Religious Extinction?

Here’s an interesting story from the Beeb, reporting on a study presented to an American Physical Society meeting in Dallas:

“A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction… The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation. The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.”

The countries studied were Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. I didn’t really raise an eyebrow looking through that list until I got to Ireland – Ireland? Really? I’m not a mathematician or a statistician, so I can’t really give an opinion on their method of analysis, but the trends as they currently stand are pretty unambiguous.

The UK census is currently being taken (mine is sitting on the floor next to me, I’ve been avoiding it for days), but Question 20 (“What is your religion?”) is voluntary (as well as incredibly presumptive and badly worded), so it remains to be seen whether the group will (or will be able to) apply the same analysis to UK data, but I shall wait with interest to find out.

In the meantime, I put it to the multinational UF family: What do people from those countries think about the predictions? Accurate and incisive or foolish and flawed?

  • Elemenope

    I think it unlikely. It is a major mistake to project a trend line like that all the way to zero. Religions tend, like most social philosophies, to operate as if in a marketplace; that religions are losing marketshare to competing secular philosophies is not a shock, but there is ample reason to believe there will be more than a niche market left over for religion. In past cases where religion was crowded out of the marketplace (such as in Soviet Russia), as soon as the competition was discredited in the public eye religion sprang back up like it never left. There is also a great deal of historical evidence that religions become more robust (even while taking a smaller marketshare) in situations and populations hostile to them, and after they mutate they find a way to co-opt the dominant paradigms and grow again.

    The salient fact to keep in mind is (the US, Poland, and Italy notwithstanding, for some reason), rise in irreligiosity has been in lockstep with greater material standard of living. If that trend, for whatever reason, were to reverse (a worldwide economic collapse, war, or other sustained calamity on an international scale), it is possible that religion would again find more fertile ground, as the dominant materialist and capitalist paradigms become publicly discredited the way communism once was.

    And that even leaves aside basic features of the universe and of human psychology that all but insure the continued survival of religion, including the basically counter-intuitive nature of reality, the desire for humans to find neat and easy patterns and explanations, a tendency for magical thinking, and the general desire of humans to dominate one another using whatever means (including control over information and explanations) are available.

  • Colm

    Yep. Ireland. From media reporting of holy stumps and visions of Mary you might think that Ireland is still the same old place it was back in the 1960′s, but it has changed dramatically since then. Church attendance has dropped like a stone. “No religion” was the second most popular question on our last census. The second most powerful man in our government is an atheist. Civil partnership passed last year with nary a whimper. And then there has been all the abuse scandals (most dating from many decades ago) which have angered and turned away even the most devout.

    Oh, religion is not gone. Catholicism is still the major religion in the state. Priests and bishops enjoy privileges they don’t deserve. But the trends are unambiguous. Religion, particularly Catholicism, is dying quickly in this country.

    • Custador

      Glad to hear it :-) In that context, how did the anti-blasphemy laws go down there?

      • Colm

        Not well. Even when they were introduced, the government admitted that they were unenforceable. The minister who proposed them didn’t bother to stand for re-election as he was deeply unpopular, and the new government has committed itself to removing all references of blasphemy from the Irish Constitution.

        • Geds

          Can we have some Irish legislators in America, please?

          • Colm Ryan

            I am tempted to say that we have a whole bunch of ex-leglisators that we would be more than delighted to hand over to you free of charge, but even I am not that sadistic…

  • kitsunerei88

    Mathematically, it looks sound; the question is mostly whether it corresponds to the real world accurately enough. It assumes that other factors remain more or less constant though, and mostly just models the perceived utility of religion in making connections with others, etc. I skimmed the actual published paper. It doesn’t address the emotional value that religion has for some people, only the perceived utility in making contacts, etc. It can be read as saying the perceived utility of religion in making social connections is trending towards 0 over time.

    I admit that while I have a degree in physics/math and I’ve done well in modelling competitions in the past, perturbation theory is not my cup of tea (it was the thing in non-linear odes that I chose not to learn because I knew the exam would be choose 5 of 6 questions) because it can be pretty messy. However, I am biased towards the mathematics because due to my background, I know math really can model things, even human behaviour – I once modelled serial killer behaviour (extrapolating from murder and body dump locations to determine an area that the serial killer likely resided in) which gave good empirical results.

    As a Canadian, I don’t have any problems being an atheist. It’s a widely accepted stance, particularly in large cities – so much so that our secular student alliances don’t actually have high attendance (seems to be mostly recent deconverts that go to SSA-type events). I think partially because we’re so accepted, it’s easy for atheists in Canada to find groups of friends around things other than faith. In that respect, we do fit the model pretty well – adherence to a religion is unnecessary in terms of utility. Things are a little different out in the country (I’m a Torontonian), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the trend towards non-religious affiliation continued rising.

  • claidheamh mor

    A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction

    To use a Latin Catholic saying I heard: “Your mouth to God’s ear!”

    I notice with grim depression that the USA is *not* in there, and even if it were, I would be pessimistic about the hope of that being true. “America, falling far behind in the free world.” Definitely *not* its leader.