Religion headed for extinction

The BBC reports on a new paper presented this week at the annual March meeting of the American Physical Society (of all places) that used mathematical modeling on religious affiliation trends over the last century and arrived at a conclusion that supports my thesis in the recent series on Why Atheism is Winning that religion is in a state of rapid decline.

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

I looked up the actual paper which can be read here and its abstract outlines the methodology.

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 basic idea behind the model is as follows:

We begin by idealizing a society as partitioned into two mutually exclusive social groups, X and Y, the unaffiliated and those who adhere to a religion. We assume the attractiveness of a group increases with the number of members, which is consistent with research on social conformity. We further assume that attractiveness also increases with the perceived utility of the group, a quantity encompassing many factors including the social, economic, political and security benefits derived from membership as well as spiritual or moral consonance with a group.

This leads them to a nonlinear coupled differential equation for the proportion of people in X.

So what is their conclusion?

People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest growing religious minority in many countries throughout the world. Americans without religious affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states; in 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent. In the Netherlands nearly half the population is religiously unaffiliated. Here we use a minimal model of competition for members between social groups to explain historical census data on the growth of religious non-affiliation in 85 regions around the world. According to the model, a single parameter quantifying the perceived utility of adhering to a religion determines whether the unaffiliated group will grow in a society. The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction. [My italics]

Of course, this is mathematical modeling but the models seem to fit the existing data very well. The graphs in the paper support my contention that the rate of collapse of religion increases with time.

For decades, authors have commented on the surprisingly rapid decline of organized religion in many regions of the world. The work we have presented does not exclude previous models, but provides a new framework for the understanding of different models of human behavior in majority/minority social systems in which groups compete for members.[My italics]

My reasoning was that this was due to the lack of any rational basis for believing in god and that once that became more widely recognized and the collective delusion undermined, that the decline would be rapid.

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