Thursday, March 24, 2011

Religion may be dying

The BBC reported on a new study using mathematical models to analyse census data from nine countries, including New Zealand. The researchers say that data shows that in those nine countries, religion is set for extinction.

The devil, as it were, is in the details.

The researchers took up to a century of census data from Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. The data clearly shows that, over time, non-affiliation has risen in all nine countries. The mathematical model the researchers created is based on the human tendency to want to be part of the major grouping, and as religion declined, non-affiliation has grown.

I don’t pretend to understand the model itself—mathematics was always my weakest subject—but I do know a thing or two about analysing demographic data, including census data, and I think the researchers made a fundamental error: They assumed that non-affiliation is the same as being irreligious.

Belief or non-belief isn’t something that can be inferred from whether someone chooses “non-religious” as a self-descriptor: Many people who are not affiliated are nevertheless religionists of some sort. Similarly, a declared religious affiliation does not necessarily translate into actual belief: Many people declare themselves to be the religion of their childhood for what are basically reasons of nostalgia. Such people may not have set foot in a church in decades, apart from weddings and funerals. The problem is that census data alone cannot tell us where on the belief continuum people are, regardless of how they label themselves.

In the 2006 NZ Census, slightly more than half of all New Zealanders were “Christian”, that is, they chose one of several Christian denominations, or merely the word “Christian”, to describe themselves. A further 36% of New Zealanders declared they have no religion. Combined with the growth in non-Christian religions, it was projected that this year’s census would show that for the first time since New Zealand became a country, it had a minority who called themselves “Christian”. Sadly, the cancellation of this year’s census means that 2006 data is all we have and will likely be for quite some time.

New Zealand data absolutely does show that over time there’s been a steady increase in the percentage who describe themselves as non-religious. The data has also shown that the decline in Christian religious affiliation has been particularly noticeable among older, mainstream Christian churches, while fundamentalist varieties have grown. Add the growth in non-Christian religion and the data suggests that religious identification isn’t fading, it’s changing.

There’s simply not enough data available to tell us what’s likely to happen with non-Christians whose religion is often a much bigger part of their cultural identity than it is for New Zealanders of European descent. Add to that the fact that Christianity is also part of the cultural identities of many Maori and Pacific Islanders, and we see a further complicating factor.

Mathematical models can be a good way of examining data, particularly as a way to spot trends. I believe that, ultimately, the researchers are correct that Christianity in New Zealand is fading away, but whether religion does is a question that can’t be answered by models alone. Actually, I’m kind of relieved by that fact.


Roger Owen Green said...

I still don't understand the cancellation of the Census; postponement, sure, but not to do it at all?

d said...

I'm surprised by Austria - it's a deeply Catholic country. The only thing I can think of to explain the data is the extra tax people have to pay if they declare themselves to be Catholic...perhaps they just don't want to pay it?

Arthur Schenck said...

Roger: I don't either—and it was probably illegal for them to do it, too. Maybe they'll reschedule it for next year (it COULD happen…).

D: Well, if there were problems with the NZ census data they used, there's no reason to think that there weren't similar problems with the data from other countries. Apparently they found teh Czech Republic was the least religious country, which made me raise an eyebrow.