Religion in Society

Atheists Win: Religion to be "Extinct" in 9 Countries?

| by Reason Foundation

By Ronald Bailey

A couple of engineers from Northwestern University have teamed up with a physicist from the University of Arizona and they have just published a study which suggests that religion, in this case Christianity, is on its way out in nine countries. Why? Because atheists (OK, the religiously unaffiliated) are becoming cooler than believers. The researchers claim:

We have developed a general framework for modeling competition between social groups and analyzed the behavior of the model under modest assumptions. We found that a particular case of the solution fits census data on competition between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies in 85 regions around the world. The model indicates that in these societies the perceived utility of religious non-affiliation is greater than that of adhering to a religion, and therefore predicts continued growth of non-affiliation, tending toward the disappearance of religion.

This is how CNN glosses the study:

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Organized religion will all but vanish eventually from nine Western-style democracies, a team of mathematicians predict in a new paper based on census data stretching back 100 years.

It won't die out completely, but "religion will be driven toward extinction" in countries including Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands, they say.

It will also wither away in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland, they anticipate.

They can't make a prediction about the United States because the U.S. census doesn't ask about religion, lead author Daniel Abrams told CNN.

But nine other countries provide enough data for detailed mathematical modeling, he said.

"If you look at the data, 'unaffiliated' is the fastest-growing group" in those countries, he said.

"We start with two big assumptions based on sociology," he explained.

The first is that it's more attractive to be part of the majority than the minority, so as religious affiliation declines, it becomes more popular not to be a churchgoer than to be one, he said - what Abrams calls the majority effect.

"People are more likely to switch to groups with more members," he said.

Social networks can have a powerful influence, he said.

"Just a few connections to people who are (religiously) unaffiliated is enough to drive the effect," he said.

The other assumption underlying the prediction is that there are social, economic and political advantages to being unaffiliated with a religion in the countries where it's in decline - what Abrams calls the utility effect.

"The utility of being unaffiliated seems to be higher than affiliated in Western democracies," he said.

CNN quotes the researchers as being somewhat surprised by the same general trend in the United States:

"I became interested in this because I saw survey data results for the U.S. and was surprised by how large the unaffiliated group was," he said, referring to a number of studies done by universities and think tanks on trends in religion.

Studies suggest that "unaffiliated" is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, with about 15% of the population falling into a category experts call the "nones."

This is a trend that I spotlighted with my 2008 article, The New Age of Reason, in which I declared the end of America's Fourth Great Awakening:

Perhaps the best evidence that the evangelical phase of the Fourth Great Awakening is winding down is that large numbers of young Americans are falling away from organized religion, just as the country did in the period between the first two awakenings. In the 1970s, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that between 5 percent and 7 percent of the public declared they were not religiously affiliated. By 2006 that figure had risen to 17 percent. The trend is especially apparent among younger Americans: In 2006 nearly a quarter (23 percent) of Americans in their 20s and almost as many (19 percent) of those in their 30s said they were nonaffiliated.

The Barna Group finds that only 60 percent of 16-to-29-year-olds identify themselves as Christians. By contrast, 77 percent of Americans over age 60 call themselves Christian. That is “a momentous shift,” the firm’s president told the Ventura County Star. “Each generation is becoming increasingly secular.”

Just as movies and the pill enticed people out of the pews, so is modern technology making it harder to impose any single moral vision. In the old days, Roman Catholics could pressure Hollywood to adopt a Production Code decreeing that “no picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.” Today the means to produce video entertainment are increasingly cheap and the methods of distribution are becoming more and more decentralized. The notion that a book could be banned in Boston—or anywhere with an Internet service provider—is laughable. Social utilities like Facebook and MySpace encourage the proliferation of virtual communities....

In 1908 Clarence Darrow told the Personal Liberty League, “The world is suffering more today from the good people who want to mind other men’s business than it is from the bad people who are willing to let everybody look after their own individual affairs.” That has been true for a long time now, but we may finally be heading toward a better world—one where Americans are increasingly willing to live and let live.

However, the will to believe in something transcendent does seem deeply ingrained in people. This causes me to take seriously Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton's observation:

"When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing -- they believe in anything."

Such as religion substitutes like Fascism and Communism. In many cases, the substitutes have proved as bad or worse than the original transcendent myths. As South Park co-creator and modern sage Matt Stone recently summed up the dilemma:

“At the end of the day, if the mass delusion of a religion makes you happy, makes your family work better, is that bad or good?”

A very good question.