Whether or not religion is dying is one of those questions adored by both fans and foes of religion alike, and now they have a new study on that very question. But before either group starts popping any Champaign corks, they should take note. The study, conducted by scholars from the University of Arizona and Northwestern University, and presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society suggests that religion may be dying in nine countries. The study projects the extinction of religion in Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
While not studied, the trend line in the United States has been interpreted in similar ways by other scholars, most recently because of polling conducted for the American Religious Identification Survey, in which the fastest growing religious group in America was the “nones” i.e., people indicating that none of the categories offered by the study fit how they would describe themselves when it came to religion.
Before religion foes begin celebrating however, it’s worth noting that these studies make a giant conceptual error – one which confuses the death of religion with the end of religion and religious affiliation as we know them. There is plenty of evidence for the latter two phenomena, but the fact that people are doing religion differently doesn’t mean that religion is going extinct.
These trends forecast the eventual extinction of the current array of religious options, but do not forecast the extinction of what might be termed a religious sensibility, which already exists for many people independent of typical religious categories. The trend may upset those of us who are attached to particular traditions and institutions because those really might die out, but there is even reason for us to take heart.
None of our faiths has been here forever, and according to most of them, each is an improvement over what preceded them, so it’s likely that if these traditions should actually die out, they too will be replaced by potentially superior alternatives. I am not a super-sessionist who believes that whatever comes last is best. I am simply suggesting that if religion as we know it does go extinct, there is reason to believe that it will be replaced by religion as we do not know it yet, and that it may well be an improvement over the versions we currently have.
Of course, even if that process is unfolding, it will be, like most evolutionary processes, quite slow, so nobody reading this is likely to confront the actual death of the tradition to which they are currently attached.
Also worth noting is that while traditional religious affiliation and attachment is declining in some parts of the world – the northern and western regions of the planet, it is clearly on the rise in points south and east, such as Africa and China. Could these shifts be part of a much larger trend?
It may be that in all of these places, both where religion is in decline and where it is on the rise, what’s happening is that people are insisting on the expansion of those options which have defined their spiritual and religious possibilities until now.
The real story emerging here is not the potential extinction of religion, but the explosion of choice which people increasingly feel is their right. This seems to be a trend which affirms human dignity – something which is supposed to be sacred for religionists and non-religionists alike —and therefore worthy of celebration.
As the study’s authors’ observe, “The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.” Isn’t that how it ought to be?
No faith can succeed if it does not work in the lives of the faithful. This study just reminds us, particularly those of us connected to organized faith traditions, that we must never lose sight of that fact, and if we do, we probably deserve to go extinct anyway.
Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.