William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Religion May Become Extinct, Experts

In 1850 in the Netherlands nearly everybody was a Christian. A century later, three out of four said they still were. But if you believe mathematicians Daniel Abrams and Haley Yaple and physicist Richard Wiener, in just one more century, by 2050, only one in four souls in Ned’s Land will claim to be affiliated with that once great religion.

This diminution isn’t just in the Netherlands, but in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland too. In all these places, survey data indicates a falling away. (Or, at least, a claimed falling away, survey data being what it is.)

The BBC reports that “Religion may become extinct” in these countries. The BBC is wrong.

The model is simple and only requires that there be at least one person who is unaffiliated. We also need for that fellow to have an affiliated friend ready to be converted. The affiliated soul must look at his pal and say, “It is to my utility that I switch from belief to unbelief.” That perceived “utility” is a measure of strength of attraction the affiliated soul has to his unaffiliated friend’s way of life.

The models assumes that “the attractiveness of a group increases with the number of members” and, as such, “attractiveness also increases with the perceived utility” of the unaffiliated group. These are all plausible assumptions: few like to be the lone man out, and most are joiners. When joiners see that more act a certain way, the stronger is the joiners’ compulsion to act similarly.

To demonstrate plausibility, one unaffiliated commenter to the BBC article says, “About time. Religion has always been nonsense. What a con on the human race.” The ignorance of that comment is not of interest; but the fact that it was said and its militancy is. It is just the sort of comment that will increase the perceived utility of affiliated sou to become unaffiliated.

The model is simple:

     dx/dt = c x (1 – x) (2 u – 1)

where x is the fraction of unaffiliated folk, c is a constant (about 0.2 they say), u (about 0.65) the utility, and t is time. Savvy readers will recognize a logistic growth function (homework: solve the differential equation). As such, given these constants and starting with an x0 > 0, then this equation will inexorably climb to xT = 1 at some time T (actually, almost 1). Hence the BBC’s mistaken prediction that religion will die out. A picture of model fits for four countries is shown; they are reasonable. Unaffiliated with Christianity model

Once all people are unaffiliated (at T), then this model says they will remain so for all time. This is a flaw, or at least a misapplication of the model. Because, of course, the model can be turned around and used to predict the growth of affiliated religious souls. Before there was Jesus there was Thor. Once upon a time, all believed in alternatives to Christianity, yet nearly all people (in Western nations) converted to that religion. In other words, if we start the model at x0 = 0, it will stay at xt = 0 for all t. Thus, this model must remain silent on how new groups are created.

The authors admit that the utility (u) might not be constant and could be a function of time; and they further investigate cliques of humanity such that all belong to one clique or another. The expanded model, however, paints the same picture: the unaffiliated win in the end.

But here is a flaw. The model is dichotomous when, of course, people have many belief systems vying for their attention. Because of the countries where the data arose, “affiliated” can only mean “Christian,” and, when asked, most would answer whether they actively practiced Christianity (e.g., by attending church).

It is true that many main-line Christian churches are losing members, and so the model, in the short term only, does a reasonable job of explaining (and forecasting) this falling off. But it is not true that the model predicts an increase in atheism or other irreligious behavior. Not being Christian does not mean being irreligious.

Neither does telling a pollster that you are an atheist mean you are not religious; it often, to Westerners, merely means “not Christian.” For example, many so-called atheists conspicuously hump yoga mats around city streets on their way to places like Aha Yoga in San Francisco. A place of, so their brochure assures, “spiritual impact” where you can “Calm your soul,” “Clear your mind,” and “to learn how to feel authentically.” That, my unaffiliated friend, is religion.

Thanks to reader Niccolo Machiavelli for bringing this article to our attention.

30 Comments

  1. Looks like you’re opening up the proverbial can of worms on how we define religion!

  2. My subjective observation in Israel indicates quite the opposite: the percentage of people with at least some degree of religious observance has been increasing over the past 20 years. If I’m not mistaken, there were several polls here that corroborate my observation.

    Also see the last elections in Turkey and Gaza: the religious parties have won in both the regions.

    I have no clue about non Abrahamic confessions, but since all the data you present is about christians, maybe your conclusions apply only on this religion.

  3. I propose that the mainstream churches are falling out of favor due to the mania for ecumenicalism. Having differences–even small and subtle ones–make things interesting.

  4. Yes, they used a simple model to plot a straightforward trend, then made some other extrapolations based on simple assumptions.

