As Adam pointed out in his last post, what began as a theological discussion on the merits of procreation has now turned into a sociological debate on the shaping of civilization. Adam believes that humanity has long since fulfilled the Genesis mandate to “subdue the earth” and should, due to over-population concerns, scale back their procreative ways in order to responsibly manage the resources left to us.
This sort of civilizational planning reminds me very much of the main plot in the Foundation series by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In a series of books written in the 1940s and 1950s, Asimov portrays a series of enlightened (and elitist) social scientists, led by the super-brainy mathematician Hari Seldon, working to save civilization from barbarianism. The series inspired a host of future social scientists, such as the economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, to “save civilization” through their technocratic abilities.
I must admit, I myself was attracted to the idea of emulating the brainiac Hari Seldon, a guy who created a mathematical sociology called “psychohistory” that could predict the future and shape policy in response to events anticipated by his complicated algorithms. There’s nothing more satisfying to become the king of the universe, shaping (read: determining) other people’s paths according to your super-cool brain power.
The only problem with this impulse is that Hari Seldon was a fictional character–the stuff of fantasy, not reality. No one can predict the future, and no one can determine civilizational progress through harmless measures.
Herein lies the problem with plans or programs that aim to “manage” civilization: on paper, we may be able to put together a reasonable-sounding plan that addresses real problems. But in reality, our best-laid plans are often nothing more than an Asimovian fantasy. Unforeseen circumstances, unintential consequences, or outright incompetence sabotage our plans for the management of civilization.
This observation isn’t a conservative call for limited government, but simply to point out the essential problem latent in the civilizational management of over-population. For the simple fact is that no comprehensive civilizational program intended to manage population levels has ever managed to avoid invidious results. China’s one-child policy immediately resulted in infanticide and state-sponsored abortion; America slowly went from slightly benign birth control measures such as the condom and the pill to the evil of abortion on demand; and the eugenics movement, which attempted to purify the human race through selective breeding and the forced sterilization of “imbeciles,” led partly to the evil policies of Nazi Germany. Policies attempting to manage over-population only manage to result in de-population.
Even if these examples illustrate only the extreme logical conclusion of an otherwise moderate idea, there are other reasons for the church to avoid broad, comprehensive civilizational planning in the mold of Hari Seldon.
First, Seldon and his merry band of scientists were often forced to make Sophie’s Choice-like decisions that determined who would live and who die, often on a massive level. Does the Bible or the traditional teachings of the church really offer any resources for navigating this kind of decision making? I don’t think so, which leads me to believe the church shouldn’t support policies that attempt to manage things outside our abilities.
Second, even if the church could produce a policy that managed over-population without evil results, it would have to become a handmaiden of the state in order to see the plan’s proper implementation. As a freedom loving American, that scares the bejesus out of me.
Third, civilizational planning requires the non-elite to submit themselves to the power, authority, and decision making of the technocratic elite. The powerful would rule over the powerless. The church, which is an institution in which the strong are servants to the weak, could never thrive in a situation in which it partnered with an institution that required the subjection of the powerless. It would simply be a conflict of interest.
In sum, it’s just not possible, pious, or pleasant to be like Hari Seldon, which is the prerequisite of all population control programs.
Alternatively, the church should focus on what it’s good at: marrying theological principles to pastoral care. In the case of procreation, the church should focus on the myriad of ways to counsel a family on the proper management of their procreation that does not focus on trends beyond its capacity to understand or control, such as over-population. Adam has a point in that there may be certain circumstances that allow couples to avoid child-rearing; but those circumstances should be determined by the couple in consultation with the church.