Recently an intriguing research report was published suggesting that in religion has the same chances in the long run as the Dodo bird.
The research was presented to the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas and was authored by Daniel M. Abrams Haley A. Yaple and Richard J. Wiener. For the mathematically minded and truly curious, you’ll find the full document below.
For the rest, here’s a quick summary and explanation. The foundation of the research is quite simple. The “network effect” is a widely observed non-linear phenomena that posits that the value of a group or network increases with the number of individuals within that group.
There are a myriad applications of the network effect. The most intuitive for us to understand is language. Languages are living breathing things that are born, change, evolve and ultimately die. The popularity of a specific language, say English, varies according to the value that it offers the person who speaks it.
There is little value to be gained by learning to speak a language that few speak. But much to be gained if we learn a language that opens doors around the world. As the group of English language speakers grows, so does the value of learning to speak English. And so, with each new English speaker that joins the group, the network effect creates a virtuous feedback loop increasing the utility of English.
The reverse can also be observed as a language is abandoned. Once enough people stop using it, the network effect goes into reverse and it declines quite rapidly as it loses value in a non-linear fashion. In fact, Abrams, one of the authors of this research study applied a similar model to language in a study published in 2003.
We can also observe the network effect in many online communities. For example, the incredible rise and popularity of social networks like twitter and facebook. As well as the quick death of myspace (as people migrated to facebook and others).
The findings of this recent research study are based on this simple concept and they show that in a number of countries, the future will belong to the “non-affiliated” group. In other words, those that have no religious or denominational affiliation – agnostics or atheists.
These countries are Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.
You might notice that these countries have something in common. They are all secular liberal democracies located in the economically advantaged areas of the world. As the Pew study from a few years ago showed already, the level of religious conviction is directly related to financial wealth.
According to this recent study, if the same trends persist, then non-affiliated will be the majority in these countries. In Canada it will be 61% by 2050. According to the latest census data, unaffiliated persons in Ireland represent 4.2% of the population (2006 data). Back in 1961, they were a puny 0.04% of the population. Currently, in the Netherlands, those claiming non-affiliated status number 40% and the highest level of non-affiliation belongs to those beer guzzling heathens, the Czechs.
Niels Bohr, the famous physicist and Yogi Berra are both quoted as saying “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”
This is after all just an extrapolation based on a sensible model and the best available data. It is in no way a guarantee that this is how the future will unfold. But I must confess that I do find it amusing to imagine a future where religion and atheism switch places.
Can you picture it?
We’ll have ‘heretics’ tied to the stake and forced to listen to a monotone recitation of “On the Origin of Species”. Brace yourself to be disturbed during dinner by atheists who knock on your door to share with you the good news of the scientific method. Worse yet, imagine enduring cries and moans of “Friction! Oh friction!” coming through the wall during a rather energetic bout of love making by your atheist neighbors.
The horror… the horror.