ILLUSTRATION BY DAVID PLUNKERT
In the United States, the nones have it. The nones being people with no organized religion and increasingly no belief in God or a universal spiritual power. They have the momentum, attention, and an expectation that in the future they will become a majority of the population, just as they currently are in western Europe, Japan, and China.
Or so says the Pew Research Religious Landscape Study, which in 2015 found that almost a quarter of Americans profess no religious affiliation. Within that group, a third do not believe in God or a higher power of any sort (“nothing in particular,” as the study termed it). Both numbers are up from a similar study in 2007, when 16 percent of the country professed no religious affiliation, and 22 percent of these did not believe in God. Driving the growth are Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000. As they come of age, 70 percent of them say they do not believe in a higher power.
Pew expects the percent of religious Americans will continue to fall. It suggests older generations will die off and take their belief with them. Outside the U.S., a WIN/Gallup International poll found that more than half of Vietnamese, Koreans, and French people say they are atheists or not affiliated with a religion. For the Japanese and Germans, it’s more than 60 percent, and for the Dutch and British, two-thirds. Certainly, belief in nothing has market momentum.
The rise of the nones presents a compelling backdrop to the Modeling Religion Project, led by Boston University philosopher and theologian Wesley Wildman, and his counterpart at Norway’s University of Agder, LeRon Shults. The project, begun in 2015, is unique in the breadth of its effort to simulate religious trends. It’s based on computer models that incorporate anthropological, archeological, psychological, and modern demographic data related to religion. Its goal is to draw conclusions about how and why religions have formed through history, what impact they have on individual and group behavior, and how they might develop in the future. Given the ascent of non-believers in the recent past, what might the Modern Religion Project say about the future of atheism? Will we one day live in a world of nones?
The Modeling Religion Project got its start when Wildman started asking whether he could replicate proto-civilizations to see for himself why religion seems to emerge. Theories have abounded for ages. Plato’s philosopher-kings saw religion as a political tool, as did the proletarian Karl Marx. Max Weber thought Protestantism was better for economic growth than Catholicism. Sociologist Rodney Stark has theorized Christian practices such as a willingness to care for the sick are what caused Christianity to outstrip the Roman pantheon. Evolutionary biologists debate whether religion is adaptive, a useful evolutionary tool, or a byproduct of our over-large brains. Stephen Jay Gould dubbed byproducts that become useful “spandrels,” after the curved spaces on arch supports that don’t have a structural purpose but are often given beautiful decorations. Religion was a spandrel of consciousness, he argued—consciousness being essential for survival, but also leading to an awareness of mortality, then succor through religion, not essential to survival.
Certainly, belief in nothing has market momentum.
In 2012, Wildman and Shults were at a conference of the Çatalhöyük Research Project in Çatalhöyük, Turkey, the biggest Neolithic archaeological site yet found, and a source of intense interest for what it tells us about early human culture, including religion. They sat around their hotel for a week arguing about what things they’d need to include for a model that could test the role religion played in Çatalhöyük’s development. They debated whether models could test various theories about religion. Shults says the two wanted to see what it would take for a group of humans in early hunter-gatherer groups to become townspeople. Research in cognitive psychology over the last decade had marked different aspects of human interaction on moral, social, and ritual biases. They thought there was now the chance to model a system and see how social cohesion emerged.
Wildman knew he could develop crude models, but he wanted to get access to better computers than exist in the Boston University School of Theology (where all the good PCs have gone to heaven). He and Shults connected with the Virginia Modeling and Simulation Center, or VMASC, at Old Dominion University. It typically works on models for use in maritime research and alternative energy, fields with complex interactions…