May 23, 2011

dx/dt = yPyx(x, ux) - yPyx(x, ux)?

Is this the key, the explanation? Does this predict religion's end or tell us why religion is declining -- “towards extinction” -- in some apparently secularizing Western nations?

No.

It turns out, contra reports, to be a bit of a sound and fury of math, explaining little.

A new study, touted as mathematically predicting the demise of religion in nine Western nations, does not actually tell us much. It definitely doesn't say as much as reports' say it does, with their headline's reading "extinction!"

It might not even say as much as the researchers think it does.

There's enough math in paper, "A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation," that some, I'm sure, will take its conclusion as proven and true. Before the paper even gets to the math, however, it appears to commit itself to a tautology.

It's not wrong, necessarily, but its claim turns out to be trivial.


The BBC reports that the "study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction," and "indicates that religion will all but die out altogether" in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

The New Humanist picked up the story, and report that Daniel M. Abrams and Haley A. Yaple, of Northwestern, and Richard J. Wiener, of the University of Arizona, Tuscon, "found, through the modelling, that the numbers of non-religious people will continue to grow, while religious affiliation will continue to fall 'towards extinction.'"

While this may be true, there are good reasons to suspect some of the census data -- people are not always honest in their self-identifications -- and there's a lot of vagueness built into "towards extinction" and "all but die out." There's also some slipperiness in the conflation of religious affiliation with religiousness and with religion itself.

The reports’ proclamations of religion's predicted extinction are overstated at best.

Beyond that, though, the study doesn't do anything to explain why these countries are becoming less religious, if indeed they are, though that's specifically stated as the goal of the study.

In fact, the whole thing seems to turn on claim that's true by definition.

According to the paper itself, the goal of the project was to look at "the surprisingly rapid decline of organized religion in many regions of the world," "quantifying the declining rates of religious affiliation in a variety of regions worldwide and present a theory to explain this trend."

This is a perfectly valid and interesting project, and, could, perhaps, help to explain secularization, especially where it happens and why it happens where it happens, which is a really interesting and tricky question religious studies and social studies people have been attempting to puzzle out for a good while. If it is the case that religion or at least religious affiliation is declining in these places, an explanation of that phenomena would be worthwhile. We would like to know, for example, why some of these countries seem to be becoming less religious, while others, e.g. Latin American, African countries, and the US, are becoming more religious.

This paper doesn't answer its own question, though.

The problem comes in the thesis, which is: "for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction."

Alternatively stated as a conclusion, Abrams, Yaple and Wiener write: "The model [of social group competion] indicates that in these societies the perceived utility of religious non-affiliation is greater than that of adhering to a religion, and therefore predicts continued growth of non-affiliation, tending toward the disappearance of religion."

The problem is with "perceived utility."

What is it? How is it measured?

This term is crucial to their project -- maybe even the whole thing -- but they don't say how "perceived utility" is different that someone saying they think it's good for them to belong to a group.

They measure "perceived utility" and adherance, and find that when one increases, so does the other, but this, as far as I can tell, is not a significant claim. It's tautological. It's saying: When people think it's good to belong to a religion, they will belong to a religion, and when not, not.

So: Good to affiliate = affiliation, and not good to affiliate = non-affiliation?

This is not ground breaking, nor is it news. Nor does it do anything explain why some majority in some countries would find it good or not good to affiliate. It would, obviously, just as equally work for the opposite result, or any other result. Because it doesn’t explain anything.

By the time the paper gets to its model of changing religious affiliations -- dx/dt = yPyx(x, ux) - yPyx(x, ux) -- the problem of the tautological claim is already built in.

The real question, the one that's supposedly being asked, is, given declining rates of religious affiliation in Canada, Switzerland, the Netherlands, etc., why are people choosing not to affiliate? This doesn't answer that, but just tells us they don't because it doesn't seem good to them, which we knew by the very fact that they don't. Perhaps if someone was arguing that the populations of secularizing countries longed to be religious and wanted to be religious and yet, mysteriously, weren't, then this would be helpful. But no one is making anything like that kind of claim.

Perhaps I misunderstand the point of the paper. There is little in it about "perceived utility." The closest they come, that I can tell, to a definition is this: "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." This makes no sense to me. They're measuring the increase in attractiveness, which increases with perceived utility, which is attractiveness. Isn't it?

If the "perceived utility" is something that encompasses benefits of being an adherent of an organization, plus the fact it seems spiritually and morally right, doesn't that mean it is attractiveness?

Perhaps they mean to position their version of perceived utility against some other version of what makes a religous affiliation attractive, but they don't do that in the paper. What we end up with is a really trivially true claim that people do what seems good to them to do.

Without giving us a better definition of the key term, all the math they do, e.g. dx/dt = yPyx(x, ux) - yPyx(x, ux), etc., doesn't do much beyond the tautology of affiliation and perceived utility.

This leaves the prediction pretty facile. They write, for example, that "religion will disappear if its perceived utility is less than that of non-affiliation." For one thing, this conflates "religion" and "religious affiliation," but even besides that, it doesn't seem mean anything beyond "people will not be religious if it doesn't seem good to them to be religious."

Perhaps, of course, self-identified religious affiliation will trend towards zero in these countries, though trending towards doesn't actually mean ever reaching. It's possible, even, too, that religions will go extinct in these places. What this study doesn't tell us, though, is why. It doesn't even seem to give us anything more than we would have gotten from just extrapolating from the census data, assuming that the trend of non-affiliation would continue on at some constant rate, unabated.

Since explanation was supposed to be the point of the report, in the end this exercise seems to be a lot of math and a little bit of silliness.