Fourth Child Furor

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Genesis 1:28

The news of David and Victoria Beckham’s fourth child was met with anger from campaigners who felt that the Beckham’s family size is now environmentally irresponsible.

At least that is what the Guardian recently reported in their article “Beckhams a ‘bad example’ for families.” The article quotes the UK-based Optimum Population Trust, whose chief executive, Simon Ross, linked family size to carbon emissions:

“The Beckhams, and others like London mayor Boris Johnson, are very bad role models with their large families. There’s no point in people trying to reduce their carbon emissions and then increasing them 100% by having another child.”

Mr. Ross’s comments were echoed by Sir David Attenborough, who called for an end to the “absurd taboo” in discussing family size in the UK.

In reality, no such taboo exists. As I showed last year in my Salvo feature, “Baby Freeze: Is Population Control the New Solution to Global Warming?“, environmentalists in both the UK and America have a long history of paranoia about population and have been using climate change as a reason to scare people into having less babies.

Also in “Baby Freeze” I drew attention to the fact that seventy-three members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to the White House urging President Obama to add one billion dollars in funding for international family planning to his 2011 budget. While advocates of family planning are hardly a new phenomenon, what was significant about this letter is that it cited “climate change” as a reason to advocate lower birth rates. “Family planning,” the Representatives said, “should be part of larger strategies for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Slower population growth will make reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions easier to achieve.”

The ruthless utilitarian logic is actually very simple: less people = less polluters.

But short of implementing totalitarian policies like China, what can anyone actually do about the supposed problem of population growth? Dr. Barry Walters, a professor of obstetrics at the University of Western Australia, came up with an idea a few years ago. He suggested that those who refuse to use contraception should be levied with a climate-change tax. In a 2007 article in the Medical Journal of Australia, Dr. Walters proposed that such a tax be assessed on all couples having more than two children. He suggested an initial fine of $5,000 for each “extra” child when born, with another $800 assessed every year thereafter. However, parents could redeem themselves by using contraceptives or undergoing sterilization procedures, for which they would receive carbon credits.

Simon Ross, chief executive of the UK-based Optimum Population Trust, floated a similar idea in the furor over the Beckham’s fourth child. He suggested that the UK government might want to consider only giving tax benefits for the first two children in a family. “That would send a clear signal that the government will support sustainable families,” Ross said, “but after that you are on your own.”

Population control is hardly a new idea. In his book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, Jonah Goldberg showed that in the early twentieth century it was politically correct for liberal thinkers to advocate both population control and eugenics selection. (Eugenics is the practice of using selective breeding, often based on race, to improve the human gene pool.) Such thinkers followed men like Sir Francis Galton (1822 –1911) who had combined the biological theories of Charles Darwin (1809 –1882) with the social theories of Thomas Malthus (1766 –1834). The basic premise behind this movement was that the more educated among us had a responsibility to give evolution a helping hand by either improving the gene pool, reducing the “surplus population”, or both.

After Hitler tried to put some of these ideas in practice, population control stopped being a fashionable topic. However, it didn’t take long for the scepter of Fascism to wear off and by the close of the 20th century population control had again returned to the limelight. But this time, instead of being linked to theories like eugenics and social Darwinism, it was propelled by the emerging ideology of environmentalism.

The result has been that groups concerned ostensibly with protecting the earth (such as the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation) have now jumped on the population control bandwagon. For many such groups, global warming is a reason for increasing the availability of contraception, abortion, family planning services and sex education. For example, when the National Wildlife Federation put out a Population and Global Warming Fact Sheet, they suggested that “family planning and related health care and education” could help to “reduce the danger of climate change and other environmental stressors.”

Should this heightened interest in population control concern us? I think so. As I pointed out in my “Baby Freeze” article, if history shows us anything, it is that when a civilization begins to feel guilty for existing, the results are usually unpleasant. Moreover, it is by no means certain that the problem of pollution can be tied so directly to human growth, as E. Calvin Beisner argued in his book Prospects for Growth: A Biblical View of Population, Resources, and the Future.

The larger issue at stake is that the mind of the radical environmentalist will stop at nothing when following through the implications of his most cherished presuppositions. This even includes an attempt to impose guilt on those who, like the Beckham’s, decide to have more children than the Western average.

If this teaches us anything it is that ideas have consequences. As Christians it is important that we do not be naïve to the consequences that follow from the agenda of radical environmentalism.


