The Physics of Adherence: How A Recent Study Overlooked the Post-Secular by David Gottlieb

The increasing pace of secularization in industrialized nations has led to predictions of the demise of religion from numerous academic perspectives

By David Gottlieb|May 19, 2011

The increasing pace of secularization in industrialized nations has led to predictions of the demise of religion from numerous academic perspectives. The most recent example was unveiled at this year’s meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) in Dallas, Texas, where a paper on “Modeling the Decline of Religion” was presented. The study received extensive coverage in print and media outlets, as it identified a trend the authors said pointed to the likely “extinction” of religion in nine countries.

Richard Wiener, Haley Yaple and Daniel Abrams analyzed census data going back one century from countries that collected information on religious affiliation. The authors identified Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland as countries in which “the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, [meaning that] religion will be driven toward extinction.”

The authors presented the study as “a new treatment of the competition for adherents between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies,” but in so doing they may have failed to consider the possibility that at least some of these societies may be post-secular: that is, ones in which the “religious” and “irreligious” interact and overlap, coexisting in a competitive but mutually beneficial tension.

For example, the authors “assume the attractiveness of a group increases with the number of members, which is consistent with research on social conformity.” This assumption, however, does not account for the multimodal influences of a secularizing culture on the formation of new groups—including ones that adhere to religious beliefs and uphold religiously-based values. The sociologist of religion Warren Goldstein, in his appreciation of the “old paradigm” of secularization theory, points out that secularization is not (or not always) a linear process: it has complex variants (“the cyclical/spiral, the dialectical, and the paradoxical”). “Consciousness is not only individual but also collective and the secularization/sacralization of it on both an individual and societal level” means that religion becomes, as the sociologist Thomas Luckmann would say, privatized but not altogether vanquished.

The authors of the APS study were quick to point out that they were already at work adjusting their model to incorporate a “network structure,” which would more properly reflect the extent to which people are enmeshed in networks with multiple priorities and influences, in which identities are more fluid and nuanced. They may already sense that the checking of a box on a census form might reflect the non-religious leanings of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s “buffered self,” but it would likely fall short in identifying how the porosity of secularizing societies can revive old religious traditions or give rise to new ones, even as they become secularized.

The advent of the post-secular, particularly in many Christian and Jewish denominations in the United States, involves a complex and variegated inter-identification with both secular and religious values. The historian of Judaism David Biale notes, “Everyone, and not just converts, is a ‘Jew by choice,’ and the meaning of ‘Jewish’ is fluid and often situational. The old categories of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ are therefore no longer fixed.”

If it can be said that every religion begins with a heresy, it can also be said that even the secular has religious foundations. Beyond the trend line drawn by Wiener, Yaple and Abrams, there are multiple variables coming into play that may make religious affiliation a complicated and customized choice that is insistently present, even in the secularizing societies whose data was so deftly analyzed.



Daniel M. Abrams, Haley A. Yaple, and Richard J. Wiener, “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation” (paper presented at the March meeting of the American Physical Society, Dallas, Texas, March 21-25, 2011).

David Biale, Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Warren S. Goldstein, “Secularization Patterns in the Old Paradigm,” Sociology of Religion, 70:2 (2009), 157-178.

Jason Palmer, “Religion may become extinct in nine nations, study says,” BBC News web site, March 22, 2011. 

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.


David Gottlieb is a PhD student in the History of Judaism at the Divinity School. He is also co-founder and executive director of Full Circle Communities, Inc., a philanthropic nonprofit developer of affordable housing and provider of supportive services.


David Gottlieb

Author, David Gottlieb, received his PhD in the History of Judaism from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2018. He is a member of the teaching faculty at Spertus Institute and is the author of Second Slayings: The Binding of Isaac and the Formation of Jewish Memory (Gorgias Press, 2019).