    But there’s other, empirical, factors such as:

    – a surge in books that address fundamental issues that cut to the core of the credibility of religion (Christianity); Bart Ehrman’s books are a prime example showing how the narrative was often altered, and a handful of the alterations are very significant.

    – The surge in evangelical fundamentalism, characterized by simpleminded belief constructs (e.g. the 6000 or 10,000 year old Earth) and similar views derived from a very particular & simplistic viewpoint even from ancient standards of interpretation — that are increasingly at odds with reams of scientific data cross-correlating to show otherwise.

    – A surge in other types of evangelical fundamentalism (e.g. reasons.org) that argue that, based on the same Bible the other evangelicals use, the Earth & universe must be aged in the billions of years. Not to mention the Catholic Church, keeper of the original doctrine since before the New Testament was formally compiled, which sees no problem with a multi-billion-year universe and even evolution.

    – And outsiders see this, and those inside with nagging doubts, not to mention kids in schools, and they wonder: Such authorities have been wrong before–remember Galileo? So, if this God dude is so all-knowning, so infallible, etc. etc., then why is His inspired work so pliable as to lend itself to such wildly varying interpretations???? A decent first-year contracts law student would be expected to do better.

    The authors of that study merely made a simple observation & plotted trends. Empirical trends show science & various other studies to be steadily nibbling away at the various supports that underly & prop up the faith–and those trends are accelerating as facts are found & the news is spreading faster due to the internet.

  5. I think that Abrams, Yaple and Wiener are forgetting Groucho Marx’s dictum that he would never want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member. Furthermore, I think the notion that attractiveness is a monotonically increasing function of member count is just flat out wrong: who wants to be a member of a club that accepts anybody? At some point the country club becomes insufficiently selective and its member migrate to some other organization. To paraphrase an anonymous reviewer of one of my own research publications, there’s rather more math than matter in this work.

  6. Statisticians, like artists, sometimes fall in love with their models.

  7. Tom M,
    “… can of worms.” Maybe Diet of Worms?

    Environmentalism: religion without the vestments.

  8. And here I was thinking that being an atheist was being “without theism”, that is, without the belief in a god. I can’t for the life of me understand what this has to do with yoga, but what the hell. I mean, if it is “other” people making silly semantical games to have the statistics like they like it, it’s a fool’s errand, but if it’s mr Briggs doing it, it’s all okay. Ridiculous.

    About the study itself, I mostly agree with many things you say (except for the ridiculous part where you state that “feel-good” practices are religion). Obviously, religion is not gonna go away anytime soon.

  9. Looks like you’re opening up the proverbial can of worms on how we define religion!

    According to the silly definition that mr Briggs implies, we are all religious. Do you listen to music and enjoy it in a sublime, transcendent way? My bad, you’re religious. Practice exercise and enjoy the rythm of your pulsating heart and respiration, in a spiritual way? Religious. Do you even feel something? Religious.

    And here we have destroyed another word. It’s the usual bluster of mudding the waters of definitions to not concede any point whatsoever. Here, I think that mr Briggs doesn’t want to concede that the world is getting less and less religious, so he accounts for many other practices and feelings as “religious” too, so his worldview stays intact.

  10. That perceived “utility” is a measure of strength of attraction the affiliated soul has to his unaffiliated friend’s way of life.

    And if I fill a bottle with air and leave it undisturbed (perfectly, absolutely and impeccably undisturbed) for a long time, all the atoms and molecules will eventually stop moving around and settle to the bottom of the bottle, their mutual gravitational attraction overcoming their initial random motion.

    Or perhaps, their random motion will evolve to a beatuiful harmonic vibration with each and every molecule moving in concert with its neighbors.

    Probably not.

  11. Contrary to popular belief the lowest point in religious belief was the 19th century with the propagation of science that happened in that century and the theory evolution by Darwin. Churches were just as empty as they have been more recently. The church regained a lot of ground in the early 20th century because of the inhumanities of science, which caused the 2 great wars. Should I say partly for the first and greatly the second with the theory of social darwinism

    Maybe one religion can become extinct, but not all religions.

  12. We tend to prove what we want to prove and believe what we want to believe.
    Years and years ago the National Council of Churches, to which the “main lines” swear allegiance, became political, secular and non-religious, but I repeat myself. As that happened the “fundies” and “evangelicals” [there is a difference] quickly dropped away. They, now, are booming. Main-lines are folding. Sorta like the internet growing versus the MSM slipping. Same scenario.

