A new and provocative study presented to the American Physical Society last week by a trio of mathematicians predicts that organized religion is on its way to extinction in nine countries. Their work (using census data going back a century) was based on the same mathematical model employed in 2003 by the lead author Daniel Abrams to predict the extinction of little used languages. What stimulated Abrams interest this time was learning that none is the fastest growing religious group in many countries around the world including here in America. Moreover, those who have left religion behind represent a significant portion of their populations — already a 60% majority in the Czech Republic. In a CNN interview, Abrams said that he and his colleagues were not trying to make any commentary about religion or whether people should be religious or not. Rather they wanted to understand the long-term implications of the growing disaffiliation, particularly in Western-style democracies. The United States was not included in the study because its census doesn’t ask about religion, but among the countries that do and where the researchers posit religion is likely to become extinct are Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and our neighbor Canada.
The trio developed a model to study competition between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies. Again, as in America, none is the fastest growing group and trending higher. The model, they write in their conclusion, 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. Talking to the BBC, co-author Richard Wiener said, the study posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join.
Higher mathematics is far above my pay level, so I have no way of knowing if the trio’s model holds water. My own sense is that their extinction prediction may be overstated. That said, there is little doubt that in many countries trends are going against religion not for it. What intrigues me about this work is that it leans so heavily on social dynamics, which I would argue under the umbrella of community has played a critical role in building and then protecting religion throughout history. One of the questions with which I have been wrestling in my own work regarding those who have left religion behind is how and if non-religion can be viable without community? It’s complicated because many people have left religion precisely, sometimes mostly, because they are rejecting community — religion in its organized form. Lack of community may suit their immediate and personal needs, but their no religion stance may be difficult to carry into future generations. Also, and hardly inconsequential when the Religious Right is again (Iowa’s Conservative Conference) raising its ugly head, the absence of community translates into having no place at the table. Simply put, those without community lack political clout.
For that reason alone — there are others — I think some semblance of community engagement may be required. The question is how, absent creating the very kind of organizational structure that is so anathema to them, can the nones both survive ideologically and protect their rights in the larger society? When starting to think about this some years back, there was no good answer. That may have changed in the face of social networking and the emergence of virtual communities. And that’s exactly what Abrams suggested to CNN. It's more attractive, he said, 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 — the majority effect. People are more likely to switch to groups with more members. Social networks can have a powerful influence. Just a few connections to people who are (religiously) unaffiliated is enough to drive the effect.
I would add that the rise of social networks could potentially accelerate the move from religion for a number of reasons. First, because it may give voice to people who identify with religion solely because they’ve been told it’s what everyone does or should do. Through social networking they may discover that the everyone in question is a myth. Second, social networks often benefit from the viral effect, spreading the word in a way heretofore unknown and doing so instantaneously. It’s not reading or hearing that some statistic says an amorphous 16% of Americans have moved beyond religion, it is that a someone specific to whom you can relate personally, call it a friend, shares your views. Finally, social networks can lead to action — old fashion people power — influencing perceptions and conventional wisdom. Just look at what’s happening in the Middle East where the idea that everyone is loyal to the dictator is being debunked across the landscape. That no such everyone loyalty exists empowers those who thought themselves to be in the minority but are not — think Abrams’ majority effect.
Community has been essential to the world’s religions and might well be equally so for those who have left religion behind. It may simply require rethinking what it takes to make and be a community, and clearly that’s no longer restricted to a village.