The BBC has a provocative link on its website “Physics predicts end of religion”. I think even they have realised how stupid that claim is, for the article at the end of the link seems to have been renamed, less controversially, Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says. Well, at least the BBC is accurate there: that claim is being made, in a study “reported at the American Physical Society meeting”.
In all of the nine nations in the study:
Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland
the main religion is Christianity. So the claim is essentially that the church will become extinct in these nations. And most of these nations are similar enough to the UK that any results could probably be extrapolated here – although probably not to the USA where the religious scene is very different.
So what can these physicists possibly have to say about religion? Have they discovered some fundamental particle which makes people religious, and which is decaying? No, nothing like that. As far as I can see, all they are doing is analysing the statistics showing a decline in religion, and tying them in with some theory, or speculation, about the “utility” of being a member of a social group.
Now it seems to me that here the physicists are dabbling in social science, outside their proper field of study. They may indeed have a better statistical model to offer, based on “nonlinear dynamics”, than the often flawed ones used by social scientists to make long term predictions – see my 2008 post Lies, damned lies and church attendance statistics, and the following discussion. But they can hardly claim to be experts on the central issue of their study,
the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.
Indeed they seem to have completely missed the point here by presupposing that people call themselves religious because of “social motives”. Their study
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.
Now this may be true of social clubs. It may also be true of minority language groups, as was suggested in a previous study which may be of interest to my minority language Bible translator friends. It may also have some validity for the kind of traditional churchgoing for social reasons which is indeed in steep decline, but not yet extinct, here in the UK. But it seems to me to miss the point completely concerning true biblical Christianity, which is in fact now growing here, to the extent that overall, as I reported in 2009, UK churchgoing is no longer in decline.
Although I was once a physicist, I make no claim to be a social scientist. But I have studied enough sociology to see a fatal weakness in the physicists’ argument. There are indeed social groups which people join because of their “social status or utility”, but there are others which they join because they are committed to a particular cause, which may be political, or perhaps semi-political like the environmental movement, or may be religious. The social dynamics of such groups are quite different from what the physicists seem to have modelled. Admittedly such groups tend to be small minorities; they can grow much larger but as they do they tend to change their character. But they can be large enough, and active enough, to be by no means “extinct”. Since the physicists seem not to have taken into account religious groups which follow this dynamic, their predictions are fundamentally flawed.
Anyway, sociological explanation is only part of the story. The physicists have left God out of the picture. But God is at work in his church, and we can be confident that he will not let it become extinct. Religion as a social club may indeed die. I would not be sorry to see this, although sad that it might mean the end of any Christian witness in some neighbourhoods and villages. But the true people of God, brought together not for “utility” but because they are committed to the cause of Jesus Christ, will continue to grow in strength and in numbers.