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March 23rd, 2011
10:56 AM ET

Organized religion 'will be driven toward extinction' in 9 countries, experts predict

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN

Organized religion will all but vanish eventually from nine Western-style democracies, a team of mathematicians predict in a new paper based on census data stretching back 100 years.

It won't die out completely, but "religion will be driven toward extinction" in countries including Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands, they say.

It will also wither away in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland, they anticipate.

They can't make a prediction about the United States because the U.S. census doesn't ask about religion, lead author Daniel Abrams told CNN.

But nine other countries provide enough data for detailed mathematical modeling, he said.

"If you look at the data, 'unaffiliated' is the fastest-growing group" in those countries, he said.

"We start with two big assumptions based on sociology," he explained.

The first is that it's more attractive to be part of the majority than the minority, so as religious affiliation declines, it becomes more popular not to be a churchgoer than to be one, he said - what Abrams calls the majority effect.

"People are more likely to switch to groups with more members," he said.

Social networks can have a powerful influence, he said.

"Just a few connections to people who are (religiously) unaffiliated is enough to drive the effect," he said.

The other assumption underlying the prediction is that there are social, economic and political advantages to being unaffiliated with a religion in the countries where it's in decline - what Abrams calls the utility effect.

"The utility of being unaffiliated seems to be higher than affiliated in Western democracies," he said.

Abrams and his co-authors are not passing any judgment on religion, he's quick to say - they're just modeling a prediction based on trends.

"We're not trying to make any commentary about religion or whether people should be religious or not," he said.

"I became interested in this because I saw survey data results for the U.S. and was surprised by how large the unaffiliated group was," he said, referring to a number of studies done by universities and think tanks on trends in religion.

Studies suggest that "unaffiliated" is the fastest-growing religious group in the United States, with about 15% of the population falling into a category experts call the "nones."

They're not necessarily atheists or non-believers, experts say, just people who do not associate themselves with a particular religion or house of worship at the time of the survey.

Abrams had done an earlier study looking into the extinction of languages spoken by small numbers of people.

When he saw the religion data, his co-author "Richard Wiener suggested we try to apply a similar technique to religious affiliation," Abrams said.

The paper, by Abrams, Wiener and Haley A. Yaple, is called "A mathematical model of social group competition with application to the growth of religious non-affiliation." They presented it this week at the Dallas meeting of the American Physical Society.

Only the Czech Republic already has a majority of people who are unaffiliated with religion, but the Netherlands, for example, will go from about 40% unaffiliated today to more than 70% by 2050, they expect.

Even deeply Catholic Ireland will see religion die out, the model predicts.

"They've gone from 0.04% unaffiliated in 1961 to 4.2% in 2006, our most recent data point," Abrams says.

He admits that the increase in Muslim immigration to Europe may throw off the model, but he thinks the trend is robust enough to withstand some challenges.

"Netherlands data goes back to 1860," he pointed out. "Every single data that we were able to find shows that people are moving from the affiliated to unaffiliated. I can't imagine that will change, but that's personal opinion, not what the data shows."

But Barry Kosmin, a demographer of religion at Trinity College in Connecticut, is doubtful.

"Religion relies on human beings. They aren't rational or predictable according to the laws of physics. Religious fervor waxes and wanes in unpredictable ways," he said.

"The Jewish tradition that says prophecy is for fools and children is probably wise," he added.

And Abrams, Wiener and Yaple are not the first to predict the end of religion.

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.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Atheism • Austria • Ireland

soundoff (3,551 Responses)
  1. The Last Noel

    This is great news!!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Mark

      This IS good news, although probably too late for our species, (and the many others we continue to destroy.)
      We are wired for religion, but that doesn't make it good. RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING. A belief in "god" as an adult is not unlike children believing in imaginary friends. It just causes war, overpopulation, and general delusion in adults, whereas it's not harmful for kids. Forcing a child into a RELIGION IS CHILD ABUSE, plain and simple. It's very harmful to the child, the adult that they will become, and to society as a whole. This is most true of christianity, islam, and judaism. If we can get this out of government, we may have a chance, all 7 billion of us that there are now, due to restrictions on birth control put forth by these evil archaic "organizations."

      December 11, 2011 at 1:01 am |
  2. joe

    Losing religion is one thing, losing faith is another. Just because people are not religious does not mean they are atheist.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Patrick

      Just because someone is atheist does not mean they are not religious.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • Fedor

      Atheism IS a religion.

      December 4, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  3. MJ

    I'm reminded of the John Lenin song Imagine....this is good news.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • The Last Noel

      Wow. You don't even know how to spell his name right. FAIL.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • derp

      "John Lenin"

      He was communist

      March 23, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  4. Zahir

    I love God but I think religion needs to go. Good deeds and good hearts are what we need.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • fuyuko

      I think a serious revamp of religious text needs to be done at the very least. =-)

      March 23, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  5. jay in florida

    Notice that none of the countries in the list has EVER started a war against another country. It is ironic that religion preaches "turning the other cheek", but they do so while launching missiles, invading troops and in some cases even raping the enemy's women.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:28 am |
    • Publius 13

      "Notice that none of the countries in the list has EVER started a war against another country." I hope you are better at logic than at history.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Myself

      Ever think about the fact that people might be corrupting religion and not the other way around. The core of most religions is peace and good will. The core of most human civilizations is consume, destroy, move, repeat.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Highhorsesarejustthat

      really? Ireland hasn't ever started a war? What's the average education level of these proponents of atheism on here? True wisdom is knowing you know nothing. – Socrates

      March 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • QS

      'The core of most religions is peace and good will."

