Math and the Future of Religion

In a recent piece entitled “Religion in Canada is going extinct as atheists come out of the closet” communications professional Daniela Syrovy argues that it “doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that religion [in Canada] is in decline.” She buttresses this remark with some impressions—church attendance noticeably in decline, church buildings being sold off—and stats from a recent study by three mathematicians (“Mathematicians say religion heading toward extinction”; for the actual piece of research, see Daniel M. Abrams, Haley A. Yaple, and Richard J. Wiener, “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation”) that seem to indicate that religion is headed for extinction in nine western democracies, including Canada. To a math ignoramus like me (I don’t think that my father, who nearly did a PhD in mathematics, ever got over having such a numskull for a son!), the stats, supported by a host of mathematical formulae, look very impressive. The one big glitch is that we are talking about human behavior. First-century Rome—things looked grim for organized religion. Just around the corner was the fervour of Christianity. As Barry Kosmin, a demographer of religion at Trinity College in Connecticut rightly noted, “Religion relies on human beings. They aren’t rational or predictable according to the laws of physics. Religious fervor waxes and wanes in unpredictable ways.” So true.

Actually, this study by Abrams, Yaple and Wiener is simply a mathematical variant of a model that has been employed and found wanting in historical studies, namely, the secularization thesis. In a nutshell, this thesis argued that as societies became more sophisticated technologically, religion waned and declined. The thesis sounds pretty convincing: as more is explained about the world in which we live, the less we need to rely upon religion and deities. Kind of like that episode of the first Star Trek, where the adventure-loving humans encounter the god Apollo, who sees an opportunity to reassert his control over mankind through superstition and fear. But Capt. Kirk—the quintessential rationalist—tells him that mankind had outgrown their need for such gods and such beliefs.

This view seemed to make sense in the 1960s, when humankind seemed on the verge of great advances and the future seemed so rosy because of science. But fifty years on, western men and women are not so sure, and, as Syrovy admits, “Faith exists and is evident in everyday life” [what she means by “faith” is not at all clear]. Or to put it in more (post-)modern jargon, spirituality is flourishing as never before since the sixties, replete with crystals, Buddhism meditation, vampires, and converts to Islam.

Syrovy notes that “an estimated 12% of the world’s population are atheists and if the mathematicians have it right, over half of Canada is headed in that direction. Today, it feels great to say it loud and proud: religion is going extinct. Thank goodness.” Of course, majorities this way or that are not what this issue is about: rather, it is about truth. If 90% believe one thing and 10% another, and the minority are right, what matters that I am in such plentiful company? And when I look back at the twentieth century with its great social experiments in atheism—Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Pol Pot regime—I confess I am not as thrilled at the prospect of nationwide atheism as she is!