Statistical modeling of membership in organized Western religion

A recent research paper, “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation”, co-authored by Daniel M. Abrams, Harley A. Yaple, and Richard J. Weiner, applies the tools of statistical mechanics and non-linear dynamics to membership in religious organizations. Unfortunately, based on this mathematical analysis, the authors jump to unwarranted broad conclusions:

People claiming no religious affiliation constitute the fastest growing religious minority in many countries throughout the world. Americans without religious affiliation comprise the only religious group growing in all 50 states; in 2008 those claiming no religion rose to 15 percent nationwide, with a maximum in Vermont at 34 percent. In the Netherlands nearly half the population is religiously unaffiliated. Here we use a minimal model of competition for members between social groups to explain historical census data on the growth of religious non-affiliation in 85 regions around the world. According to the model, a single parameter quantifying the perceived utility of adhering to a religion determines whether the unaffiliated group will grow in a society. The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction. [p.1]

The mathematical analysis appears to be sound — I’m not a mathematician, and not competent to judge this myself, though it seems consistent with what little I know about mathematical modeling of non-linear systems. But the model really only applies to reported membership in traditional Western religious groups. In religion will be “driven toward extinction”, the authors are assuming that membership in a congregation or organized religious social group is equivalent to “doing religion” or “being religious.” While this may be true for certain cultural contexts, e.g., where contemporary Western Christianity is assumed to be normative, it does not hold true in other cultural contexts. For example, in Japan individuals are often not “affiliated” with, or “adherents” of Buddhist temples or groups, yet when a family member dies many people will still turn to a local Buddhist temple for funeral rituals; this type of religion does not equate being religious with group or institutional affiliation or adherence. Continue reading “Statistical modeling of membership in organized Western religion”

Web version: Hank Peirce’s Hot Stove Report

Hate Facebook, but still want to check Hank Peirce’s list of which ministers will candidate where? Here’s a list of all congregations currently in search from Hank’s famous Hot Stove Report.

Now moved to a new post — click here!

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