      This is one of the biggest, false, selling tools that religion consistently utilizes. The real core of religion is control.

      Even if that control was originally intended to lead the controlled to be peaceful and express goodwill toward others, it's still nothing but a means of control....a method to get others to behave decently by threatening unprovable punishments if they disobey.

      Religion and morality are not synonymous.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • foobar

      Well, except for that little conflict called Word War I. If you might recall, Austria was not exactly neutral in that war.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  6. Michael

    If the religion is true, it will persevere despite any mathematical models.
    If it is false, it will eventually fail.

    Mathematical models and trends are poor prognosticators of the future.

    But this is interesting none the less.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  7. Steve

    Good riddance!!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  8. Dr. Canuck

    Never been prouder to be Canadian. Too bad I have to work in Ohio, Jesusland.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  9. dave

    Religion extinction... If the US should only be so lucky...

    March 23, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  10. Uniquitous

    Further proof that we are nothing by sheep be led to slaughter. Wake up and think for yourselves people.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  11. JohnQuest

    Good News (for a change).

    March 23, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  12. Darwin

    COOL!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  13. UncleM

    Hooray. The human race's next step in evolution.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  14. woot

    There is a direct inverse correlation between education level and religiousness, and intelligence and religiousness. its about time it dies off.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Davey Jones

      This isn't even close to true, where'd you get this "fact"? There are a ton of very intelligent, very religious people in the world.

      Now if you want to say there is a direct negative correlation between self-pride and religiousness, I'll wholeheartedly agree!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  15. Alex

    good ridden
    we have no need for religion

    March 23, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • Characterbuilder

      You have "religion" you just don't realize it.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • Leroy Jackson

      define religion? how could one have religion and not realized it?

      March 23, 2011 at 7:38 pm |
      • Fedor

        religion: an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.
        a person can be religiously against religion, and without realizing it they are religious themselves.

        December 4, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  16. JesusFish

    Thank god!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • John

      Lol. I'm sure the irony was intended. The key phrase in this article is: Religion relies on human beings. Upon the veracity of that phrase will this deck of cards stand or fall.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  17. derp

    Great, warming up my passport.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  18. PeterVN

    Well, the imminent extinction or near-extinction of religion in these progressive, leading countries is fantastic news. Religion is one species that the world will be better off without.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • generalizationsarebad

      babylon the great has fallen

      March 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  19. The Bobinator

    As available information increases, belief in the supernatural, be it religion, supersti-tion, astrology or other nonsense decreases. Welcome in the age of reason!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • generalizationsarebad

      This is the age of reason? If so, we are in a world of hurt.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • highnoon

      ignorance is bliss...So much better?

      March 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  20. SeanNJ

    Social networks can have a powerful influence, he said. "Just a few connections to people who are (religiously) unaffiliated is enough to drive the effect," he said.

    All the more reason for atheists to speak up these days. Get the fence sitters off the fence.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • PeterVN

      Great point, and point taken and acted upon. Cheers.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Kana

      You could argue the same thing that religious affiliates campaign for their religion(s) in order to boost their numbers as well.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Publius 13

      Interesting. I thought atheists didn't proselytize. Guess I was wrong.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Joe Mahma

      I keep thinking about making my non-belief's more known, especially on Facebook, but as it may cut into my employment, the time is not quite right.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • William

      Sean.

      What is it that you DON'T believe in?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @William: You know what "atheism" means.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • William

      I am not concerned with what it means. Please dont condescend. Please explain to me what YOU dont believe in?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @William: OK, I'll play along for a few minutes. I don't believe in any supernatural beings, of any sort, at all.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • serita

      Oh My!!! Don't tell Mel Gibson. We will have another 3 hour movie of Jews beating Jesus for 3 hours.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      I guess he lost interest.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • William

      Yawn,
      Apparently, noone has anything to say on this matter so I am pushing on. In case you are wondering, my point was: From an Astronomy standpoint we see in the skies 1. the universe 2. further up we see galaxies 3. further up we see clusters 4. and even farther we see super clusters. And farther up... nobody knows. It would be safe to say that you all of us are searching for answers. But where we place our intention is evident when we get the results. Good luck to you and to everyone.
      Oh, and by the way, I looked over your atheist practice briefly and it seemed to be surrounded by self help books and self hate practice. If that is the way your going. You might want to take another look at the wonders of the universe and the human being.
      Take care.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @William: I, in fact, answered your question. You are the one that chose to say nothing on the matter, aside from your little extrication speech.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
    • William

      Please post your answer to this communication chain and I will reply.
      And please avoid the snide comments.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      @William: You asked what I don't believe in. I don't believe in any supernatural beings, of any sort, at all. I make no promises about snide comments however.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      I tried. I can't sit here all day clicking "refresh" waiting for William to respond.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • William

      Seems to be a problem... Or conspiracy... No clue what it is.

      I tried as well.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Mark

      ffrf.org is The Freedom from Religion Foundation. I hope you're correct about the social networks. Check them out for great quotes, ( and great billboards which "loving religious" people deface and destroy.

      December 11, 2011 at 1:13 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.