Maintaining Conjugal Love (Part 1)

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

The following passage is taken from Richard Baxter’s “sub-directions for maintaining conjugal love”:

  1. Choose one at first that is truly amiable, especially in the virtues of the mind.
  2. Marry not till you are sure that you can love entirely. Be not drawn for sordid ends, to join with one that you have but ordinary affections for.
  3. Be not too hasty, but know beforehand, all the imperfections, which may tempt you after wards to loathing. But if these duties have been sinfully neglected, yet
  4. Remember that justice commandeth you to love one that hath, as it were, forsaken all the world for you, and is contented to be the companion of your labours and sufferings, and be an equal sharer in all conditions with you, and that must be your companion until death. It is worse than barbarous inhumanity to entice such a one into a bond of love, and society with you, and then to say, you cannot love her. This was by perfidiousness to draw her into a snare to her undoing. What comfort can she have in her converse with you, and care, and labour, and necessary sufferings, if you deny her conjugal love ? Especially, if she deny not love to you, the inhumanity is the greater.
  5. Remember that women are ordinarily affectionate, passionate creatures, and as they love much themselves, so they expect much love from you. And when you joined yourself to such a nature, you obliged yourself to answerable duty: and if love cause not love, it is ungrateful and unjust contempt.
  6. Remember that you are under God’s command ; and to deny conjugal love to your wives, is to deny a duty which God hath urgently imposed on you. Obedience therefore should command your love.
  7. Remember that you are relatively, as it were, one flesh; you have drawn her to forsake father and mother, to cleave to you; you are conjoined for procreation of such children as must bear the image and nature of you both; your possessions and interests are in a manner the same. And therefore such nearness should command affection; they that are as yourselves, should be most easily loved as yourselves.
  8. Take more notice of the good, that is in your wives, than of the evil. Let not the observation of their faults make you forget or overlook their virtues. Love is kindled by the sight of love or goodness.
  9. Make not infirmities to seem odious faults, but excuse them as far as lawfully you may, by considering the frailty of the sex, and of their tempers, and considering also your own infirmities, and how much your wives must bear with you.
  10. Stir up that most in them into exercise which is best, and stir not up that which is evil; and then the good will most appear, and the evil will be as buried, and you will more easily maintain your love. There is some uncleanness in the best on earth ; and if you will be daily stirring in the filth, no wonder if you have the annoyance ; and for that you may thank yourselves : draw out the fragrancy of that which is good and delectable in them, and do not by your own imprudence or peevishness stir up the worst, and then you shall find that even your faulty wives will appear more amiable to you.
  11. Overcome them with love; and then whatever they are in themselves, they will be loving to you, and consequently lovely. Love will cause love, as fire kindleth fire. A good husband is the best means to make a good and loving wife. Make them not froward by your froward carriage, and then say, we cannot love them.
  12. Give them examples of amiableness in yourselves; set them the pattern of a prudent, lowly, loving, meek, self-denying, patient, harmless, holy, heavenly life. Try this a while, and see whether it will not shame them from their faults, and make them walk more amiably themselves.

Weekly Reflections on Baxter’s Passage

Monday: Read 1 Peter 3:7

Peter says that husbands are to dwell with their wives in understanding. How do Baxter’s words above help us to understand what this looks like in practice?

Tuesday: Read Proverbs 10:12 & 17:9 & 19:11

These proverbs all tells us to seek love by covering over offences and overlooking transgressions. What does Baxter say which relates to this injunction? How many of the marriage problems do you suppose would not even exist if husbands and wives could learn to cover over offences and “excuse them as far as lawfully you may”?

Wednesday: Read Romans 12:21

Although it is important to overlook the faults of one’s spouse, there are some faults that need to be dealt with and corrected. What advice does Baxter give in #12  about this, and how does it relate to this passage?

Thursday: Read Proverbs 5:19

Here the Lord commands husbands to be attracted to their wives, even as Baxter does in #6 above. This may strike as odd those who are accustomed to thinking of attraction as being fixed, as something that one either possesses or does not possesses towards another person. However, Baxter’s sub-directions for maintaining conjugal love (particularly #8 and #10) show that this assumption is false. Following the teaching of scripture, Baxter shows that there are specific things that husbands can both do and refrain from doing which will increase marital affection. If his advice is followed, can it help to increase the type of sexual attraction commanded in this verse?

Friday: Read 1 Corinthians 13

Often those who are part of a difficult marriage believe that things can only improve if the other person first changes. Do Paul’s words in this chapter undermine such a notion?

Saturday: Read Galatians 5:16-26

If you are married, these words of Paul are your marching orders. Every day, whilst interacting with your spouse, you will have numerous opportunities to put into practice the fruit of the spirit and to resist the works of the flesh. If you are single, there is no better preparation for marriage than learning to walk in the fruit of the spirit when interacting with those you come in contact with, particularly difficult people.

Sunday: Read Ephesians 5:22-33

Throughout this passage Paul continually returns to the relationship between Christ and the church as the paradigm for the relationship between husband and wife. What obligations does this paradigm create for husbands, according to Paul? What obligations does this paradigm create for wives, according to Paul? How does this relate to Baxter’s seventh point?

Lesson for This Week

During his time as a pastor in the town of Kidderminster, the English Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691) ministered to hundreds of townspeople, taking an interest in the particularities of their lives and offering practical help for the problems they were facing. His advice to husbands and wives no doubt grew out of these counselling sessions. But it also grew out of his own experience of marriage to Margaret, a high strung woman 26-years his junior. In his article ‘Richard & Margaret: difficult man + difficult woman = model marriage’, J. William Black shared how both Richard and Margaret had their share of problems, yet their marriage blossomed through their love for each other. Yet as both Baxter and the Bible remind us, the love between a husband and wife doesn’t just ‘happen.’ It has to be diligently pursued, protected and maintained.



