Predicting the (religious) future

January 1, 0001

One part of my job is to attempt a forecast of the religious future in particular places and among particular peoples. As one might imagine, this is difficult.

As indicated by the word forecast, the type of prediction that I am laboring to produce is not a prophecy, but rather a likely scenario. (Or a collection of scenarios, some more likely, some less likely.) Think of this as less Left Behind and more Fivethirtyeight.

The difficulty in doing this is first the fact that I am neither a trained futurist (e.g. a degree) nor a trained statistician (e.g. a degree). So a lot of this is me, passionate about this “hobby,” and attempting to learn everything I need to know to accomplish the task. (I feel I stand in good company with others who have taken a similar approach. Hey, it’s 2010, anyone can learn anything, right?) By ‘blogging' or ‘writing' down my efforts, I’m both exposing this to ridicule (…don thick skin…) and to potential critique which could help me improve my approach.

A second difficulty, however, is data. When Fivethirtyeight predicts anything from ball games to elections, it does so with the weight of significant data (statistical records of players, polls, past elections, etc). Data for predicting the future of religion in a place is far thinner.

The first piece of data is of course the existing situation. Current religious affiliation at the national level is easily available, both from Pew and the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. This gives both the now and the historic with projections forward based on existing annual growth rates. If all things in the future are the equivalent of all things in the past, we can assume this status quo will continue unchanged.

What might make the future unequal? One possibility is the work of religionists to change the religious affiliation of people on the ground. This isn’t just Christian missionaries, evangelists and pastors. There are Islamic missionaries, Islamic imams sent to new mosques, governmental forces, Hindu priests and holy men, Buddhist gurus, and what have you. Many forces are at work both to preserve and to change the status quo. The question is, will those seeking to change the status quo ‘win' over those who are seeking to preserve it? The status quo usually has an incredibly strong chance of victory.

Another possibility that introduces inequality between the past and the future: ‘wildcard' events. These are difficult for the ‘normal' person (like me) to predict. Maybe some government with large intelligence resources could have foreseen the fall of the Berlin Wall, but for most of us it appeared to happen ‘overnight.' Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s argument in most of his writings is that these sorts of ‘black swan' disruptions are virtually impossible for anyone (including governments with large intelligence resources) to predict, and much of the ‘future' is shaped by them. Give up prediction, he argues, and focus on making yourself more ‘resilient' — able to thrive on change.

While I agree black swans are nearly impossible to predict (at least for me), I ponder how much the typical person’s daily life is actually shaped by them — at least, in terms of religion. Wildcards make the news and at times affect public policy, politics and economics, but rarely does it seem to affect people’s religious outlook. Looking back at 9/11, I think about how my life today is really very much the same: in fact, things like the Apollo missions, the iPhone, and social media have impacted my life and work far more than 9/11 did. (And the most disruptive things grew far more ‘gradually.') People didn’t en masse change their religion overnight because of the fall of the Berlin Wall, nor because of 9/11, nor because of the Arab Spring. These events did in some cases make it easier or harder for religious change agents to enter and work, however.

Might it therefore be possible to identify ‘pools of potential' — places where, while we cannot predict wildcards, we might be able to predict that ‘types' of wildcards or changes are more likely? Might we be able to suggest that certain places have more *war *potential, some disease, some disasters, some crime? And might we be able to predict what the likely impact of these disruptions on widespread religious affiliation would be? (Perhaps only at the level of predicting whether they are likely to enable or disable the work of religious change agents.)

For example, we can already track the rise of mobile Internet access in Africa and Asia, and we can consider what impact these will have on the availability of information, which in turn will have an impact on religious change. Information access isn’t just about economics; it’s also about Youtube videos, the proliferation of media broadcasts, and the ability for follow up discussions about religious interests.

As another example: who the Turkish government would be fighting on its borders was a matter of speculation back in 2012; but the likelihood that it would be involved in a cross-border battle seemed almost certain when I wrote that prediction in my Turkish Cluster Forecast.

These sorts of forecasts are not precise. I am not that skilled. They are sort of like predicting the winter season’s weather: at most I might be able to say ‘it’s likely to be wetter in the south and drier in the north.' But that might be enough to be of use to some. How can this be improved?