In a study recently presented at an American Physical Society meeting Dallas, Texas, Dr. Daniel Abrams and Dr. Haley Yaple of Northwestern University and Dr. Richard Wiener of the University of Arizona showed that the number of people claiming no religious affiliation has risen steadily over the past century. Using census data from countries including Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland – as well as a mathematical model to account for religious respondents and their motivations – the researchers concluded that religion is set for extinction in those countries.
Analyzing religious extinction via nonlinear dynamics
The researchers in the religious extinction study analyzed the data via a mathematical approach called nonlinear dynamics, which is used to explain varied physical phenomena in which a range of factors play a role, writes BBC News. Abrams had previously used such a method in 2003 to study the numbers behind the death of antiquated world languages. That study highlighted the level of competition between people who speak different languages, as well as the relative worth of speaking one language over another.
“The idea … posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join,” said Wiener.
Such groups have greater social status, and they are deemed more useful. In terms of language, speaking Spanish instead of a dying language like Quechuan in Peru would have more uses. In terms of religion, the social status or utility of being in the majority group could eventually lead more people to classify themselves as non-affiliated, particularly if the pattern found in the century’s worth of census data continues to hold.
Extinction of religion, by the numbers
According to Wiener, the trend toward non-religious affiliation was most pronounced in secular democracies such as in the nine nations pinpointed in the study. The percentage of those in the Netherlands’ proclaiming no religion has risen to 40 percent, while the Czech Republic had the highest instance in the study at 60 percent.
Adjusted for relative social and utilitarian merits via the nonlinear dynamics model, researchers found similar results across the nine target countries: religion is, mathematically speaking, headed for extinction. Wiener noted that further updates to the mathematical model are in progress to produce even more accurate “real world” results; he did confirm that the preliminary results are quite suggestive of where religion is headed in some parts of the world
“A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation”: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/arxiv/pdf/1012/1012.1375v2.pdf
BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12811197
Wikipedia entry for nonlinear dynamics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-linear_dynamics
The Young Turks on the Oxford world religions study
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