Letters - 17 December 2021

From Population concern to Laughter in Quaker grey

Population concern

I have read with interest several contributions to the Friend in recent months regarding population. Alastair McIntosh (29 October and 26 November) has articulated much of what it was in my mind to say, but there is one point I’d like to add.

Something that puzzles me about the Quaker population concern is that it always seems to be about babies, linked with an insistent focus on developing countries. There is a strange lack of attention to the other end of the age spectrum – an issue rather closer to home. It’s difficult to avoid seeing a tinge of unconscious racism in this. (I felt quite uncomfortable reading one Quaker Concern Over Population member’s description of a Madagascan mother who had hungry children ‘crawling all over her’.)

In his excellent book Factfulness (2018), the late Hans Rosling showed that those who worry about the birth rate are somewhat out of date; UN data showed the world average had in fact dropped from a high of five babies per woman in 1965 to 2.5 in 2015. (It has since dropped slightly further, to 2.4 in 2019.) In 2015 there were two billion people between the ages of naught and fifteen; in 2030, the numbers aged between naught and fifteen are expected to reach, er, two billion. That number is projected to remain unchanged even if the total population reaches eleven billion.

I grant that it’s easier ethically to do something about the birth rate than the death rate! I’m not altogether sure how we would go about it, but it seems to me one part of the problem is the current widespread state of denial about our mortality. Among other things, I hope parliament will relent on the question of ‘assisted dying’. There was a very affecting article in The Guardian (20 November) about a retired doctor in East Sussex, suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, plus a serious heart condition and osteoporosis, who had to go to Switzerland to get help with ending her life. The concluding paragraph of the article, which was written by her niece, includes the sentence: ‘Ann felt that in England we had got dying wrong by avoiding discussion and focusing too much on extending life at all costs.’

There are no quick or easy answers to human population growth, but perhaps it needs to start with a change of attitude.

Stevie Krayer

Historical Jesus

I share Kathleen Boulton’s (no relation) enthusiasm for Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, perhaps more for his summary of pioneer explorers than for his own contentious conclusions (26 November). But Schweitzer’s book was published in 1906, and the succeeding century has seen a vast increase in historical source material and the tools for evaluating it. 

If I mention Geza Vermes, Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman, Karen King, Burton Mack, Elaine Pagels, NT Wright and some 200 scholars in the Westar Institute’s Jesus Seminar I do little justice to the wealth of twentieth-century historical Jesus scholarship.

Even my own book Who on Earth was Jesus? (published in 2008) could now do with an update. The former bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway kindly described it as ‘the perfect resource for people who want a one-volume guide to a multi-volume industry’. But there are probably better and more recent summaries of current historical Jesus scholarship, and I urge those who are drawn to the quest to seek them out rather than settle for a century-old classic.

David Boulton

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