Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Religion going extinct? I doubt it.

The BBC reports on a paper recently presented at the American Physical Society meeting here in Dallas which makes claims about a decreasing level of religiosity in some parts of the world.  The paper, entitled "A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation," suggests that religion will effectively be extinguished in certain parts of the world just as certain languages die out due to lack of usage.  One of the paper's authors elaborates:
"The idea is pretty simple," said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona. 
"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." 
Dr Wiener continued: "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%." 
The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the "non-religious" category.
I'm skeptical.  The most obvious distinction that jumps out when comparing languages to religion is, at least to my knowledge, that at no point in history have people stopped using language.  They have stopped using specific languages in favor of other ones, just as they have stopped adhering to certain religions and converted to others.  But they haven't cast religion aside. The study discusses how many people would answer that they are non-religious or have no religious affiliation, but that does not answer, as psychologist Bruce Hood points out, whether they have abandoned supernatural beliefs.  As I've mentioned before, there is a difference between being "non-religious," being an atheist, and being a naturalist/materialist, and I don't consider it accurate to say that religion has become "extinct" in a population unless its members fit the latter description.  Which, quite honestly, I don't see ever happening.

Why be such a stickler about this?  Well, because when you talk to a person who says that she doesn't consider herself to be religious (or worse, "non-affiliated"), digging a little deeper may reveal that she actually believes that the universe is God, that prayer and willpower cause wishes to come true, that everything happens for a cosmic reason, that casting spells works, and/or that everyone will be reincarnated after they die.  Her pantheism may disqualify her from being properly labeled an atheist, but the rest of it wouldn't.  And even if she believes in none of those things she may well believe in ghosts, alien abduction, extra-sensory perception, Tarot-reading, and/or Reiki, which you might call secular supernatural ideas.  And to me, a god has more in common with a ghost than a cross has with a Tibetan prayer flag.  The latter two may both signify religious beliefs, but the former are both supernatural agents about which humans have a stunning number of intuitive beliefs in common.  That is, we use the same mental tools to conceive of and believe in them.

And if I'm right about that, then we will probably will carry on in these beliefs for as long as we have the kinds of minds that find them appealing.  I'm also not convinced that religious violence is fundamentally different in kind from any other violence which is rooted in a notion of a transcendent force which unifies one's own group against whatever group(s) it views as threatening.  I don't believe that it takes religion to make good men do bad things-- or, for that matter, for bad men to do good.  I don't see the extinction of religion specifically, even on a completely voluntary basis, as some kind of goal toward which we should all be striving.  Which is a good thing, considering that it probably won't come to pass.

Unlike Hood, however, I do think we should strive toward rationality always, identify and eliminate bias wherever it can be found, and in general try to always have our skeptic's hats on.  I consider supernatural thinking a mistake even if it's an adaptive one. That doesn't mean I have to single out people who think supernaturally as sui generis irrational, because we all do it occasionally.  And it certainly doesn't mean I have to single out people who consider themselves religious as essentially thinking differently from, and/or worse or better than, everyone else.  

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