The End (of Religion) is Near, Scientists Say

Scientists often have a funny way of talking about religion.

A case in point concerns a new study that was discussed at the American Physical Society meetings in Dallas, Texas, late last month. Religion, it seems, is going extinct. You heard me: extinct. Dead and gone. Like the dinosaurs.

The data that a team of mathematicians used to reach this rather surprising conclusion were census reports of religious affiliation. Using a complicated means of mathematical analysis called “nonlinear dynamics”—complicated, ironically, because its purpose is to make complicated things simpler by reducing them to one variable—the team attempted to extrapolate from data on religious affiliation in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Turns out, every case of self-reported religious affiliation is trending downward: 40% self-identify as religiously non-affiliated in the Netherlands, as do 60% in the Czech Republic. The mathematicians seem far more surprised by these numbers than most religionists would be.

The first and most obvious reason involves an important distinction that when you shift the language away from “God” or “religion” and turn to conceptions of “sacrality” or “the sacred,”’ whole new worlds of meaning and meaningful activity bubble to the surface. Lost in the debate is the large and growing number of thoughtful people who self-identify as “spiritual, but not religious” (that is, as non-affiliated), an admittedly complex phrase than doesn’t allow for easy analysis either. But, as has been frequently noted on RD, religion is highly dispersed in the modern period; it’s not going away, it’s just going elsewhere.

Sometimes the “spiritual, but not religious” person wishes to communicate his or her disgust with organized religion and institutions. This is a major feature of the landscape in U.S. Catholicism right now, given the ongoing scandals, cover-ups, and Vatican obfuscation and delay. Sometimes the “spiritual, but not religious” person is cobbling together a life of meaning outside traditionally recognized channels.

And sometimes non-affiliation is as simple as having recently moved and not yet found the religious community that works for you or your family. It’s complicated in a way that nonlinear dynamics can’t adequately simplify.

Now, if we take the language of “extinction” seriously—as we should—as well as the evolutionary theory it seems to presuppose, then a better way to read this data might be to suggest that a number of recognizably religious traditions are undergoing some significant modern mutations, such that the affiliations into which they are turning bear only a partial resemblance to what preceded them. Dinosaurs don’t just go extinct, they became birds—that’s the idea.

But dinosaurs as dinosaurs did die out, and that’s what these scientists are asking us to remember and to take seriously as a religious possibility—and they’re right to do so. It’s happened before. There are poignant writings from the ancient world describing when and why the oracles at Delphi and elsewhere fell silent, in the period when Christians were making their first major inroads into the millennial religious structures of the Roman empire. In the late Roman period, religions did indeed die out, and downward trends in religious affiliation may have had something to do with that.

Whether or not Christianity is the bird that the dinosaur of Greco-Roman religion evolved into (or even whether the analogy itself is inadequate to the task) is a hard question to answer. And it’s similarly hard to discern just what this study is inviting us to imagine. Is it that something similar is happening to Christianity, or to the three scriptural monotheisms, today?

Something is clearly up (or down) with religious affiliation; how to read that data is the real question, and that calls for the art for interpretation, not mathematical modeling. That’s what makes this story far more interesting—and far less funny.

It turns out that this same model was applied in 2003 to the phenomenon of “extinct” languages. As fewer and fewer people possess linguistic capability in a given language, the language can and often does die out. The scientists who conducted the religion survey invite us to read that process as the utilitarian consequences of means-ends decision-making. It’s rational-choice theory applied to the language or languages a person speaks.

Here’s how survey leader Richard Weiner, of the University of Arizona (a state with its own problems vis à vis diverse linguistic communities, be sure to note), put it:

In languages there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of Quechua in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.

Yowza. There’s a lot packed into that fairly simple analogy; or rather, there’s a lot left out.

Deliberations over “status” in a colonial context are not matters of utility; they’re exercises in power. Spanish or Quechua was a political decision as much as anything; a decision to accept or reject the new imperial order. Those who chose the more difficult bi-lingual option were often enormously useful as translators, though often deeply unhappy since they effectively belonged nowhere—no longer native and not quite imperial was their tragic new location.

When it became clear that many restive native peoples were maintaining their indigenous languages, the empire set out to shut them down; a policy that can seem a lot more like linguistic genocide than natural selection.

These concerns take us to some of the more difficult questions that this benign mathematical oracle leaves out, and it speaks to the subtle hegemony of a certain quantitative mentality among such scientists—even and especially applied to arenas of social life that don’t lend themselves to statistical or quantitative analysis.

Like health care. Like education. Isn’t this what we who are educators or health care professionals grapple with on a daily basis? The number-crunchers are forcing us to speak their language and play their game, though they make no parallel effort to learn ours.

And that is precisely what this not-so-benign linguistic analogy suggests. If “religion” (never defined) is like Quechua—and thus rapidly dying out, I take it—then who’s speaking the religious equivalent of imperial Spanish?

It would seem to be the scientists themselves, and their language of choice is math.

That makes this study no longer benign or funny. It’s an almost sneering and worrisome glimpse into the mentality of a certain kind of secularist science that’s got something invested in all people speaking the same way.