  13. Note to BBC – Christainity Religion. For example, I wonder what the number of Muslims was in the above mentioned countries was in 1850 versus now. My guess is that there has been an enormous rise in the percentage from essentially zero in 1850.

  14. Briggs

    24 March 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Luis,

    My dear friend, my definition of religion is the scholarly one, and practices such as I have indicated are clearly religious. Being religious does not imply one must worship a deity.

  15. On this logic the rapid rise of Christians in Africa since 1960 proves that before long all of Africa will be Christian. I would like to see the Muslim take on that logic!!!

    My guess is the authors of this paper were very pleased with the finding … which in and of itself is an interesting phenomenon.

  16. I think they just proved that Jews only exist in Israel.

  17. I agree with Briggs on Yoga as practiced by urban westerns as a religion.

    Firstly, it is from a religious tradition.

    An anecdote: by means of some circumstance (loss of a wager – a challenge, I forget the details, I may have been drinking…) I was the proud recipient of a package of six “Hot Yoga” session/classes. What an ordeal. On class five, I inadvertently wore my flip-flop sandals into the Yoga area. I was confronted by another work-out person/devotee and she said “You are wearing your sandals here, take them off – you are in a sacred space!” For her at least, Hot Yoga is a religion by any definition you choose. Needless to say, that was my last Hot Yoga class.

    What I am observing with “Hot Yoga”, alternative medicine, vegan dieting, environmentalism and the associated utterly irrational “man-made global-warming” are secularized religions sometimes enshrined in cult status. I’m going by memory, but you might want to check out “supreammastertv.com” or something like that and it actually combines all of the above along with a restaurant chain in a cult-like pseudo-religion.

  18. Briggs: “Neither does telling a pollster that you are an atheist mean you are not religious; it often, to Westerners, merely means “not Christian.” For example, many so-called atheists conspicuously hump yoga mats around city streets on their way to places like Aha Yoga in San Francisco. A place of, so their brochure assures, “spiritual impact” where you can “Calm your soul,” “Clear your mind,” and “to learn how to feel authentically.” That, my unaffiliated friend, is religion.”

    That is bollocks.

    Briggs: “My dear friend, my definition of religion is the scholarly one, and practices such as I have indicated are clearly religious.”

    No scholarly definition is provided and the argument that some practices are “clearly religious” is purely by assertion: Briggs has decided, so it must be.

    # Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
    # A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
    # The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
    # A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.
    # A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

    Without asking “most” people, we don’t know what they think but the dictionary definitions above would seem to capture most meanings of “religion”.

    “Calm your soul”, “clear your mind” and “learn to feel authentically” clearly do NOT necessarily carry religious connotations, despite Briggs claim to the contrary. And, unless you make “spiritual” synonymous with “religious” neither does “spiritual impact”.

    Finally, the claim that to “most Westerners” stating that they are “atheist” “merely means ‘not Christian'” is also bollocks. For this to be true, “most Westerners” would have to think that, for instance, Islam is not a religion.

  19. So everything is religion? Ok. Then lets say I am not superstitious. Happy?

  20. Briggs

    25 March 2011 at 9:00 am

    Keith,

    Your first mistake was thinking that because I did not provide the commonly accepted definition of religion that I could not. I leave it for the exercise that you neglected to provide that definition for us. (Hint: you have gone most of the way, but not completely; Tao, Shinto, etc.)

    Your second mistake was to selectively quote. The Aha Yoga franchise clearly emphasizes spirituality. I quoted one instance (of several) in their brochure. You somehow forgot this instance.

    Your third mistake was to suppose that because I said practitioners of “Forrest” Yoga (an Aha specialty) are religious that I implied that all who practice any form of Yoga are religious. I do not make that claim.

    Your fourth mistake was to misuse the word bollocks, unless by it you meant succinct and proper demonstration of a truth.

    Updated with the fixing of yet another damn typo: thanks, Rich.

    Second update: That you and Louis interpreted religion in entirely Western (essentially Christian and its roots) ways, also proves my point.

  21. Since Keith was quite frank-spoken I would think his ‘forth’ was right.

  22. I don’t know if there is anything wrong with the study by the mathematicians, but, usually, the conclusion only applies to the population represented by the sample. Generalization of the conclusion to other populations is often problematic. Just a simple principle of generalization in statistics.

