Friday, August 03, 2018

The Modeling Religion Project


theatlantic |  Another project, Forecasting Religiosity and Existential Security with an Agent-Based Model, examines questions about nonbelief: Why aren’t there more atheists? Why is America secularizing at a slower rate than Western Europe? Which conditions would speed up the process of secularization—or, conversely, make a population more religious?

Shults’s team tackled these questions using data from the International Social Survey Program conducted between 1991 and 1998. They initialized the model in 1998 and then allowed it to run all the way through 2008. “We were able to predict from that 1998 data—in 22 different countries in Europe, and Japan—whether and how belief in heaven and hell, belief in God, and religious attendance would go up and down over a 10-year period. We were able to predict this in some cases up to three times more accurately than linear regression analysis,” Shults said, referring to a general-purpose method of prediction that prior to the team’s work was the best alternative.


Using a separate model, Future of Religion and Secular Transitions (FOREST), the team found that people tend to secularize when four factors are present: existential security (you have enough money and food), personal freedom (you’re free to choose whether to believe or not), pluralism (you have a welcoming attitude to diversity), and education (you’ve got some training in the sciences and humanities). If even one of these factors is absent, the whole secularization process slows down. This, they believe, is why the U.S. is secularizing at a slower rate than Western and Northern Europe.

“The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen,” said Shults’s collaborator, Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University. “Lately, there’s been encouragement from the highest levels of government to take a less than welcoming cultural attitude to pluralism. These are forms of resistance to secularization.”