What’s the News: Looking at census data from nine countries, a team of scientists have made the bold assertion that religion is headed for extinction and it’s all based on a mathematical model of the complex social motives behind joining religious groups. As they note in their abstract, “People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest growing ‘religious’ minority in many countries throughout the world.”
How the Heck:
- The theory behind their model “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and … that social groups have a social status or utility,” Richard Wiener from the University of Arizona told the BBC. You could call it the Facebook effect.
- So they looked at census data spanning the past century from Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland, and discovered that an increasing number of people identify themselves as “non-affiliated” with religion. For example, 40% of the Netherlands and 60% of the Czech Republic is unaffiliated.
- Using a nonlinear dynamics model, which allows researchers to track outcomes from a number of factors, the scientists accounted for the “social and utilitarian merits” of being in a non-religious category, concluding that religion will die in societies wherever non-religious affiliation is more socially useful than religious affiliation—which seems to be the trend in the nine countries studied.
What’s the Context:
- This religion study has its foundation in a 2003 study by one of its authors that looked at language decline and the usefulness of speaking one language over another.
- The interplay between science and religion is no stranger to this blog: From how humans picture God in their own image, to the neurology of belief, to work-place discrimination against religious scientists, 80beats is on it.
- And Bad Astronomy writer Phil Plait also covers some religion & science topics, tackling creationism and the intersection of law and religion.
Not So Fast: The model’s limitations are many, including its simplistic network structure, as Weiner told the BBC: It assumes that each person is equally influenced by every other person. It also assumes that mere social utility is the driving reason behind people’s religious affiliations, ignoring a slew of other, difficult to measure, non-social factors underlying faith, such as the strength of deeply personal religious convictions and a (potential) basic human tendency to believe in something larger than ourselves. The study is based on the premise that religious networks behave the same was as do speakers of a common language and non-religious social groups, a reasonable but debatable assumption.
Reference: “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation.” Authors: Daniel M. Abrams, Haley A. Yaple, Richard J. Wiener. arXiv:1012.1375
Image: flickr / DominusVobiscum