This study was reported just over a year ago but worth noting here as it is being referenced in various articles on tends in religion, including at least one I’ll be looking at.
A couple of things about the study suggest it makes interesting reading (at least the parts that can be understood by someone who doesn’t have a degree in mathematics!) and while indicative of something may not be a particularly comprehensive or even accurate indicator of growth trends in religion.
The title of the study: A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation
“When groups compete for members, the resulting dynamics of human social activity may be understandable with simple mathematical models. Here, we apply techniques from dynamical systems and perturbation theory to analyze a theoretical framework for the growth and decline of competing social groups. We present a new treatment of the competition for adherents between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies and compile a new international data set tracking the growth of religious non-affiliation. Data suggest a particular case of our general growth law, leading to clear predictions about possible future trends in society.”
The first thing to note is that the study relies solely on census data. I think in order to assess whether this is a good set of data to use requires a study in itself. I suspect there are distinct trends away from disclosing religious affiliation on state controlled mediums such as this and have heard this discussed in passing a couple of times.
Religious beliefs are both complex and personal and I would imagine more people, when faced with a box to tick, choose not to disclose anything rather than something which they feel is over simplified and hence inaccurate.
Further, I would guess many choose not to disclose their religious beliefs in a world where information is increasingly a commodity and the sharing and storage of such information subject to growing uncertainty.
So there seems to be some doubt over the value of the data being used. But even if the data was accurate what does census data actually tell us about ‘religion’ in a given country?
The study draws its conclusion based on the idea that non-affiliation equates to no religious activity (‘irreligious’) and if the trends continued – if census data eventually recorded no affiliation in the counties in question – that ‘religion’ would be extinct. This assumption seems flawed and raises more questions about what constitutes ‘religion’ and whether census data on religious affiliation says anything about personal belief or faith and how personal faith relates to this idea of ‘religion’.
So perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over whether ‘simple mathematical models’ can usefully predict something as nuanced as religious activity within a culture or whether the lads from the Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics at Northwestern University, and the Department of Physics at the University of Arizona were perhaps just having a bit of fun with this. Who knows.
Predictions about the extinction of religion are not new and in the current climate seem to be quite fashionable.
There is a general acknowledgement that secularism is a growing trend but definitions of what constitutes religion also need to be considered along with the trends away from organised religious structures to informal ones where accurate data is unlikely to be available.
A quick journey through human history would suggest that humans are incurably ‘religious’, though that tendency finds diverse expression. We can probably say that the study highlights an interesting phase in the role of organised religious structures as places where people go to express and explore their faith. But those who take courage from this study that the demise of ‘religion’ is imminent may be disappointed, and in any case, are unlikely to live long enough to see whether it actually proves accurate.
An interesting BBC article on the study can be found here. As ever, the comments are representative and entertaining.
The study itself can be found here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1012.1375. The PDF can be downloaded here: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1012/1012.1375v2.pdf