June 24, 2020
June 24, 2020
by Daniele Di Clemente | 4 min read
In the Western world, religions continue to lose ground. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American think tank based in Washington, D.C., which conducts research on social issues, public opinion and demographic trends in the United States and the world, 70% of the so-called millennials, individuals born between 1980 and 2000, said they no longer believe in a superior power that watches over the mankind. Will Generation Y therefore mark the definitive collapse of religiosity? According to the Modeling Religion Project, the last word is not yet said.
The project, maintained by the Center for Mind and Culture in Boston, is unique in its kind. The project aims to collect and analyse a massive quantity of anthropological, psychological, archaeological and demographic data pertinent to the religious domain in order to define development and social impact of beliefs and faith throughout the history. Pioneered by Boston University philosopher and theologian Wesley Wildman in 2015, it also attempts to measure the possible growth of atheism.
The analyses cover several historical periods, from the Neolithic to the modern era, based on millions of records, an unmanageable amount of data for computers of the Boston University School of Theology. To process these data, researchers used the IT infrastructure of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), a multi-disciplinary research center of Old Dominion University. Its goliath datacenter has eventually managed to extract a series of constants from the chaotic mass of data available for elaboration.
The findings confirm importance of the religious factor in terms of social cohesion: religions, by making a distinction between orthodox behaviors and those that are not, have contributed to forming the common identity of the various societies, have facilitated the passage from the nomadic communities of hunter-gatherers to sedentary farmers, and they have increased the cooperation of people under the same “spiritual surveillance”.
Moreover, the research reveals that the civilizations that lasted a significant period of time have also created the right conditions for religion to coexist with other fundamental values held by popular common sense.
One of the models contained in the project, called the “modernity model”, is aimed at western religious emancipation of the eighteenth century, when a number of thinkers began to challenge the instinctive beliefs that attributed events to a transcendent cause. Analysis has shown that in order to go beyond what Wildman calls a “supernatural society”, numerous factors are needed. In particular, food resources must be abundant for all or at least a reasonable part of the social classes, making recourse to the divine be perceived as less useful. Furthermore, “post-supernatural” communities must be pluralistic and diverse enough to accept the fact that different beliefs can share the same thought structures, education must be scientific and members of the social body free to adopt non-religious behavior.
While recent history shows the growth of atheistic societies, the models of the Modeling Religion Project still denote human propensity towards spontaneous adoption of beliefs. The research project indicates that religious attachment fluctuates over the centuries, and intensifies especially in times of crisis. The “modernity model” therefore suggests how religion can once again tilt the scales in its favor even in the hearts of atheistic populations, in case they face a serious cultural shock, a climate disaster or a pandemic that, for example, could jeopardise food supply.
Taking into account global religious and social trends, the results produced by the analytical models of Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Study predict that millennial atheism will tend to decrease at least in a share of the world’s population by 2050. Modeling Religion Project simulations indicate that an ecological disaster, accompanied by a heavy drought, could soon trigger natural reunion with faith. Prosperity seems to push God away, while the crisis takes him back: Wesley Wildman’s approach, in this sense, is absolutely valid, just as the prodigal son’s one.