Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Will religion die out?

A model suggests that, in nine countries, religion is headed for extinction. A similar model has given realistic results in predicting the disappearance of endangered languages.

Some quick thoughts. This model could not have predicted the appearance of religions. What social benefit was there, for example, in becoming a Christian in the early years? Even before the might of the Roman empire was unleashed against it, in social terms, "no one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number." Once persecution broke out, what mileage was there in being part of Christianity? And yet within 300 years, Christianity was the institutional religion of the Roman empire.

Incidentally, although I'm writing this from a Christian perspective, the same could be said, I think, about the social dynamics associated with Islam in the early years, and for that matter the Mormons.

Secondly, the model is based on a social or utilitarian analysis of the role of religion. There are some aspects of religious observance that fit this - for example, religion as a cultural or national phenomenon. However, it is misleading to say that this is all there is to religion - it's the liberal secular approach to religion, so beloved of the comparative RE classes which shape our perspective in school, and it's all a census form (which was used for data capture in this research) can really pick up.

Whilst religious affiliation in the UK is declining (though the UK is not one of the nine countries examined in which religion is set to die out, apparently), this hasn't taken place uniformly across society. Social religious observance is, sure enough, seeing particularly strong reversal. But certain religious groupings are seeing numbers steady or increasing. And these have their own, "counter-cultural" or "sub-cultural" social dynamics, which makes it less likely that they will disappear.

I'm very interested in this research, and will probably read the paper fully. However, I suspect that reports of the death of religion are exaggerated.

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