Role of religion declining

Despite the many reassurances we hear from religious leaders that their religions are in resurgence, statistics are giving us a completely different picture. Census data taken from nine countries suggests that religion will eventually become extinct there.

This is definitely a bold assertion that will not bode well with some religious people. However, this claim is backed up by research. It was the result of a study published online through Cornell University Library and presented at the American Physical Society meeting which looked at census data as old as 100 years in these nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

The team studying the census data used a mathematical approach that analyzed the data. The approach is known as nonlinear dynamics which attempts to explain a wide range of physical phenomena in which a number of factors play a part. It is based on earlier research by Northwestern University’s Daniel Abrams who developed a model to explain the decline of lesser-spoken world languages.

The idea is that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join based on their status and utility. For example, greater utility or status can be found in being an English speaker rather than being a speaker of a dying language. Similarly, there is also some kind of status or utility involved in whether you are a member of a religion or not. The trend in a large number of secular democracies is towards more and more people identifying themselves as non-religious or non-affiliated with religion.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here though. There are limitations to every mathematical model and this one is not without its flaws. The network structure used in this model supposes that each person is influenced equally by all other people in society. Obviously, this is not the case. And there is certainly more to membership to a religion than status or utility. However, the way that this fairly simple model captures the data suggests that there is a good chance that it is right about the decline of religion in the countries studied.

There is of course also something to be said about the countries themselves. It is plainly obvious that these are some of the most prosperous countries in the world–ranking very high on the Human Development Index. I don’t think this is a coincidence at all. In places where people are free and thriving, there is less need to look to religion for help. So it may seem that utility is a major factor. Of course things are going to be different from person to person, but a lot of those differences may average out.

Even if you think that this study may have gone a little too far beyond its data points, there is no questioning the trend. In the Netherlands the number of people who claimed no affiliation with any religion was 40 per cent and the highest was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60 per cent. These are real numbers that are only going to grow.

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