Category Archives: innovation

Extinction of Western Religion?

Flickr photo by moominsean

CNN reports the projected extinction of western religion.

A few major caveats:

1) The underlying paper on which this report is based only focuses on Western Europe (which has seen rising rates of secularization much faster than in the US).  While rates of “nonery” (those saying “none” to a question of what their religious tradition is) have risen dramatically in the US (see “American Grace“), most of these “nones” still actually believe in God, they just haven’t found the right church; and

2) Relatedly, these projections assume that people flip to be “secular” to mirror the populations around them, but assumes that the religious environment itself doesn’t change to attract these seculars.  U.S. history is rife with examples of religious entrepreneurship — religious leaders inventing or reinventing religion to meet changed needs.  “American Grace” in Chapter 6 discusses a host of these like megachurches, Mormonism, circuit riders, the chapel car, cyber- religion, televangelism, etc.

Excerpt from “American Grace“:

In the nineteenth century, the American frontie4r presented a problem for religious leaders.  People, especially young people, were spread out in far-flung communities, many of which were too new to have churches.  And so both Protestant ministers and catholic priests came up with an ingenious solution — the chapel car.  Clergy would use these train cars repurposed into mini-chapels to travel from town to town, holding services for the otherwise unchurched settlers on the frontier.  They are largely forgotten today, but in their day chapel cars represented the state of the art in bringing religion to remote areas.

The paper by Abrams et. al, summarized in the CNN story, ignores this entrepreneurship and assumes that religious leaders and entrepreneurs will sit idly by and watch their denominations dwindle rather than invent new ways of helping to attract new converts.  This seems extremely short-sided in making predictions of the future.

The quote from Peter Berger at the end of the CNN story is telling.

Peter Berger, a former president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, once said that, “People will become so bored with what religious groups have to offer that they will look elsewhere.”

He said Protestantism “has reached the strange state of self-liquidation,” that Catholicism was in severe crisis, and anticipated that “religions are likely to survive in small enclaves and pockets” in the United States.

He made those predictions in February 1968.

Obviously Berger’s prediction hasn’t materialized.

For more detail, see paper by Daniel Abrams, Richard Wiener and Haley A. Yaple called “A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation,”presented it this week at the Dallas meeting of the American Physical Society.

For more blog posts on “American Grace”, visit here.

Importance of social capital in innovation

Steven Johnson has an interesting new book out called Where Good Ideas Come From.

He talks about a number of conditions that help make innovation possible (the fact that often it takes a long time for innovation to emerge from rough drafts of earlier ideas, and requires incubation of these neonate ideas).

But, one precondition he focuses on is the social dimension.  Often a breakthrough innovation requires marrying or “colliding” two partial ideas.  Sometimes these ideas rest on hunches, often residing in two separate individuals, and unless these hunches are brought together and connected, the innovation goes undiscovered.  [It's what Matt Ridley calls "When ideas have sex."] To do this we have to create spaces for people to get together so we can unlock this innovation, hence the import of the coffee house during the Enlightenment or Modernist Salons in Paris (what Steven calls the “Liquid Network”). Kevin Dunbar also documented how something as prosaic as the weekly lab meeting was where most of the innovation at a lab typically occurred, not while poring over the microscope.

What Steven Johnson is really talking about is social capital.  In fact Steven Johnson thinks that “connectivity” is the key engine of historical and American creativity: “Chance favors a connected mind.”  [This is analogous to the process Andrew Wiles used to  solve one of the great math riddles of all: Fermat's Last Theorem.]  Johnson thinks that the Internet will turn out to a net plus in this process.

An example of this collision of ideas to produce innovation is a neonatal warmer (to halve infant mortality) in developing countries. Timothy Prestero, Design that Matters, took the concept of a warmer, but used bicycle and auto parts from those countries so that when the warmer broke down, local mechanics could repair them.  It’s an analogy for the infusion of ideas from lots of different sources.

Another interesting example he draws on is showing how a few scientists in their spare time trying to compute Sputnik’s speed and ultimately its path from listening to its signal, ultimately led to putting up satellites to enable the military to know where its nuclear submarines were, and then ultimately to using these satellites to determine where one’s phone or car was.

On the topic of social capital and innovation, other game theory and social network research shows that often it is not your close ties that unlock this creativity and innovation but your weaker ties (that connect those to others who are a little less similar who are likely to have differing and highly valuable new ideas). Think cross-fertilization.  So one not only needs to create social spaces, but spaces and a mindset that lets you connect with your weaker ties (maybe someone in your lab with a different specialty or background, or someone at your school with a different focus, or a coffee shop that brings people together whose only connection is that they drink coffee every morning at 10 AM).

See Wired Interview with Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly here.

See TED video with Steven Johnson here.