Religion = Religious Affiliation?

The BBC has a report with the headline, ‘Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says’.The report claims:

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.

Notice, in the reporting of this study, there is the equating of ‘religion’ with ‘religious affiliation’. We might think that if ‘religious affiliation’ is on the decline, that is one thing; if ‘religion’ is on the decline, then that is something else, is it not? Several commenters clearly thought something like a human phenomenon called ‘religion’ was due to become extinct.

If, hypothetically, ‘religious affiliation’ did disappear in these 9 countries, what would that mean for ‘religion’? Would it mean that symbolic systems were exinct? Belief in the supernatural were no more? ‘Myths and legends’ gone? What if someone had no affiliation but believed in a supernatural creator? Already we are at that endless problem: defining ‘religion’. But whilst this definition may be difficult/impossible as a precise essentialist definition, it is clear that how ‘religion’ is constructed by interested parties is much more plausible, and probably much more fruitful.  In the case of this report, there is probably much more that could be said beyond the equating of ‘religion’ and ‘religious affiliation’ but one feature is that this is filed under ‘science and technology’ which may in part account for reporting and interpreting the data in the language of ‘extinction’.


4 thoughts on “Religion = Religious Affiliation?

  1. Pingback: A few good links | eChurch Blog

  2. this is filed under ‘science and technology’ which may in part account for reporting and interpreting the data in the language of ‘extinction’ – exactly, and they haven’t got a clue about the history and evolution of ideas, and beliefs, and traditions, or practice and identity … or human beings.

    The other day I read a ‘humanist’ neuroscientist equating ‘religion’ with ‘natural theology’ and concluding that religion wasn’t natural… Religion will become ‘extinct’ in Aotearoa, New Zealand – you want a bet? It’s personal. Agnostic religion. It’s interesting talking to people about what they think about things rather then ask them to tick a box and expect that to provide an accurate indication of any damn thing. 🙂

  3. I believe it’s naive to equate ‘religion’ with ‘religious affiliation,’ just as it would be naive to make ‘religion’ equivalent to ‘spirituality.’ The definitions of these words rest in the minds of those answering the census questions; therefore, it would be wise to ask individuals what these three words mean to them before drawing conclusions such as those drawn by the American Physical Society (why is a group of physicists addressing this issue in the first place?).
    I agree that the science/technology perspective easily lends itself to the extinction paradigm. But it’s much easier to point to a particular animal, e.g. the polar bear, and say ‘this animal is headed for extinction,’ since polar bears are tangible life forms we can see and hear. ‘Religion’ and similar terms are mental constructs, intangible, so I don’t think it is worthwhile to waste time talking about ‘extinction’ of religion. I think it would be better to focus on changes in religion and religious expression, especially as these changes are affected by the media.

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