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Modeling the Decline of Religion

The decline of religion in some modern cultures is a trend reflected in census data. About half of all people in the Netherlands, for instance, identify themselves as having no religious affiliation, and in the Czech Republic unaffiliated people are in the majority -- accounting for 60 percent of the population. Now Daniel M. Abrams and Haley A. Yaple of Northwestern University and Richard J. Wiener of Research Corporation for Science Advancement have developed a simple mathematical model of this complex phenomenon that accurately describes what is going on. They use historical census data from a number of countries to track the growth of religious non-affiliation, and they apply techniques from dynamical systems and perturbation theory to analyze the competition for adherents between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies. "Our model predicts that in many modern secular societies, religions will continue to lose members and be driven toward extinction," says Wiener. The model they use is also applicable to a variety of competitive social systems, say Wiener and Abrams. Abrams and Steven H. Strogatz of Cornell University previously did a similar analysis of the death of modern languages -- estimating that about 80 to 90 percent of the languages in use today are doomed to die in this century. Says Wiener, other social systems in which identical or very similar mathematics may apply include modeling competing populations of smokers v. non-smokers, vegetarians v. meat-eaters, obese v. non-obese people, and Mac v. PC users. Wiener and Abrams will be presenting this research at the American Physical Society March Meeting in Dallas: Presentation B14.5, Presentation B14.9, Abrams, Yaple and Wiener have posted a preprint of their paper online: Richard Wiener began working as a program officer at Research Corporation in September 2006. From 1995-2006 he was a physics professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon and Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences from 2004-2006. His research interests center on nonlinear pattern formation with an emphasis on chaotic patterns in fluid flows. Many of his publications in Physical Review Letters, Physical Review E, the Physics of Fluids, and the American Journal of Physics include undergraduate student coauthors. He recently has been working on modeling peak oil production and modeling opinion dynamics on social networks. His teaching interests involve implementing new curricula developed from empirically based physics education research including Workshop Physics, Interactive Lecture Demonstrations, Peer Instruction, and Tutorials for Introductory Physics. Dr. Wiener currently holds an appointment as an adjunct Professor of Physics at the University of Arizona and he is a member of the Executive Committee of the Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society.

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