Is religion about to become extinct?

The BBC is reporting a new study that suggest that religion is dying and on its way to extinction. It’s a fascinating study and I’m very interested by it. It is no. 8 in my series Theological Questions To Which The Answer is No but it is more subtle than a straight rejection.

In fact I would go further and say that religious leaders need to grapple with its findings as it makes some important points. The report which you can read looks at a possible mathematical model that explains why religion may go extinct.

We further assume that attractiveness also increases with the perceived utility of the group, a quantity encompassing many factors including the social, economic, political and security benefits derived from membership as well as spiritual or moral consonance with a group.

In other words they look at social groups through how useful they are perceived to belong to them. They go on to say:

that no one will switch to a group with no utility or adherents.

In other words is their a social pressure to join a group because otherwise I am left out in the cold or does it bring me direct benefit from belonging to it?

It also makes the fascinating point that

An analysis of the fixed points of this equation tells us that religion will disappear if its perceived utility is less than that of non-affiliation, regardless of how large a fraction initially adheres to a religion.

In other words it doesn’t matter how strong a religion looks on the outside if it really isn’t seen as having any real benefit then it will lose out to those without religion. There won’t be a big enough pull to either keep those already in or attract new people in.

And further you can’t hide away from the consequences:

even if conformity to a local majority influences group membership, the existence of some out-group connections is enough to drive one group to dominance and the other to extinction. In the language of references the population will reach the same consensus, despite the existence of individual cliques, as it would without cliques, with only the addition of a time delay.

Now I think that these are really important insights to take on board. I think that the church in many countries is in danger of having its head in the sands and seeing that all we need to do is turn up at church and that people will come flocking or we get the worship just right and then everyone will be touched by God and that they will become Christian. God is sovereign and He might do that – but I think it unlikely.

The Church must change to take on board these insights. The Church does have much to offer when it lives out of the call of God to bring change to the world. One of the reasons that the early Church made such a difference is that it challenged the power structures of the societies it existed in – most of its adherents were the poor and slaves and they were suddenly told that God saw them as important and of great value.

This study re-enforces the importance of the path that we are going down as a church. The church exists for the sake of the world rather than the other way around. So, just as we are reaching out into Roundshaw and Wallington so we need to continue building community, making a difference in the world – showing that others can make a difference and helping others be part of a vision for the care of others.

It is easy to dismiss this report and to focus on the good things that are going on and the way that the fall in church membership has largely levelled off as I reported previously. But I think that part of the reason for this levelling off is that some of these issues in this country are being partially addressed. Many more want to make a difference in society – think of the focus on green issues or third world debt.

But there is much more to do. I hope that this mathematical model (even with the acknowledged flaws) will be looked at and considered. The church will, I believe, need to lose more of its privileges before we get a hearing as well as show that we are the people that roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty (like the Street Pastors as an example).

I think that we live in one of those tipping points of history where our efforts and care will tip the balance. Carrying on with business as normal will lead us into a cul-de-sac.

As I said in my previous article on this:

The Anglican prayer book has as one of its statements in the Declaration of Assent about the Church of England the great phrase:

It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.

That is the mission of our church. We are called upon to keep looking at how we present the great truths of the Christian faith to each generation anew. it is not enough that these ways worked in the past. For each generation we need to find ways to make the Gospel understandable and relate-able to them.

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3 comments on “Is religion about to become extinct?

  1. TheEvangelicalLiberal
    March 23, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    Very interesting, and as you say, there are some insights we need to take on board. However, it seems to me that the report misunderstands the nature of the church and of religion by interpreting them purely in sociological terms.

    Where the church is merely a social group, I’m sure it will die out and that’s probably no bad thing. But the Church as a whole will always be more than that. If (as we believe) it really is the Body of Christ on earth, it will die out in some places only to spring up in others. While for our own sake and our communities we must strive to make sure we’re not among the ones that die out, we also shouldn’t imagine that our efforts alone will make the difference between the flourishing of the worldwide church and its stagnation and death.

    That does sound a bit like a cop-out, and I’m not saying we have no responsibility to act or to change. I’m just saying that ultimately if it really is Christ’s church then it won’t ever die out.

  2. Will Cookson
    March 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    I certainly don’t believe that the church will die out – that’s why I called it part of my TQTWTAIN series, but that really doesn’t let us off the hook which too many will see that as. You just have to think of Esther when Mordecai tells her about the threat to the Jews:

    “For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

    So for us we live in such a time as this and our call is quite clear. We are called to act and not to sit back.

  3. Esther Somerson
    March 29, 2011 at 8:55 pm #

    The church will never die for she is Christ’s bride. Jesus has said so therefore it cannot happen. There is a great and good emphasis on getting the following generations to join us but so many people are searching for a meaning and we all have responsibility to witness – so many middle aged people or older people think they’ve screwed up by falling away from His teachings and guilty feelings that God wouldn’t want them back. We get so many opportunities to witness and we must not pass them by, especially in secular situations – He takes us out of our comfort zone for a reason. We never know how God is using us. So let’s not keep silence. Qualitative research is as valid as quantitative but doesn’t get the funding and the backing it deserves!

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