Friday, October 31, 2008


Figuring Figurers

Razib Khan of Gene Expression has a short piece up at the Guardian about the errors of those who use statistics while wearing glasses of their favorite tint. While he notes that predictions that Europe will soon be dominated by Muslims are wrong, he focuses on those who predict it will soon be atheistic:

Conservative commentator Mark Steyn declares that Europe will soon be dominated by Muslims. The polemicist Sam Harris observes that half of Swedes are atheists, portending a godless future. They can't both be right, but they are both making the same mistake. ...

[O]ne should be exceedingly cautious about games of prediction. Across the west the 1960s was a period of cultural change as church affiliation dropped precipitously. If one extends that decline out from the interval 1960-1970 Christianity should be extinct, and yet it is not. The decline in religiosity slowed by around 1980. Why? The will of God? A more plausible explanation is that social pressures which enforced religiosity before 1960 no longer operate, so those who were never particularly devout are more honest with themselves and society.

Labels matter a great deal here. It is not true that modern societies are divided between atheism and institutional religion. Sam Harris implicitly assumes this model when he says that half of Swedes are atheists, and it allows him to rig the game. In reality a February 2005 Eurobarometer survey (pdf) reported that 23% of Swedes did not believe in God, 20% did, and 53% believed in a spirit. A quick survey of European nations shows that the decline of traditional institutional religion has benefited both atheism and unaffiliated spirituality, but the latter has grown more robustly than the former!

As always, the universe turns out to be more complex than we might hope.

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