Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Religion becoming extinct?

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The "most shared" story on the BBC News website as I write concerns a mathematical study, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, which suggests that religion could eventually become extinct in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Using a nonlinear dynamics model, the research team – Daniel M. Abrams, Haley A. Yaple, and Richard J. Wiener – analysed census data from those countries covering the last hundred years. Explaining how the model works, Wiener told the BBC:
"The idea is pretty simple. It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there's some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not."
With the religion study (if I'm following this correctly!), the team set parameters for the utility of being non-religious in the countries chosen (high utility) and found, through the modelling, that the numbers of non-religous people will continue to grow, while religious affiliation will continue to fall "towards extinction". Wiener points out that it's a piece of mathematical modelling, rather than a accurate picture of the future of religiosity in those countries, although he does think that it may provide an indication of future trends:
"It's interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going. Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out."
Beyond the maths, and the hyperbolic use of the term "extinction", what this study really seems to be saying is that, in countries where the trend in the last century has been towards secularisation, religiosity will continue to fall. It's not the most surprising suggestion, although it could be seen as a welcome boost for the beleaguered secularisation thesis, given that some demographic studies suggest the world is facing a growth in religiosity in coming decades (see our interview with demographer Eric Kaufmann from last year).
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