According to the title of a recent Radio New Zealand news item, which was based on the research of an American mathematician, religion is set to become extinct in New Zealand. You might think I would see this as really good news because I have pointed out many times in the past that religion is a common cause of many problems, not the least of which is pure, plain ignorance.
But let’s go back to my blog entry of yesterday. In that I said that everyone should be skeptical of news items which they want to be true. That includes atheists who hear news items based on real research which seems to show that religion is becoming irrelevant. So is this an example of one of those times when we should be skeptical? Well yes, of course it is.
The item on radio was just over 3 minutes long and examined the subject very superficially. The researcher who was interviewed didn’t even have the New Zealand data available and the statistical and modelling methodology was only mentioned very briefly. So really we have no real reason at this point to think religion will become extinct here at all. In fact the researcher specifically said the outcome could be extinction or the religious part of the population becoming a very small minority.
I’m sure the basic conclusions are true: there is a steady rise in the number of people claiming no religious affiliation in consecutive sets of census data. This in true in most western countries but is most obvious in more “progressive” countries like New Zealand and the Netherlands (the only other country mentioned in the interview where the researcher estimated a rise in no affiliation from 40% now to 70% by the middle of the century.)
But is religion actually becoming extinct in New Zealand? Based on the interview it was impossible to tell. And even if we were told all the facts and the statistics and the modelling is correct does that even mean the conclusion is that religion will become extinct?
That seems unlikely. First, there is likely to be a core group of believers in traditional religions which won’t give up their beliefs easily. Sure many of those will succumb to old age and therefore no longer be relevant as time progresses but they will pass on their beliefs to the next generation as well.
Second, failure to identify with an organised religious group doesn’t mean the person isn’t religious. Well at least that argument could be made depending on your exact definition of what “being religious” really means. People might want a more “free” form of spirituality which means they don’t identify with a traditional religious group but they might still be thought of as religious according to a wider definition.
Third, predictions of future trends are notoriously difficult to make, especially in the social sciences. It would be interesting to see if an independent study using different methodology came to the same conclusion.
So there is considerable cause for skepticism here although I agree that the basic decline of religion is likely to continue. So if I conclude that religion isn’t actually likely to become extinct and I (in general) don’t like religion, should I be upset about that? No, of course not!
Although I see a lot of problems associated with religion I also see some good in it as well. Even if everything else is ignored it is an interesting social phenomenon which makes life more interesting. I can’t imagine anything worse than a society where everyone agrees about the deepest philosophical questions!
And from a personal perspective I would be upset if religion became extinct because I enjoy a good debate and fundamentalist believers are some of the most entertaining to debate with!
Plus there is the social good which religion provides. Many people rely on their church for support and friendship. Even if the beliefs of that church are entirely bogus they can still provide a useful social service. And there is the charitable work done by some churches as well. Sure, none of this can only be provided by a church but at the moment it is churches which are doing it so I agree that’s good.
So I am very skeptical about the claim of religion becoming extinct in New Zealand (or anywhere else) and even if it was true I think it would be unfortunate anyway!