There’s been a lot in the news today about a study which suggests that religion maybe eventually set for extinction. The study was based on census data from nine countries and, unsurprisingly, finds a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.
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.
“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona. “It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility. For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not. In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.”
In all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.
The media seem to have been trying to sensationalise this research. I listened to one of the researchers being interviewed on Radio 5 where he clarified a number of points:
- This change isn’t happening overnight – but it is steady – for example by 2050 over 70% of the population of Netherlands would class themselves as non-religious.
- Institutional religion, especially Christianity, has suffered in these countries in the last few decades, but “spirituality” is a buzz phrase that isn’t represented well in census data. Many people have given up on institutions such as the church, but still have some kind of faith, but aren’t sure what to put in a census form.
- The research is based on mathematical research and can’t bear in mind future global changes that will affect religious affiliation.