The Death of God After the ‘Death of God’

A recent study released by a group of American scholars suggests that ‘religion’ may soon die out in nine countries, including Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. The paper, delivered at a meeting of the American Physical Society and titled ‘A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation’, looks at census data from the last hundred years and documents the steady rise in individuals who claim no religious affiliation. The study analyses this trend using a mathematical method of social modeling known as ‘nonlinear dynamics’, which was formulated to predict outcomes in situations where a large number of variables are involved and which has already been invoked by one of the coauthors to predict the fates of minority languages.

The method, as it is described in media sources, closely resembles rational choice theory. It suggests that individuals are more likely to choose to belong to majority groups, since these have the greatest social benefits. So, as non-religious affiliation rises, the number of people without religious affiliation continues to increase in subsequent years. As Richard Weiner, a researcher at the University of Arizona and one of the study’s coauthors explains, “People no longer see the slate of benefits [of being religious] as being as great as they probably did 100 years ago. It’s become less socially useful.” At the same time, the authors are quick to point out that this study only offers a “suggestive result” of what will come of this trend based on a specific modeling system.


The study’s results are of little concern to me. As I see it, this is a better exercise in the application of a given theory than it is an actual attempt to predict the fate of religion. I am much more interested in the study’s biases and fundamental suppositions. Notice, for example, how each of the countries in which religion is slated to die out is a first-world country with a primarily Caucasian – and Christian – population. It seems clear to me that ‘religion’, in this case, is code for ‘Christianity’. So the study describes dynamics not specific to ‘religion’, but to a particular kind of religion in a given socioeconomic climate.


The second problem involves the identification of religion. The results of the study tell us less about ‘religion’ than they do about the fact of self-declared religious affiliation. Think back to high school and the ‘cool factor’. How many of us have told falsehoods simply because we knew that our auditors expected a given answer? Such is the case with survey data. In a predominantly secular society, it becomes ‘uncool’ to admit that you are religious. Furthermore, we must question what leads these people to identify as religious or not. I know many a cultural Catholic of Mediterranean descent, for example, who, even though they never go to church and do not believe in Jesus, will always call themselves Christians because, for them, ‘Christian’ means ‘Italian’. It is part of their heritage. Others will set a different bar. And then we have the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd, who are very much religious in certain ways but would not call themselves such. So self-identification cannot offer a consistent benchmark.


We might also ask what the predicted ‘death of religion’ would look like. In times when scholars are deconstructing dichotomies and demonstrating that there is no fixed boundary between ‘public’ and ‘private’ or ‘religious’ and ‘secular’, can we continue to imagine a secular society? Perhaps we can, but we have to revise our notion of what it would look like. Secularisation theses have come and gone. Remember Peter Berger and his (in)famous reversal? Remains to be seen what will become of this one.


Relevant articles:

Exporting the Local: Recent Perspectives on ‘Religion’ as a Cultural Category (p 787-800)
Daniel Dubuisson

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Myth and Science: Their Varying Relationships (p 337-358)
Robert A. Segal

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News reports:


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