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The end of religion?

What's wrong with a mathematical model predicting religion's extinction?
By Dan Harper
Fall 2011 8.15.11

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(Robert Neubecker)

Is religion being driven towards extinction? According to a recent research paper, the answer is yes.

In “A Mathematical Model of Social Group Competition with Application to the Growth of Religious Non-Affiliation,” Daniel M. Abrams, Haley A. Yaple, and Richard J. Wiener use mathematical tools—statistical mechanics and non-linear dynamics—to predict membership trends in religious organizations. In the United States and some European countries, a rising number of people are affiliated with no organized religion at all. Based on the authors’ mathematical model, they predict “that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.”

Abrams, Yaple, and Wiener assume that “adherence” to an organized religious social group is equivalent to being religious. But that’s not necessarily a valid assumption. In their recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, sociologists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell point out that while congregations, and congregational affiliation, are prevalent in the United States, other societies find other ways of doing religion. In fact, Putnam and Campbell remind us that “the congregation as an all-purpose association with members who choose it, belong to it, and make contributions to it is actually a very Protestant [Christian] model of religious organization.”

By focusing their model on whether individuals choose to belong to a religious organization, Abrams, Yaple, and Wiener seem to begin with American Protestant assumptions about the way people do religion. But what about religious activities that don’t involve membership in a formal religious group? For example, after the recent earthquake and tsunami, news media reported on the many people in Japan who were not “affiliated” with, or “adherents” of, Buddhist organizations, yet still turned to a local Buddhist temple for funeral rituals. At the very least, the model proposed by Abrams, Yaple, and Wiener probably won’t give accurate predictions for the religious behavior of the non-Western immigrants who live in large numbers in many Western countries.

And those born in the West are evolving new ways of doing religion. Some scholars point to other areas of Western culture that look so much like religion that we should understand them as new expressions of religion or as alternative spiritualities. The fascination with celebrities, for example, can take on religious trappings. Transpersonal psychologies, feminist spiritualities, raves, sports—all of these cultural expressions can look and feel very much like religion. In New Religions: A Guide, Christopher Partridge, a scholar of contemporary religion, tells us that even though “traditional institutional religion is on the decline in the West,” that doesn’t mean that religion is going to disappear. Instead, Partridge says that in Europe and North America “there has been a subtle growth of new and alternative forms of spirituality, which seem particularly suited to contemporary Western culture.”

What does all this mean for Unitarian Universalist congregations? First, although Abrams, Yaple, and Wiener make dire predictions about religion, we should take their predictions with a grain of salt. Even if their mathematics is sound, they start with incorrect assumptions, and they seem to have a limited understanding of how contemporary religion actually works in Western societies today. On the other hand, we should not become complacent, since many Unitarian Universalists also assume that membership in a local congregation is the only way of “doing religion.” As Western religion continues to evolve into new cultural expressions and alternative spiritualities, how will we UUs come to terms with this evolution? That’s a question that cannot be answered by a mathematical model.

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