The BBC has an interesting article on the efforts of scientists to predict the extinction of religion in certain countries. The scientific study considers the number of people who indicate no religious affiliation in census data and then seeks to identify the “social motives” behind being a religious person. The study predicts that religious faith will die out in Australia, Austria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland. (Ireland? Really?)
The scientists apply a “nonlinear dynamics” model that seeks to measure and predict the social and utilitarian value of putting yourself in the “non-religious” category. As one scientist explained, the concept of nonlinear dynamics “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.” Nonlinear dynamics has previously been used by scientists to predict the death of certain spoken languages, where individuals have to decide between a language that is spoken only by a shrinking pool of participants and learning a more popular alternative.
I think the scientists may have missed the boat on this one. To be sure, religions and languages both have a cultural element, but for many religious people their belief is rooted much more deeply. Adherents to the world’s various religions, after all, are motivated at least in part by faith. If joining the larger social group was all there was to it, history would not reveal such a long and bloody list of religious martyrs who were burned at the stake, stoned, and tortured rather than repudiate their beliefs.
There has been a lot of criticism from the right, and some other quarters, of President Obama’s recent decision to scrap elements of a missile defense system for Eastern Europe. The move has bitterly disappointed our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, who were to host elements of the system and viewed it as important to their security against a resurgent Russia. Mark Steyn’s typically acerbic view of the matter is here. This article argues, on the other hand, that the disappointment felt in Eastern Europe is actually the product of a series of failures, many of them by NATO, to live up to promises and agreements. In other words, the writer suggests that the bitter reaction in Eastern Europe to the missile defense decision should not be laid totally at the feet of the Obama Administration.
Still, foreign policy is a constant challenge, as nations jockey for position in pursuing what they believe to be in their own best interests. Any national leader worth this salt is regularly assessing other leaders and drawing conclusions about whether those leaders can be pushed or prodded, threatened or cajoled, or moved by guilt or fear into changing a position or staying their hand in the face of a new challenge. When Vice President Biden predicted, during the recent presidential campaign, that President Obama would be tested by some foreign policy crisis early in his presidency, I think Biden was thinking in this terms.
When world leaders look at America today, in the wake of the missile defense system, what conclusions will they draw? Will they see a country that seems to be looking inward, focused on domestic issues like health care and the economy, to the exclusion of international affairs? Equally important, when world leaders look at Eastern European countries, or other erstwhile American allies, will they see nations that are perhaps a bit less confident in the prospects of getting help from the West, and therefore more susceptible to sabre-rattling? These are the kind of realpolitik evaluations that are not really affected by well-crafted speeches. We need to show our allies that they can count on us in a pinch, and we need to make sure that other contestants on the world stage know that as well.