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The End (of Religion) Is Near, Scientists Say

Scientists often have a funny way of talking about religion.

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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, in late March. 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?