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Childcare could be the secret to the longevity of religion in New Zealand, a University of Otago-led study says.
Lead author and senior lecturer in religion at Otago Dr John Shaver said religious people were able to have larger families because of the help they received looking after their children. Although the number of religious people was decreasing, religion was "not disappearing as quickly as many have predicted".
"While religion has been declining in New Zealand for decades, our findings point to a countervailing trend, one that is driven by the co-operative breeding dynamics of religious communities," Dr Shaver said.
"Co-operative help to mothers is one of the reasons for our success as a species. In modern environments, mothers receive far less help than in our recent past.
"Less help drives down fertility levels in modern environments. However, religious mothers have more help, and more children, than secular mothers."
The study has been published in journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, and involved analysing data from 12,980 people enrolled in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS).
The NZAVS, led by Prof Chris Sibley, of the University of Auckland, enabled the researchers to access data from a large national sample, whose population is roughly half religious and half secular.
"We found that religious people have more children, and that non-reproductive [those who don’t currently have their own children] religious people tend to look after children who are not their own more frequently than non-reproductive secular people," Prof Sibley said.
Co-author Prof Joseph Bulbulia, of Auckland, said the group’s findings are consistent with evidence that religious people generally had greater within-group co-operation, compared to secular groups. It was also the first study to find co-operation extended to child care.
"Though we think co-operative parenting explains only part of the puzzle of religious fertility, our result is an important first step for explaining a phenomenon that is vital for predicting the societies of the future," he said.