Neuroscience and the Power of Speech

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.” Proverbs 21:23

Scripture often refers to the tongue or lips as the gateway to the heart. Proverbs 21:23 tells us that “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles.” Similarly, Jesus said that it was out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45) while James compares the tongue to a rudder on a ship, capable of defiling the whole body (James 3:3-6).

These verses seem to suggest that speech has an important function in defining who we are. The words that come out of our mouth are formative in determining the spiritual health of our very heart and soul.

Recent discoveries in neuroscience and cognitive psychology support the Bible’s teaching on this subject. Scientists are only just beginning to appreciate the incredible power that speech has in forming both our self-identity and our perception of the world. These discoveries underscore the premium the Biblical writers place on responsible speaking.

What scientists are finding is that speech does not merely proceed from our thoughts like a one-way street. There is also traffic flowing in the other direction: how we speak effects how we think about the world on a level that our conscious minds may never even be aware.

In a fascinating Wall Street Journal article last year, Lera Boroditsky wrote that “the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express”. Boroditsky gave some examples to illustrate this point. One of the examples showed how the different ways of conjugating verbs effected how people perceived situations:

For example, English likes to describe events in terms of agents doing things. English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.” Such differences between languages have profound consequences for how their speakers understand events, construct notions of causality and agency, what they remember as eyewitnesses and how much they blame and punish others.

In studies conducted by Caitlin Fausey at Stanford, speakers of English, Spanish and Japanese watched videos of two people popping balloons, breaking eggs and spilling drinks either intentionally or accidentally. Later everyone got a surprise memory test: For each event, can you remember who did it? She discovered a striking cross-linguistic difference in eyewitness memory. Spanish and Japanese speakers did not remember the agents of accidental events as well as did English speakers. Mind you, they remembered the agents of intentional events (for which their language would mention the agent) just fine. But for accidental events, when one wouldn’t normally mention the agent in Spanish or Japanese, they didn’t encode or remember the agent as well.

The point of this (and many similar experiments) is that, to quote again from Boroditsky: “if you change how people talk, that changes how they think…”

The history of communication technology points to this same conclusion. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr gave a fascinating bird’s eye view of the entire history of human communication technologies beginning with clay tablets and finishing with the internet. Carr shows that each of the different tools for communicating alters not only what we say and how we say it, but how we think about the world on an precognitive level. Carr draws on recent discoveries about the brain’s malleability to show that our view of the world is conditioned largely by the tools we use to communicate, and this includes language itself.

Other authors have also testified to this same point. For example, in his book The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge shows that the way we speak effects the actual neurocircuitry in our brains. Or again, in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell explores how the way we speak from infancy has an effect on how we view the world and even how well we can compute numbers (click here to read an extract of Gladwell’s fascinating discussion). Or, to quote James Davison Hunter from his book To Change the World, “Language, the most basic system of symbols, provides the primary medium through which people apprehend their conscious experience in the world.”

While this is all the rage in neuroscience at the moment, Christians shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the Bible has always emphasized the formative power of speech.

If it is true that little things like verb conjugations and communication tools can exercise a subliminal effect on how we perceive the world and other people, this is even more the case when dealing with language loaded with moral and spiritual implications?. Think of the different views of humanity subtly implicated by describing a baby as a ‘fetus’ vs. calling it ‘a human being created in the image of God.’ Or even consider the implication of calling a baby an ‘it’, as I just did in the last sentence. While these alternative ways of talking about a baby may be equally true on a purely factual level, they convey an entirely different sense. Or again, in an article I wrote for my blog last April titled ‘A Festival Not a Machine’, I compared the differences between the medieval way of talking about the universe and the modern way. (Medieval man tended to speak about the cosmos as a great dance, a festival teeming with anthropocentric life. By contrast, after the scientific revolution, the universe began to be described as a cold impersonal machine.)

My point is simply this: language doesn’t just describe what we think about the world, it is also a lens by which understand and interpret the world around us and the events which occur.

Again, this should come as no surprise to Christians. The Genesis creation account seems to specifically link naming with dominion-taking. We also see throughout the Biblical narrative that when God wants to set a person, city or place aside for a special task, He will often call that person or place by a new name. How we speak about something changes how we view it.

This behooves us to think carefully about how we speak. In Psalm 39 we read about how David wrestled with guarding his tongue. When in great distress, he muzzled his mouth so that he would not sin, and only after ‘musing’ (careful reflection) did he dare open his mouth and speak what was in his heart. That remains a great example to us. We all know from personal experience that our words have the power not only to build others up but to tear them down; they can comfort, heal and soothe, but they can also discourage, damage and hurt.

Do you glorify God in how you speak? Have you taken seriously the way language alters the way we view ourselves and the world?

For more insight into this topic, buy Language Acquisition and Conceptual Development, edited by Melissa Bowerman and Stephen Levinson. Also read my articles ‘A Festival Not a Machine’ and ‘Reading Scripture in the Age of Google.