A recent mathematical study reported at the American Physical Society, and covered by BBC news, claims the provocative title, “Religion may become extinct in nine nations.” Those nations are mostly in modern western secular societies.
The scholars of religion, however, have seen these claims before: not a one has ever held up to scrutiny or time. Early twentieth-century sociologists also predicted the decline and inevitable extinction of religion, and well, look around you.
But the question is far more than simply “Is religion going extinct?” but actually a more nuanced discussion on religion itself. How are they defining religion? The study examines censuses from different nations, which usually asks about religious affiliation, i.e. are you part of an officially recognized, institutionalized religion, which is, without question, on the decline. But census questionnaires do not ask deeper questions. When most people check the “non-religious” box they are usually rejecting the concept of a dogmatic religion, which modern popular sentiment views as violent, divisive, and even silly. But these questionnaires do not account for the multitude of ways people then reinterpret their religiosity: atheistic religions, magical religions, UFO religions, satirical religion, or even vague notions of “spiritual” religions that can incorporate everything from astrology to yoga to homeopathy to psychology, etc.
I posit that when people check the non-religious box they are, in fact, objecting to the word “religion” itself, and its popular negative conceptual implications. It is a political statement. A statement that conveys a critique of perceived imposed religion. In modern western secular societies, this narrow view of religion is what is on the decline, but not religiosity itself.
(Better) Scholars of religion refrain from advancing a particular definition of religion, because when they try, they usually end up with a religion that looks akin to an Abrahamic, monotheistic tradition (i.e. a god or gods, a prime text, ritual, community, etc.). They are cherry-picking familiar traits from non-Abrahamic traditions in order to ease categorization (See Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth). This has a consequence of explicitly or implicitly legitimizing religions that resemble the western conceptual framework, which also, intentionally or not, has political and legal ramifications. If your religion falls outside of the rigid concept, then you (as an individual or as a group) face particular challenges. If your religion deliberately rejects the rigid concept of religion (ex.: Neo-Pagans/Wiccans have no prime text or center of authority precisely because they view these things as rigid and unadaptive*; Satanists have no concept of the divine, no main building or communal rituals, yet fully adopt the term “religion;” Raeliens self-identify as atheistic, yet ascribe to the notion of aliens as the creators of human life via cloning) then courts have difficulty making judgements on what protections you are afforded, because they first have to define religion in order to protect it, which becomes an issue if your religion is “atypical” (suggesting there are “normal” and “abnormal” religions).
So when we, the scholars of religion, read yet another study from scientists about how religion is on the decline, a psychological delusion, or has a “god” gene we react with a collective eyeroll. Studies like these assume particular premises of religion that scholars of religion not only reject, but deliberately avoid, because they are all predicated on stiff definitions of religion, instead of on the far more useful (so far) approach to defining religion based on an ever-shifting (yet admittedly more complicated) notion of political, social, religious, and even economic tensions and negotiations.
The scientific studies themselves are political statements: it denotes that scientists, funding agencies, and institutions are invested in disavowing religion, likely because religion is viewed as an impediment to scientific advancements. And religions absolutely have been, at certain times, in some places (they have also been patrons of science). The current climate in western nations is reflective of a decrease in institutionalized religion, and the reaction to this is for “fundamentalism” to embed more deeply, and vehemently reject science (such as the creationist worldview). Communities under duress amplify their confrontational and schismatic rhetoric. The scientific studies, then, are responding to this rhetoric. There is no apolitical religion or science.
* Scholars of texts argue that “scripture” has always been reinterpreted and adapted to negotiate changing societies. I agree with this view, but here I am addressing the perceived notion of text being inflexible.