Physicists predict end of Religion. Sigh.

The BBC reported last week that a team of physicists, including some from the University of Arizona, have created a model for religious observance that is predicting the death of religion in at least 9 countries in the near future.

It’s a relatively simple non-linear model apparently:

“‘It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.

‘For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.’

Dr Wiener continued: ‘In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.’

The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the ‘non-religious’ category.”

Full article here.

Color me skeptical.

There’s an old line among physicists that sometimes the ability to do amazing things in relatively simple areas does not mean that we can do the same sorts of things in complex systems. It’s usually expressed in shorthand: “Remember the spherical horse.”

The aphorism comes, supposedly from a physicist who was flush with the triumph of Thermodynamics to explain how industrial engines worked. He decided to try to explain the horse too. But key to the model is the need to explain how heat energy goes in and out of a system. Horse shapes are hard to model mathematically. Spheres are easy.

The problem is that in making the problem easy enough to be able to be solved, the physicist basically reduced the complexity so far that the answer the models gave were basically useless.

I’m thinking something similar is going on in this situation.

For the models to work the way the group describes, they have to assume that religion is only, and this is a big deal, only a sociological and anthropological phenomenon. There’s no admission that God exists, that God is external to reality as described by their model and that God might be actively engaging the process of faith.

Those of us who consider ourselves to be people of faith would beg to differ with this ommission. To us, God is the origin of the religious impulse, and it is God’s gracious action in the lives of believers that leads us to faith.

But that can’t really be modeled, because there’s not any way to put parameters on the absolute Freedom that we believe is a chief characteristic of God.

So, don’t worry to much that physicists are predicting the end of religion. We have our problems, and the church of tomorrow might not look much like the church of the 1950’s, but its death has been predicted many times. And “somehow” it just keeps on going.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...