Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says (BBC)

2 March 2011 Last updated at 07:31 GMT

By Jason PalmerScience and technology reporter, BBC News, Dallas

A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.

The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.

The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.

The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.

The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

Their means of analysing the data invokes what is known as nonlinear dynamics – a mathematical approach that has been used to explain a wide range of physical phenomena in which a number of factors play a part.

One of the team, Daniel Abrams of Northwestern University, put forth a similar model in 2003 to put a numerical basis behind the decline of lesser-spoken world languages.

At its heart is the competition between speakers of different languages, and the “utility” of speaking one instead of another.

“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.

“It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.

“For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.”

Dr Wiener continued: “In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.”

The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category.

They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them.

And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.

However, Dr Wiener told the conference that the team was working to update the model with a “network structure” more representative of the one at work in the world.

“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,” he said.

However, he told BBC News that he thought it was “a suggestive result”.

“It’s interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going.

“Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out.”


21 March 2011 Last updated at 03:59 GMT

Two-thirds of Britons not religious, suggests survey

By John McManusBBC News

Nearly two-thirds of people do not regard themselves as “religious”, a new survey carried out to coincide with the 2011 Census suggests.

The British Humanist Association (BHA), which commissioned the poll, said people often identified themselves as religious for cultural reasons.

The online poll asked 1,900 adults in England and Wales a question which is on this month’s census form.

The Office for National Statistics has defended the wording of the census.

While 61% of the poll’s respondents said they did belong to a religion, 65% of those surveyed answered “no” to the further question: “Are you religious?”

Two surveys were commissioned, one covering England and Wales, and the other for Scotland. The Scottish survey was commissioned by the Humanist Society of Scotland.

South of the border, 61% of respondents said they did have a religion.

But only 29% also said they were religious, while 65% said they were not.

This poll is further evidence… that the data produced by the census, used by local and national government as if it indicates religious belief and belonging, is in fact highly misleading”

Andrew CopsonBritish Humanist Association

Among respondents who identified themselves as Christian, fewer than half said they believed Jesus Christ was a real person who died, came back to life and was the son of God.

Another 27% said they did not believe that at all, while 25% were unsure.

In Scotland, 42% of respondents said they did not belong to a religion, yet in a further question “Are you religious?” 56% answered “no”.

The BHA has complained the wording of the optional census question about religion encourages people to wrongly identify themselves as believers.

In the last census in 2001, 72% of people were classed as Christians – a figure which is much higher than other surveys.

The BHA believes people might tick “yes” to the census question on religion for reasons of cultural identity.

The chief executive of the BHA, Andrew Copson, is running a national campaign encouraging non-religious people to state their unbelief clearly on their census forms.

He said: “This poll is further evidence for a key message of the Census Campaign – that the data produced by the census, used by local and national government as if it indicates religious belief and belonging, is in fact highly misleading.

Religious affiliation

The humanists say data which might indicate a greater amount of religious belief than actually exists, is being used to justify faith schools, and the continuing presence of Anglican bishops in the House of Lords.

The Office for National Statistics has defended the wording of the religion question.

A spokesman told the BBC: “The religion question measures the number of people who self-identify an affiliation with a religion, irrespective of the extent of their religious belief or practice.”

The think tank Theos, which undertakes research into religious matters, says attempting to measure cultural affiliation to religion – rather than actual, regular practice – is a good idea, as it shows the broad values society shares.

It also disputes the BHA’s assertion that the collected data is used for political purposes.