Celebrated intellectuals have long predicted the demise of religion in modern scientific society, and a new, headline-grabbing study presented at a Dallas meeting of the American Physical Society claims to demonstrate mathematically that organized religion will be "driven toward extinction" in at least nine Western-style democracies.
One of the study's authors, Daniel Abrams, had developed a mathematical model to account for the extinction of languages spoken by small numbers of people. Another of the authors, Richard Wiener, noted that similar data was available for religious affiliation in some developed nations, and suggested they apply the same model to the waning of religious affiliation.
Of the nations studied, only the Czech Republic already has a majority of its citizens who are unaffiliated with a religion, at 60 percent. But the authors predict that the Netherlands, which currently stands at 40 percent unaffiliated, will reach 70 percent by 2050. Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland will also, claim the authors, see organized religion all but vanish.
Mainstream media outlets eagerly promoted the report, and commentary blossomed in the Christian blogosphere. Some warned that the study pointed to the further deterioration of Western Christendom, while others welcomed a culling-out of nominal believers. Yet there is reason for skepticism about the study itself.
The authors, Abrams explained to CNN, assume two sociological principles. The first points to social networks: It's generally more appealing to belong to the majority than the minority group. The second points to utility: In a country where religion is in decline, there are pragmatic advantages to being unaffiliated with a religion. These forces, the authors argue, will accelerate the growth of the unaffiliated category. The unaffiliated will not necessarily become atheists, but they will not practice their faith within religious institutions.
Yet principles that apply to languages may not apply to religions, where standing in the minority and requiring high levels of sacrifice are commonly associated with religious fervency and not decline. The church that is persecuted today is often resurgent tomorrow. It also seems facile to suggest that the present trends cannot be altered. In the case of Ireland, the authors observed that the proportion of unaffiliated had grown from 0.04 percent in 1961 to 4.2 percent in 2006, the most recent year for which data is available. Extrapolating from 96 out of 100 affiliated to "virtual extinction" seems quite a leap. Throw in the immigration of millions of Muslims into some of these countries, and the rise of new religious movements, and the study's projections begin to seem fanciful.
There was not enough data for the authors to predict the fate of organized religion in the United States, where the census does not ask about religious affiliation. Yet the unaffiliated (scholars call them "nones," for "none of the above") make up the fastest-growing religious category in America. Other studies suggest that many "nones" are evangelicals who do not identify with any denomination or religious label. Yet nondenominational communities of faith are not so much outside "organized religion" but outside the old institutions.
Abrams states that all of the data points toward the growth of the unaffiliated. "I can't imagine that will change," he said. Yet the authors would do well not to weigh too heavily the limits of their own imaginations. Intellectuals throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Thomas Jefferson and Clarence Darrow, all predicted the imminent demise of Christianity. All were proven wrong.
Faith is a resilient thing. Even if participation in organized religion should decline in the West, it is exploding in the East. And the rise of the unaffiliated may be the prelude to renewal, or may signal the slow and subtle ways in which faith pours out of old wineskins into the new.
Harvard College began as a proudly Christian institution. Its first president provoked a crisis in 1653 when he became a Baptist, and by the early 19th century Harvard was becoming "the Unitarian Vatican." Charles William Eliot, a Transcendentalist whose 40-year tenure as president began in 1869, fully secularized Harvard and blazed the trail for the secularization of countless other Christian institutions of higher learning.
The tug of war between denominational authorities and Christian colleges and seminaries continues even now. The latest instance is Erskine College and Seminary in South Carolina. The question that threatens to divide Erskine from the denomination to which it belongs is arguably the great theological question of the past two centuries: Can the Bible be trusted as fully authoritative and reliable? Erskine is an agency of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian (ARP) Church, a small denomination of about 300 conservative evangelical congregations.
The ARP Church has long professed that the Bible as it was originally written was free from error, but over the course of the past five decades Erskine faculty, many inspired by the late Swiss theologian Karl Barth, have often challenged that profession. The "Barthian" or "neo-orthodox" view holds that the Scriptures are a witness to the Word, and this witness becomes the Word of God when the Holy Spirit reaches through the Scriptures to encounter the reader and make God known to him. In this view, the historical accuracy of biblical stories is not assured; what matters is the God who reveals Himself through them. Most evangelicals have worried that this replaces biblical authority with subjective impressions of a mysterious divine encounter.
The ARP Church's General Synod again emphasized inerrancy in 2008 when two Erskine faculty members refused to affirm it and raised questions of academic freedom. The relationship between the denominational authorities and the board of trustees broke down, and legal action was narrowly avoided. Most recently, on April 22, six professors posted an open letter stating that Erskine should no longer tolerate faculty who could not affirm the ARP Church's statements of belief.
Erskine illustrates the precarious position of Christian colleges and seminaries in the landscape of modern higher education. Some professors contend that these are precisely where believers should be free to challenge long-settled beliefs. Yet too often "academic freedom" has actually meant a corrosive and exaggerated skepticism toward religious authorities and traditions. What does a truly faithful academic freedom look like for an institution of higher learning that serves the needs of a specific Christian community? Perhaps Erskine will succeed where Harvard failed to find the answer.