The BBC reported last week on the mathematical modelling of census data from nine countries that predicts the death of religion in those countries by 2050 or thereabouts. I take seriously the work of social scientists and am impressed with the way that mathematical modelling can predict scenarios that might otherwise be difficult, even impossible, to construct. However, it’s important to keep a firm grip on the fact that mathematical modelling constructs models and scenarios based on non-mathematical assumptions. If the assumptions lack imagination, the model may fail to convince or satisfy, however sophisticated the modelling.
Released on the 14th January 2011, the work of three mathematicians from Northwestern University, Evanston IL, is stimulated by the growth in numbers of those who claim to be ‘non-affiliated’ when asked to indicate their religious affiliation. The research draws on data from six European countries (Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.) as well as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand and its predictions are said to be valid for ‘modern secular societies’. Readers of their paper will immediately recognise that its mathematical modelling is probably beyond the ability of most to offer a credible critique. I suspect that even a good number of statisticians would struggle!
However, all models need a foundation and I’d simply encourage readers to consider whether they agree with the model’s assumptions. The first assumption is that religious groups become more attractive as the number of members increases. The second is that the attractiveness of a religious group depends upon the social, economic, political and security benefits of belonging to it, in addition to the shared spiritual vision of the group.
A question to ask is whether this model can, therefore, adequately account for religious groups whose appeal is grounded in the imaginative prospect of living without the benefits listed, who stress sacrifice, and who remain unconcerned with large numbers. This alternative way of life is likely to remain convincing for some. The researchers might dismiss this as being an unappealing prospect in a modern secular society but their dismissal would be rooted in human assumptions rather than mathematical certainty.
I am as confident as are the researchers standing behind their mathematical modelling, that well beyond the predicted demise of religion in 2050, it will continue to be a vital source of personal transformation and commitment. I dare not be complacent in the face of the significant challenges posed by secular alternatives, but I remain hopeful that in Europe, as elsewhere in the world, faith will continue to provoke imagination and form followers of Christ who ‘wager on a future that verifiable experience seems to belie.’ (David Bosch) Or, to put it another way, and to quote a well known mathematician, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ (Albert Einstein).