    Who knows? Religion (as defined in the study) MAY become extinct in those countries. Not knowing the cultures, it sure is hard to know exactly what’s going on in those countries.

    Tao (Dao) is a religion? Maybe it is, but it has always been a philosophy to me. I guess one really needs to impose a set of qualifications for being a religion. I don’t think that Taoists believe in God.

  23. I have read it argued that the evolutionary function of Religion is to provide criteria of affilliation. In short: Religion is a Shibboleth. If so, and if human beings continue to pursue and value affiliation, then there will always be Religion. Indeed, the criteria for calling something a Religion will themselves become Shibboleths, and arguments about them will be Religious arguments.

  24. Noblesse Oblige

    25 March 2011 at 6:03 pm

    Will Islam become extinct too?

  25. Defining religion is tricky. What might help is listing some of the general characteristics of all religions:

    1. Religions are a group activity. Theoretically I suppose a person could have his/her own, exclusive, personal religion, but generally speaking religions are social (group) phenomena.

    2. Religions posit supernatural agents. The agents have more than the normal abilities (powers) than are generally attributed to (non-sacred) agents such as regular people. I am tiptoeing here because “more than normal” and “sacred/non-sacred” are subjective and open to interpretation. “Belief” in particular agents, generally described as theology, can distinguish between different religions, but belief in some extra normal agent or other is part of all religions. Distinguishing between sacred and non-sacred, i.e. identifying the extra-normal agents and their works, are often a part of the theology.

    3. Humans (believers generally) can somehow communicate with the supernatural agents and vice versa. Sometimes the communication occurs during or by way of rituals and/or prayer/meditation.

    4. Religions generally have moral codes that the followers obey, or try to, or claim to. No religion is morally neutral or amoral.

    Some folks claim to be “spiritual” but “non-religious”. It’s a gray area I suppose, but if you do it with others, it’s probably a religion or something close to it.

  26. Briggs

    Your first mistake is suggesting that I stated that you could not provide a definition. I merely pointed out that you did not, thereby making it impossible for the reader to determine your rationale for concluding that some practices were religious, while others were not. I provided dictionary definitions for the term “religion”, since they are more likely to capture what “most” people mean by religion than a “scholarly definition”.

    Your second mistake was to accuse me of selective quotation. My second last paragraph includes all four quotes about Aha Yoga brochure included in your original post. (As I live some thousands of km from San Francisco, I do not have access to their brochure, so have to rely on your quotes.)

    Your third mistake was in stating that I said you “implied that all who practice any form of Yoga are religious”. As my response contains NO statements about Yoga AT ALL, I am puzzled as to why you think I made that claim. I simply stated that certain phrases, which you quoted in connection with Aha Yoga, do not necessarily carry religious connotations. This is a statement about the interpretation of English phrases and not about Aha Yoga.

    Your fourth mistake was to claim that I misused the word “bollocks”. I used it in the following sense: “2. (British, vulgar) Nonsense or information deliberately intended to mislead.” I think your response to my post contains double helpings of the same.

  27. Briggs

    26 March 2011 at 10:37 am

    Keith,

    Though this has nothing to do with the logic of your claims, may I ask if you are a lawyer?

    1. You now agree with my exceedingly commonly accepted definition of religion, as understood by scholars and (probably) the greatest number of people, but not necessarily by those who live in predominantly Christian countries who conflate “religious” solely with “worship of a deity or deities.”

    2. “Spiritual”, as you now implicitly agree (as you did not attempt to refute their use of the word), means “religious.” Send me (privately, if you like) your physical address, and I will mail you a copy of Aha Yoga’s brochure.

    3. And you now agree, again implicitly via evasion, that those who practice Aha Yoga are, at least in part, religious. Which was my only claim.

    4. I believe you might have consulted an out-of-date or misprinted dictionary because that word, to quote another vulgarism, “Does not mean what you think it means.”

  28. Since we are all being so very pedantic around here, I will say that the BBC is most certainly right as you have quoted it. Religion may become extinct in any country you care to name. War many break out between any country you care to name.

    “May” covers a lot of territory.

  29. Though this has nothing to do with the logic of your claims, may I ask if you are a lawyer?

    BRRRRZZT!

    *And Mr Briggs is instantly disqualified for attempted insult. The winner….. Keith!!* (hurraaaahh)

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