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.
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.