The Extinction of Religion?

We have the census coming up this weekend in the UK where every household has to return information that gives a snapshot of the society. Included amongst the various demographics is the inevitable religion question. It is likely that there will be another increase in the percentage of “no religion” responses given the various polls indicating that the UK is moving towards greater secularity.

A paper just out has even mathematically modeled the decline of religion based on the census data from nine other countries (Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland). The main author has concluded in a interview with the BBC that religion in these countries will become extinct, in the same way that indigenous languages die out when there is competition between different social groups.

No doubt this will be music to the ears of many but then, should we really be that surprised? The history of civilization is littered with the corpses of dead religions. The difference is that those deaths were at the hands of other religions whereas the modern era has science as an alternative way of viewing the universe. I hope so.

That said, there is no box on the census to address beliefs in supernatural phenomena which shows no signs of a decline with remarkable consistency over the past 20 years in the UK alone. I expect that many who tick the “no religion” box still have their beliefs.

At the danger of sounding like a broken record, religions come and go, but beliefs in supernatural possibilities are very stubborn. This is the SuperSense that religions have capitalized so well on over the centuries. It remains to be seen whether all religions will eventually go extinct – I strongly doubt it but I am pretty sure that beliefs in phenomena and forces, that have no evidential basis, will be with us so long as there are brains that are trip-wired to seeing significance where there is none.


Filed under atheism, In the News, Research

9 responses to “The Extinction of Religion?

  1. @blooruk

    Do you think though, that as the human mind evolves, we will recognise superstition. Our common sense may be able, in the distant future, to be naturally capable to identify our cognitive blind spots as a biproduct of a useful supersense during early childhood development?

    • Arno

      First of all, how would you define “evolve” in this case? “Evolve” as in “change in generations over time” with the assumption that sensitivity to superstition is (and can be) selected against? Or “evolve” as in “poorly defined change that can happen in a lifetime, but has no hereditary effects?” If the first, then please propose a selection mechanism. If the second, then please pick your words more carefully.

      Second, how would you define “common sense”, as an often made and highly irrational mistake (mistaking correlation for causality) would to most people be an excellent example of “common sense.” In addition, most advices given by “common sense” are often directly contradictory.

      Third, and to actually get to your point; we already seem to have such a mechanism in place. In Supersense Bruce mentions the teleological bias and how this disappears over the course of development. Unfortunately, he also mentions how it reappears among elderly with developing Alzheimer’s disease. This suggests that at least one type of superstition-related bias is already being controlled, but that this control can be damaged. It also suggests that the bias itself is an automatic one. This is in line with later research from the same group (and published after Bruce finished his book) which shows that even among normal adults teleological biases emerge if you give them a high enough cognitive workload: the amount of information that the executive functions can deal with is limited, and when overloaded, we cannot suppress our automatic biases. This btw isn’t just a problem with superstition-related biases: it also goes for most of the biases that have been categorized by social psychologists in the last 50 or so years, such as cognitive dissonance, stereotyping, the bystander effect etc etc. I can see myself using these biases all the time, but usually only in retrospect. Biases are sneaky little bastards and they are attractive to use, as they seem to do the job most of the time. So no, personally I don’t think that we’ll ever get rid of them. If anything, we might see a rise due to the increasing demand in cognitive resources in most work.

  2. Good post – I admire how you resist the temptation to call them one and the same 🙂 I think in the end religion will morph (disappear?) into philosophy; the Bible – and other holy books – will become wholly metaphor.

    Also, perhaps we will address the possibility that ‘evil’ exists in all of us, rather than pin the ills of the world on a social group to which we don’t belong – which is a little too convenient.

  3. Okay, not having read the paper…

    This sounds highly suspect to me. I realize there are probably a lot of parameters they can tweak in the model, but any model reflecting the decline and spread of languages has got to be quite a bit different from one reflecting religions.

    The biggest problem for me is that while the perceived cost of switching religions may be high, the actual cost is pretty low for a lot of religions. I could decide to become a born-again Christian tomorrow, and the process would be complete within a few weeks at most. On the other hand, if I suddenly decided it would be more “useful” to speak Japanese, well, I’ve got a long road ahead of me.

    On the flip side, the perceived cost of choosing the wrong religion can be much higher. There aren’t really any languages that have a central tenet that if you don’t speak it, you burn in hell forever, right? Just in general, religions are far more likely to have idiosyncratic features that affect their adoption in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

    These two things together — low practical switching cost, and meta-influences by which religion effects itself — make it far too chaotic a system to say anything about it long in advance. It is too susceptible to black swan-type events.

    The only two things I think one can say with near certainty about religion are: As a long-term trend, it’s influence will continue to decline in stable developed nations (though there may be plenty of short-term blips); and that, barring some radical change in our civilization, it will never completely go away.

  4. Andrew Atkinson

    Hmm. Though I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that religions are collectively on the decline – and that maybe some individula religions are declining more rapidly than others – I am not entirely confident that they will disappear entirely, just as you suggest Bruce. The feedback I get from freinds in the States certainly suggest otherwise, and I don’t see it really happening over here. Maybe, it’s just that a greater number of atheists are speaking out against inclinations to be automatically saddled with cultural lineage.

    I also think it’s an incomplete characterisation of religion (though maybe you did not mean to exclude other accounts) to suggest that it has monopolised on your ‘SuperSenses’ as an account of its existence in the present. Granted, we are prone to find meaning where there is none given the sort of input, but it has monopolised on much more than that. It has monopolised on the ‘back doors’ of horizontal cultural transmission, its ability to achieve cognitive salience over other forms of culture including the sciences, critical stages of developmental psychology, and the dynamics of prestige and conformity bias that some would argue lend themselves to group selection where some groups might out compete others in some way.

    I may have missed out many other things, in fact I’m bound to have done so, but the tricks it has recruited so as to have persisted this long are noteworthy. Nothing new to you I’m sure – but thought it was worth mentioning since you have not here.

    I wholly agree with you though – that even if all current cultural information that one might call ‘religious’ were to be eradicated by apathy, education, or generally the test of time – there would still be that supersense template on which the discussion of potentially characterisable new religious ideas might begin to replicate. But – given those other things that religion has indeed employed that might go some way to accounting for it all, I do not think, regardless of what the census might reveal, that religion will ever be a thing of the past. There may be dead religions of the past, but that is only because they have been surplanted by new ones, and at no time of any real significance has there ever been ‘no religion’. ‘Imagine’, is all one can really do… (ref the great John Lennon of ocurse)

  5. Kulka

    Just thought it may be of some relevance (especially to the last comment):

    “A public can only arrive at enlightenment slowly. Through revolution, the abandonment of personal despotism may be engendered and the end of profit-seeking and domineering oppression may occur, but never a true reform of the state of mind. Instead, new prejudices, just like the old ones, will serve as the guiding reins of the great, unthinking mass.
    All that is required for this enlightenment is freedom; and particularly the least harmful of all that may be called freedom, namely, the freedom for man to make public use of his reason in all matters. But I hear people clamor on all sides: Don’t argue! The officer says: Don’t argue, drill! The tax collector: Don’t argue, pay! The pastor: Don’t argue, believe!” (Kant, ‘What is Enlightenment’, 1784)

  6. Gerard Simons

    Religion is only a tool of guidance to become aware of the Omnipresent God within. He has appeared on Earth several times in the history of Man to turn mankind towards the Light. He comes as avatars at various times when the world needs Him to uplift mankind.

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