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Religious Believers: A Less-Than-Endangered Species

Jim Tonkowich

Religious Believers: A Less-Than-Endangered Species

“Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says,” announced the headline on (oddly enough) the Science and Environment page of the BBC website. The article reports findings presented to the American Physical Society in which researchers used a mathematical model to show how, in a relatively few years, religion will die out completely in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. Given that list and the study you can’t help but wonder who’s next.

The researchers took census data from the nine countries and analyzed it using “nonlinear dynamics,” which has been used successfully in explaining “a wide range of physical phenomena” and has been used to study the decline in speaking little-used languages.

Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the University of Arizona explained to the BBC:

“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.

“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.”

The study then—the mathematics of which I won’t pretend to understand—works on the assumption that religion a sociological phenomenon. As a sociological phenomenon, religion, if it has “social status or utility,” should grow. If it lacks “social status or utility,” we can expect it to shrink in size and relevance. Since the number of people claiming “no religion” on their census forms has been rising it seems reasonable that fewer and fewer religious people will attract fewer and fewer followers to take their places. The numbers then diminish until religion dies out.

While there are problems with the assumptions about religion as sociology, there is nonetheless some obvious truth. If a congregation full of senior citizens exists in a community full of young families, but is unable to attract those young families, it will die out. It’s just a matter of time. It’s the problem faced by the Protestant Mainline/Oldline denominations where the average age of members is well into the seventies. The rolls necessarily diminish. In these instances demographics is destiny.

But to say that a religious congregation or denomination will become extinct is a far cry from the claim that religion as a whole will become extinct in those nine countries or anywhere else in the world.

In fact the opposite claim is made by Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah in their new book God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics.

For decades academics, diplomats, policy makers, and—I suspect—the authors of the study reported by the BBC along with the BBC reporter have labored under what has been called the “secularization thesis.” This is the now conventional wisdom that with greater modernity, democracy, and globalization comes increasing secularization. Religion over time will become privatized, marginalized, and finally die out for want of “social status or utility.”

And this is exactly what happened, write Toft, Philpott, and Shah, from the 17th century through the mid-20th century. Since the 1960s, however, religion has made a comeback as a major factor in global affairs. Politicized Islam across the Middle East, Hindu nationalism in India, the Religious Right in the United States, and the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe are prime examples of religion leaving an indelible mark on global affairs over the past sixty years. And that is only the beginning.

Toft, Philpott, and Shah write:

The twenty-first century is “God’s Century.” That is to say, religion has become and in all likelihood will continue to be a vital—and sometimes furious—shaper of war, peace, terrorism, democracy, theocracy, authoritarianism, national identities, economic growth and development, productivity, the fate of human rights, the United Nations, the rise and contraction of populations, and cultural mores regarding sexuality, marriage, the family, the role of women, loyalty to nation and regime, and the character of education.

As to the secularization thesis, one if its most famous proponents Boston University sociologist Peter Berger has admitted that the thesis is, in a word, wrong. Modernity, Berger says, does not inevitably bring secularization. It does, however, bring increased pluralism and a seemingly endless choice of alternative worldviews.

Toft, Philpott, and Shah agree. Modernity, democracy, and globalization, they argue, have brought technology and freedom to religious people. These have allowed them to spread their religious beliefs far beyond traditional borders and expanding the influence of religion across the world. Think, for example, about the role of cell phones, text messaging and Facebook in the current turmoil across the Muslim world.

As to the extinction of religion in Finland, Canada or anywhere else, the fact remains that human beings are made in the image of God and are relentlessly religious. While there are some who can—or at least claim they can—live as atheists without falling into the despair of nihilism, they are few and far between and they seem to hold their atheism with religious zeal.

By contrast, most humans find their hearts restless for transcendent meaning and purpose, like St. Augustine of Hippo. These come from religious faith of some sort. This is true regardless of attendance at worship or markings on a census forms.

And religious faith matters not only in personal lives. If it moves into the public square, faith has political consequences in the lives of nations and the life of the world. And while faith in Australia may be ebbing, religion is far from going extinct. Religion is, by any measure, on the rise across the world. It can and will be a force for both good and ill. So rather than sounding the death knell, we must take religion and religious believers with utmost seriousness. 

This article published on March 31, 2011.

Jim Tonkowich is Senior Vice President of Oxford House Research (www.oxfordhouseresearch.com), a UK-based think-and-do tank focusing on the role of faith and morality in global affairs.