The beginning of the end of religion in the West?
- Published on 26 March 2011
- Written by Nicholas C. DiDonato
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No one really knows the future of demographics, religious or otherwise. But mathematicians can create models of populations and then project what the future might be like if current trends remain constant. Much as economists can make rough estimates about the future state of the economy, so too can demographers make educated guesses about the future state of populations. Richard Weiner (University of Arizona), Daniel Abrams (Northwestern University), and Haley Yaple (Northwestern University) predict, based on their model, that religion in the West will die out.
Their model partitions Western society into two groups, the religious and the non-religious. Following research on the influence of social conformity, the researchers then assume a snowball effect: as one group grows, it gains more attractiveness, which leads to more growth, and so on until the competing group dies of starvation. A group’s perceived “utility” determines its initial attractiveness. “Utility” in this context refers to the economic, political, or social benefits of belonging to a particular group. Thus, as more people see one group offering more utility than a rival group, the more inclined they are to join that group; and by joining that group, they further add to that group’s perceived utility.
Other researchers have successfully employed this mathematical model to predict future trends in language use, and now Abrams, Yaple, and Weiner set out to see what its results will be for religious demographics. They compiled data from various Western countries, including Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland, and applied their model.
Based on the growing trend of the non-religious in all these Western countries, they calculated that, if the demographic trends continue as they are, religion will eventually die out in all these countries. Of course, the researchers themselves admit that their conclusions do not guarantee anything due to the simplifying assumptions they make about human societies (i.e., the snowball effect of utility). That being said, they will insist that their results are “suggestive” and may in fact accurately capture the future religious climate in the West. While any individual person may not fit the mold of their mathematical model, they point out that the overall population may average out to fit the model fairly closely. So, while acknowledging the limits of their model, they argue that it yields relevant results.
While Europeans will see firsthand whether this prediction will hold true, Americans live in a slightly different environment. On the one hand, the mainline Protestant churches face serious decline (much like the model predicts), but, on the other hand, Evangelical (and especially Pentecostal) churches in America continue to grow. Will America follow the rest of the West and experience a final end of religion, or will it continue to buck the trend and remain the last bastion of religiosity? Only the Americans, and the utility and contents of American religion, will decide.
For more, see the BBC’s “Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says” as well as the original paper by Abrams, Yaple, and Weiner, “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation.”