The End (of Religion) Is Near, Scientists Say
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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.
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.
Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. is William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta and currently a Stanley J. Seeger Visiting Research Fellow at Princeton University's Program in Hellenic Studies. The author of six books, his most recent is This Tragic Gospel: How John Corrupted the Heart of Christianity (Jossey-Bass, 2008). His next book, JJ Winckelmann andd the Vatican's First Profane Museum will be published by Palgrave at the end of the year.