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Posted: Thursday, April 7, 2011 12:00 am

According to a recent study by a team of mathematicians, organized religion is on track to virtually disappear in nine countries, including Ireland, which is known as a traditionally Catholic stronghold.

An http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/23/religion-to-go-extinct-in-9-countries-experts-predict/"> article on CNN’s website details the study’s conclusion that religion won’t completely die out, but it “will be driven toward extinction” in Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland. Information wasn’t available for the U.S. because the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t inquire about religion, said lead author of the study Daniel Abrams.

Abrams said that “unaffiliated” is the fastest-growing religious group in those nine countries and detailed the two sociological assumptions his study made: first, that people find it more attractive to be part of the majority than the minority; and second, that there are social, economic and political advantages to being unaffiliated with religion in those countries where it’s declining.

Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has already addressed the issue of declining membership in affiliated religious groups. In 2009, on a three-day visit to the Czech Republic, he told 120,000 people that “history had demonstrated the absurdities to which man descends when he excludes God from the horizon of his choice and actions,” according to a http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/28/world/europe/28pope.html?_r=2&scp=3&sq=Czech+Pope&st=cse"> New York Times article.  He also alluded to the secular element, telling Czechs that their country, “like other nations, is experiencing chttp://laloyolan.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/world_flagsno_symbols.jpg">ultural conditions that often present a radical challenge to faith and therefore also to hope.”

Scholars in the LMU community, however, are hesitant to accept Abrams’ findings as imminent.

“Religious traditions have a way of defying sociological models,” said Dr. Jeffrey Siker, a professor of New Testament and Christian origins in LMU’s theological studies department. “There are always shifting tides in the religious orientation of people over time, but that’s a far cry from predicting the extinction of religion.” Siker pointed to the decline of mainstream Protestantism in the U.S. and the growth of evangelical churches in Latin America as examples of such shifting tides.

Dr. Michael Horan, a professor of religious education and pastoral theology at LMU and chair of the theological studies department, also disputed Abrams’ sociological assumption that it is more attractive to be part of the majority.

“Religious groups have thrived whenever a group has felt marginalized and ‘outside’ the dominant culture,” he said. “It is an old argument, but a standard one, that Christianity was born from this impulse, a reaction to Roman persecution. Current strains of ‘conservative’ religion are popular as well in the U.S. and throughout the world today, precisely because they go against the grain of the content in Abrams’ study.” Horan said that young Orthodox Jewish families, conservative seminarians in Catholic seminaries and Muslim separatists have one thing in common: They shape their identity “over and against” the majority, even the majority within their own religious groups.

Siker added that organized religion will always be in a state of flux, which is a different matter from the question of people’s religiosity.

“Many people would still call themselves religious or spiritual,” said Siker, “but at the same time would check the ‘unaffiliated’ box on a survey about their religion. In my view, the data points more to some of the changes in organized religion than it does to whether people see themselves as religious or not.”

LMU Sophomore theological studies and physics double major Alexander Garoutte, who is Catholic, said that may have something to do with an “all-or-nothing” mentality when it comes to commitment to religious doctrine.

“I do think that many people would be afraid to commit to a religion because they might think it means that when they say they are connected with it, they are announcing that they agree with everything it says,” he said. “I disagree with that philosophy – I can freely say that there are some things I disagree with in the Catholic Church. That doesn’t mean, though, that those things are so severe that I would abandon it.”

But sophomore history major Kerrie Franey, who describes herself as spiritual but not religious, thought differently.

“I think many people turn away from organized religion because they do not want to be tangled up in a specific set of beliefs,” she said. “While one is certainly capable of being a Catholic and not believing in every tiny detail, I cannot ignore the small details that discriminate against homosexual relations, for example.” Franey said she has attended Catholic schools for 17 years, and though she still wears a ring with a cross on it, said she hasn’t identified as a Christian for six years now.

“Organized religion can be very limiting and causes, for me, a sense of claustrophobia,” she said. “I feel trapped by the http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM">Catechism and the http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01629a.htm">Apostles’ Creed.  Organized religion works for many, but in today’s world people need more freedom to choose their beliefs.” Franey pointed to how this freedom has brought her to a point where she believes in a female omniscient and omnipotent God who takes many different forms.

But while organized religion has been more limiting for some, like Franey, there are others, like Garoutte, who find the religious element to be a fruitful and helpful component of faith.

“I consider myself both spiritual and religious,” said Garoutte. “I enjoy the community of the Catholic Church and its traditions, and the way its many services are set up.”

So, while Abrams’ study might suggest that religion as an institution will be driven toward extinction in some countries, that’s not a claim that goes uncontested – by scholars or by the faithful.

“[Religion] really allows me to find God at a deeper level within myself,” said Garoutte.

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