Can you see a world where religion no longer exists? Apparently a group of mathematicians can…
Researchers from the department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics of Northwestern University in Illinois have published a study which they suggest indicates the extinction of religion. The study used census data covering a period of over a century, from nine countries where religious affiliation was queried: namely Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. In many of these modern secular societies, an emerging trend has been observed towards non-affiliation with religion. This was most apparent in the Czech Republic, where 60% of citizens identified themselves as not religious.
The Northwestern University research group used methods of statistical mechanics and nonlinear dynamics (mathematical tools which employ probability theory and are useful for dealing with large populations) to analyse the census data. The following equation used by the researchers represents a simple model of the dynamics of conversion:
where is the probability, per unit of time, that an individual converts from Y to X. From the researchers’ statements, we can assume that the conversion from X to Y is intended as the conversion from religious to non-religious affiliation. According to Dr Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, the idea behind this model is simple: “It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join.” Applying the model to data from the census, the resulting graphs predicted the “continued growth of non-affiliation, tending towards the extinction of religion”.
In order to lend weight to their dramatic conclusions, the researchers cite the successful use of nonlinear dynamics in analysing models of social phenomena such as language choice and political affiliation, but there are many who remain unconvinced by their bold claims. Their scepticism seems fairly reasonable: the research group admit even in their published paper that the network structure adopted by the study isn’t perfect. Dr Wiener explained “Obviously we don’t really believe this is the network structure of a modern society, where each person is influenced equally by all the other people in society […] much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out”. To be honest, ‘maybe’ doesn’t sound that scientifically accurate.
With these uncertainties acknowledged in the published paper itself, and by spokespersons, it seems unwise to have put forth quite such bold claims into the media spotlight. While the study is indeed interesting, and its results encouraging to further research, perhaps a more restrained approach should have been taken by the researchers when analysing their results. The study then might not have provoked such an angry public response, and could have avoided re-affirming a view that science is unable to engage with such human issues as religion.
 “Mathematical Model of Social Group Competition with Application to the Growth of Religious Non-affiliation” Daniel M. Abrams and Haley A. Yaple, Department of Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208, USA & Richard J. Wiener Research Corporation for Science Advancement, Tucson, Arizona 85712, USA Department of Physics, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA (Dated: January 17, 2011)