Is Faith Fading Away? Call me a Doubting Thomas

Celebrated intellectuals have long predicted the demise of religion in modern scientific society, and a new, headline-grabbing study presented at a Dallas meeting of the American Physical Society claims to demonstrate mathematically that organized religion will be “driven toward extinction” in at least nine Western-style democracies.

One of the study’s authors, Daniel Abrams, had developed a mathematical model to account for the extinction of languages spoken by small numbers of people. Another of the authors, Richard Wiener, noted that similar data was available for religious affiliation in some developed nations, and suggested they apply the same model to the waning of religious affiliation.

Of the nations studied, only the Czech Republic (where atheism was enforced at gunpoint under Communism) already has a majority of its citizens who are unaffiliated with a religion, at 60 percent. But the authors predict that the Netherlands, which currently stands at 40 percent unaffiliated, will reach 70 percent by 2050. Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland will also, claim the authors, see organized religion all but vanish.

Mainstream media outlets eagerly promoted the report, and commentary blossomed in the Christian blogosphere. Some warned that the study pointed to the further deterioration of Western Christendom, while others welcomed a culling-out of nominal believers.

Yet there is reason for skepticism about the study itself. The authors, Abrams explained to CNN, assume two sociological principles. The first points to social networks: It’s generally more appealing to belong to the majority than the minority group. The second points to utility: In a country where religion is in decline, there are pragmatic advantages to being unaffiliated with a religion. These forces, the authors argue, will accelerate the growth of the unaffiliated category. The unaffiliated will not necessarily become atheists, but they will not practice their faith within religious institutions.

The authors are not sociologists of religion — and principles that apply to languages may not apply to religions, where standing in the minority and requiring high levels of sacrifice are commonly associated in the scholarly literature (I spent 7 years in a doctorate program in the study of religion) with religious fervency and not decline. The saying, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” is common for a reason. The church that is persecuted today is often resurgent tomorrow. It also seems facile to suggest that the present trends cannot be altered. In the case of Ireland, the authors observed that the proportion of unaffiliated had grown from 0.04 percent in 1961 to 4.2 percent in 2006, the most recent year for which data is available. Extrapolating from 96 out of 100 affiliated to “virtual extinction” seems quite a leap. Throw in the immigration of millions of Muslims into some of these countries, and the rise of new religious movements, and the study’s projections begin to seem fanciful.

There was not enough data for the authors to predict the fate of organized religion in the United States, where the census does not ask about religious affiliation. The unaffiliated (scholars call them “nones,” for “none of the above”) make up the fastest-growing religious category in America. Yet other studies suggest that many “nones” are ­evangelicals who do not identify with any denomination or religious label. But nondenominational communities of faith are not so much outside “organized religion” but outside the old institutions.

Abrams states that all of the data points toward the growth of the unaffiliated. “I can’t imagine that will change,” he said. Yet the authors would do well not to weigh too heavily the limits of their own imaginations. Intellectuals throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Jefferson and Clarence Darrow, all predicted the imminent demise of Christianity. All were proven wrong.

Faith is a resilient thing. Even if participation in organized religion should decline in the West, it is exploding in the East. And the rise of the unaffiliated may be the prelude to renewal, or may signal the slow and subtle ways in which faith pours out of old wineskins into the new.

Note: I use this blog, among other things, to pull together my writings in various locations. The above was edited from a piece in the Religion Notebook in World Magazine.

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  • Darwin

    Tim I agree that the “Celebrated intellectuals” are making far reaching assumtions about the decline of faith. The Pew Research says otherwise. People are more “spiritual” not less, however their “spirituality” can be Cristian,non-Christian and everything that is in between. The key is if it is based on Biblical Christianity then they are on the right track, if not then they are way off course and the Church needs to get the truth to them. I have a friend at work who is a self proclaimed Satanist and he has a lot of interwoven beliefs. He reads Niestche and Anton Levey, believes that Gahdi was a good man even though he “liked” little childern. On the other hand there is another friend of mine that I went to Crown College with and he had the same Professors as I one of them Dr. Hustad who studied under Millard Erickson and is an expert in Theology. Now he is emersed in a “Emerging Church” and he has no real backbone for what the Bible teachs. Example he wrote about Rob Bells “Love Wins” and I responded to his fb status and he responded that we shouln not have a disagreement about the controversy of the subject matter. When I talk to my other frind the Satanist about Biblical matters he respects my stance and God is working in his life despite how “jacked up” it is. I guess my point is that we the Church needs a backbone to stand up for true Biblical Christainity and not cower, which in alot of ways the Church is doing, we need to see and meet the challenges of a Post-post modern western culture, understand the other “spiritual” beliefs that are coming to challenge us. We need not think also that if one calls themselves “christian” that they are truly christain. Love them with the love of God, live a life that is reflecting His Glory, being led by His spirit and armed with the Truth!!!