away from the faiths and customs of their parents.

On the other hand, the Catholic traditions that Dougherty venerates are actually quite well-adapted to maintaining the high fertility rate necessary to keep the pews filled, even if a sizable number of Catholics lapse in their faith or are converted to another religion or ideology.  As per data from the General Social Survey, here are the distributions of children for non-Hispanic white Catholics over the age of 50, with the averages calculated for those identifying as traditional, moderate, or liberal:

I treated the 8+ category as 8 children, so the average number of children for Traditional Catholics is in all likelihood higher than shown in the chart.

This suggests that if Catholics were to follow traditions closely, as Dougherty hopes they would, they would likely have higher fertility rates, better replenishing the ranks of Catholics.  Ultimately this leads back to why Marcotte’s suggestions to the Catholic Church are poor ones.  If the Catholic Church wants to maintain its numbers going forward, it would do best not to alienate its traditionalists, which it undoubtedly would do if it rescinded its foundational tradition of a celibate all-male clergy or its injunction against contraception, the nullification of which would also likely have an anti-natalist effect.

While Marcotte’s suggestions will likely fall on deaf ears, and for good reason, it’s easy to see how such suggestions would fit into a feminist mindset, beyond the obvious point that they are all suggestions that feminists would favor.  As an ideology that depends upon horizontal transmission, feminism must always present a face that is compatible with the spirit of the times, so as to maximize converts.  As such, a constant process of reforming message and doctrines that would lead to instability in the vertically transmitted message of Roman Catholicism is a useful and perhaps necessary tact for feminism to take so as to maintain a foothold in the population at large.

The Effect of Ideological Competition on the Population

It is not hard to imagine an equilibrium of co-existence between a vertically transmitted ideology like Catholicism and a horizontal one like feminism.  In fact, one could posit a hypothetical country populated only by atheistic feminists and traditionalist Catholics where the relative numbers of each group stayed the same.  However, with the atheistic feminists having a lower-than-replacement fertility ratio, in order to maintain their numbers, they would have to convert a fair number of children of the higher fertility traditionalist Catholics.  The end result is that with each passing generation, the gene pool of those who identified as atheistic feminists would look more and more like the gene pool of traditionalist Catholics from generations past.

While this scenario is certainly an oversimplification, it is illustrative of the fact that ideologies can act against the interests of their participants if they have access to more feedstock.  Ultimately, though, an ideology maintained mostly by horizontal transmission will be buried by the sands of time if it does not change its modus operandi.  There are three Shakers left living at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.  I suspect that modern feminism will see a terminal decline in the long run and on the day that the last adherent of that ideology dies, Catholic children will still be filling up playgrounds across the world.

When you give people choices, they are surprisingly good at making the correct ones.  The best practices, though, become the traditions of future generations.