Diagnosis: Extinction

Human religion has evolved over the centuries. Is it heading to extinction in some parts? The BBC reports that using the mathematical model of nonlinear dynamics, a Northwestern University team suggests religion is going the way of the dinosaur and the trilobite in nine selected countries. A similar model was used to predict the extinction of the world’s minor languages. Does the parallel hold? Is religion just a cultural marker like language? Or will we faithful end up hidden to view like living fossils?

The report, titled, “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation” is here.

From Richard Wiener, one of the co-authors:

The idea is pretty simple. 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.

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%

And what were the other countries? Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand and Switzerland. Lest you think this is a recent phenomenon, the research team used data going back well over a century for nations where it was available. Was the handwriting on the wall before the Great War? Why weren’t the knees of religious leaders of the last century knocking?

As a man of faith, I’d like to think that religion goes deeper than tribal languages. Still, you have liberals chased out of organized religion by conservatives who, in turn, implode in sex scandals and coopt secular political models to run what’s left of their show.

Dr Wiener again:

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.

Is the greater utility to be found in acting like Republicans? I don’t really think so. I think the Church maintains a sufficient number to remain viable, and we have enough diversity and differentiation not to stagnate philosophically. And the study focuses too much on the non-religious. It’s possible to deduce things from that, but it makes as much sense to determine what’s Catholic from sampling not-Catholics–in other words, Protestants.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Diagnosis: Extinction

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    The BBC report makes no distinction between religious affiliation and religious instinct or longing. As long as primary philosophical questions are asked, such as why there is something instead of nothing, the latter will always demonstrate some spark of life. William James seemed to suggest that the religious impulse was a hardwired component of our nature. Maybe that’s an assumption needing to be reexamined in this era of declining church attendance.

  2. David D. says:

    “Still, you have liberals chased out of organized religion by conservatives who, in turn, implode in sex scandals and coopt secular political models to run what’s left of their show.”

    Exactly, except that you transposed “liberals” and “conservatives”.

    • Todd says:

      Oh no, not at all. Did you see the list of countries studied?

      • David D. says:

        Just having a little fun. In any event, the fertility rate in most if not all of these countries is sufficiently low that extinction of other sorts may be on the horizon as well. SCGS = Small Countries Getting Smaller?

  3. Jimmy Mac says:

    People tend to think that “religion” is defined by the structures with which we are currently familiar. For many people that is ALL that religion is. As those structures fade, weaken, become irrelevant and/or boring and generally no longer appeal, then they (“religion”) will disappear.

    “Habits of The Heart, by Robert Bellah et al., spoke convincingly of the tendency of Americans to seek a religion that will satisfy them, confirm their expectations, and make them feel good about themselves – in other words, a religion that will leave them where they are, one completely incapable of transforming them. “ (John Garvey, Of Several Minds” The Protestant Moment? Commonweal, 10/8/93)

    However, what is happening is not new and was predicted by the humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow, in his 1964 book, Religions, Value and Peak Experiences:

    “Most people lose or forget the subjectively religious experience, and redefined Religion as a set of habits, behaviors, dogmas, forms, which at the extreme becomes entirely legalistic and bureaucratic, conventional, empty, and in the truest meaning of the word, anti religious The mystic experience, the illumination, the great awakening, along with the charismatic seer who started the whole thing are forgotten, lost or transformed into their opposites. Organized Religion, the churches, finally may become the major enemy of the religious experience and the religious experiencer.”

    Roman Catholicism today seems to find itself in a very similar situation. Throughout its historical foothold it has increasingly become irrelevant in the lives of large portions of the citizenry of those footholds. The preservation of the bureaucratic model has become the raison d’etre of organizational Catholicism. The next push for evangelization most likely will be just one more panicky attempt to rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking Barque of Peter.

    For those who take religion seriously, belief is not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of meaningful and, may I say it – true religion. Until and unless people grasp the need for such a discipline, they will misunderstand the nature of religion to console, and equally importantly, to challenge and to confront.

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