Faculté des lettres

Infant mortality and religious culture: a comparative approach of two Swiss states (1860-1930)

Praz, Anne-Françoise

In: Religion: Beliefs, theories and societal effects, 2011, p. 1-31

At the end of nineteenth century, infant mortality in the Catholic canton of Fribourg was one of the highest in Switzerland; in the neighbouring Protestant canton of Vaud, it was well below the national average. To what extent can these differences be attributed to religious culture? After an overview of some hypotheses that have been used to explain religious differentials in infant mortality,... Plus

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    Summary
    At the end of nineteenth century, infant mortality in the Catholic canton of Fribourg was one of the highest in Switzerland; in the neighbouring Protestant canton of Vaud, it was well below the national average. To what extent can these differences be attributed to religious culture? After an overview of some hypotheses that have been used to explain religious differentials in infant mortality, this chapter presents a new mechanism implicating the state institutions and policies We first examine the impact of religious norms. Protestant and Catholic doctrine did not consider the loss of infant in the same way. These teachings might influence the parental behaviour in respect to the survival of their children. However, a causal pathway that leads from dogmatic discourse to the relevant individual behaviour is difficult to substantiate and to test. Religious norms are likely to play a critical role in shaping behaviour only when religious authorities diffused them regularly and have at their disposal a menu of rewards and sanctions encouraging the faithful to conform. In the period under study, such an impact is difficult to attest, as church institutions were loosing influence. At the turn of the 20th century, religion gains an impact on demographic processes above all through mechanisms implicating the state institutions and policies. In examining carefully the health and population policies and the discourse put forward by cantonal elites to legitimate them, we then show the influence of religious culture on political, legislative and administrative priorities. Using standard demographic measures and Cox regression analysis of the determinants of infant mortality, we test our hypotheses on a comparative sample of four villages that differed systematically in the main explaining variables for the period of the so called fertility transition (1860-1930). The prevalence of gastroenteritis in the Catholic canton, even in the years 1900-1930 when overall infant mortality is declining, attests to the absence of adequate health measures.