Barrayar had previously suffered a drastic drop in its technology and so in its standard of living. The result was that they could only control reproduction by controlling the whole body, leading to a very restrictive set of sexual and gender mores familiar to us as “traditional social values”. In a poor society, women have an interest in making sure that they are not stuck with raising children on their own. Hence pressures to confine sex within marriage (or intention to marry) and for men to accept responsibility for the baby-results of their sexual activity.
One way for women to signal to men that sex involves sharing responsibility for child-rearing is to attend public gatherings where such sexual and gender mores are strongly endorsed. We call such places ‘churches’. (Or ‘synagogues’ or ‘mosques’.)
Then along comes the contraceptive pill. Suddenly, women have a high degree of unilateral control over their fertility. Technology has separated control over ovaries from control over the whole body.
Moreover, this is in societies of greatly increased prosperity: societies where upper body strength no longer had a general social premium (whether in providing protection, or in employment). Societies where the risks of dying in childbirth have massively decreased, so that the expected return on investing in educating women has increased. The combined result was that having a child became much less risky activity for one’s health and single parenthood became much less of a disaster for one’s income.
So the benefits to women of signalling one’s adherence to very controlled sexual and gender mores massively dropped. (The benefits to men of such signalling also dropped: indeed, largely disappeared.)
Worse than that, going to church involved listening to men preaching about how women should not control their own bodies in such a way.
In such a situation what would one predict?
A steep drop in Church attendance: particularly by younger women (and men).
As this review of a book on the pill notes, the contraceptive pill was a case of technology with unintended consequences.
But, viewed in this light, one feature of the pill becomes much more understandable:
In one of America and the Pill's most interesting chapters, May asks whether men would tolerate the sorts of side effects that women have regularly experienced. The prospect of a male pill has appeared on the horizon various times over the last 50 years, but the issue of side effects scuttled every effort. Scientists, May reports, "actually discovered an effective vaccine that completely stopped the production of sperm without interfering with sex drive." But it also made users' testicles shrink by a third, so the researchers abandoned it, concluding, "The psychological trauma of shrinking testes just cannot be overcome."Of course not, because there is nothing to do with reproduction that offers men anywhere near the advantages that the pill offered women. As the review notes:
Yet for all this, as May demonstrates, the pill has been a tremendous boon for women, transforming sex and reproduction so thoroughly that it's hard for many to imagine what life was like before it. …We have to be careful not to engage in too much technological triumphalism, however. This was technology in particular social contexts:
After all, the pill is widely available in Saudi Arabia, but it hasn't made a dent in that country's brutal patriarchy.Technology is not magical, it remains embedded in human action, human institutions and human cultures. Its possibilities may shape human action, institutions and cultures but it can also be constrained and directed by those actions, institutions and cultures.
In Muslim societies and communities, enforcement of sexual and gender mores tends to be much more active—up to and including violence. Attending the mosque, wearing approved clothing, becomes a way of avoiding sanctions rather than signaling expectations. Hence much higher rates of mosque attendance continuing after the introduction of the pill.
Nevertheless, it is hard to disagree that the impact of the pill in Western cultures was one of:
… social maelstroms that made the pill so significant. The millions of women who … have used the pill to slip the bonds of biology, turning childbearing from an obligation into an option, have utterly reshaped our ideas about sex, marriage, and family.Which was a major problem for Churches who saw themselves as uttering eternal verities, rather than manifesting evolved social mores anchored in social presumptions whose foundations had been transformed.
But which churches would we predict would handle the change best? Established monopolies (as in Europe) or churches used to religious competition (as in the US)? Clearly, those used to religious competition. Or which can only operate through it—for example, emerging churches such as Pentecostalism.
It is a dangerous foolishness, to infer from the failure of sluggish monopoly Churches of the Europe to deal with dramatic social change based on a new technology, particularly a technology that changed incentives for women—so Churches run by men (in the Catholic Church’s case, celibate unmarried childless men) were particularly likely to be “blindsided”—to some grand social theory about “inevitable tendencies” in social development. The religious impulse is a powerful one, and can find new vehicles to manifest. As, indeed, it is.
But we should always keep in mind the signaling role of norms and how changing what people want to signal will change those norms.
ADDENDA Mary Eberstadt's piece Christanity Lite pointing out that Churches which relax traditional Christian sexual strictures experience declining membership in effect looks at the issue the other way: lessening the signaling value of church attendance discourages church attendance—but that value that can be lessened from within as well as without. Another essay of hers connects secularisation to declining fertility.