Both fans and foes of religion should take note. A study conducted by scholars from the University of Arizona and Northwestern University, and presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society suggests that religion may be dying in nine countries. The study projects the extinction of religion in Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
This study, using complex mathematical models, confirms trends observed by social scientists for some time. While not studied, the trend line in the United States has been interpreted in similar ways by other scholars, most recently because of polling conducted for the American Reiligious Identification Survey in which the fastest growing religious group in America was the “nones” i.e. people indicating that none of the categories offered by the study fit how they would describe themselves when it came to religion.
Before religion foes begin celebrating however, it’s worth noting that these studies make a giant conceptual error – one which confuses the death of religion with the end of religion and religious affiliation as we know them. There is plenty of evidence for the latter two phenomena, but the fact that people are doing religion differently doesn’t mean that religion is going extinct.
None of our faiths has been here forever, and according to most of them, each is an improvement over what preceded them, so it’s likely that if these traditions should actually die out, they too will be replaced by potentially superior alternatives. I am not a supersessionist who believes that whatever comes last is best. In fact, that approach has proven to be quite deadly, at least for most of Western religious tradition, and actually for other parts of the world as well, though we tend to be less aware of their bloody pasts.
I am simply suggesting that if religion as we know it as a whole does go extinct, there is reason to believe that it will be replaced by religion as we do not know it yet, and that it may well be an improvement over the versions we currently have. But even if that process is unfolding, it will be, like most evolutionary processes, quite slow, so nobody reading this is likely to confront the actual death of the tradition to which they are currently attached.
Could these shifts be part of a much larger trend? It may be that in all of these places, people are insisting that the conceptual, spiritual, and religious offerings which have comprised their menu options are simply insufficient.