Opiate of the Masses? Predicting Religion's Death

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 3/23/2011 12:01:00 AM
Let us begin today's missive on the contemporary fate of religion with Karl Marx's famous "opiate of the masses" passage:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
I am not so sure if Karl Marx would welcome current global conditions which see religious participation on the wane. While folks are becoming less observant of religious strictures--witness the literal bastardization of Western societies--a counterargument can be made that his notion of "commodity fetishism" has replaced it in an era of increasingly commercialized intermediation of social ties.

No matter; I will not go into arguments about "Western moral decay" here. There will be other opportunities for delving into that. Rather, I wish to point out an interesting study mentioned by the BBC that suggests religious extinction is well underway in any number of societies. (Unsurprisingly, this study by Daniel Abrams, Haley Yaple, Richard Wiener appears in a physics and not a social science outlet.) Although the underlying mathematical specification of "perturbation theory" is complex, the gist of its argument in this particular context goes like this: Persons choose to participate socially in such things as religion insofar as the utility from doing so exceeds that from not. Among others, you can think of conformity (being "part of society") and networking opportunities as part of the benefits which have traditionally gone with religious participation.

But what if people no longer believe that these benefits obtain? Then you begin to observe social network effects of eroded participation. Hence, a simplified description of the model is as follows:
According to the model, a single parameter quantifying the perceived utility of adhering to a religion determines whether the unaffiliated group will grow in a society. The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.
The conclusion this study comes up with is, as you may have guessed, rather deterministic in nature. That is, if current trends continue, further erosion of the perceived utility from religious participation will eventually lead to its extinction in any number of societies. What's more, they claim that their model's predictions fit well with census data from the societies under study. Note that they do not distinguish between religions but use two encompassing categories of "religious affiliation" (whichever it is) and "religious non-affiliation" for modelling purposes:
We have developed a general framework for modeling competition between social groups and analyzed the behavior of the model under modest assumptions. We found that a particular case of the solution fits census data on competition between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies in 85 regions around the world. The model indicates that in these societies the perceived utility of religious non-affiliation is greater than that of adhering to a religion, and therefore predicts continued growth of non-affiliation, tending toward the disappearance of religion [my emphasis].
Whether Marx would approve is an open question, but one thing is for sure at the moment: fortune favours the irreligious.