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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. ITEOTW

    it's funny how atheists talk, saying religious people are all hateful when in fact it is they on this message board who sounds the most hateful of all people. But you can't blame them since there is no love without God. I guess they are proof right there. How ironic

    March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • derp

      I'm sure if you post this another six times you will feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  2. robert frost

    The "christian" church is self imploding. Meanness and ideology is not the message of Christ.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  3. MD

    I wonder what the predictions for the future of Christianity looked like in 100 BC?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  4. Eric

    If i get a bachelors degree in religion does that mean i have a BS in BS?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • ITEOTW

      religion is not a science you moron, didn't you atheists already state that in your own arguments? It'd be a BA in Theology. Man you atheists are dumb

      March 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Observer

      @ITEOTW

      A recent poll/test showed that the average atheist and the average agnostic know more about the Bible than the average Christian and have a higher level of education.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • ITEOTW

      @observer

      Alright if you know so much about the bible, then God must really dislike you for not having faith yet.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Eric

      Considering all the creationists trying to pass it off as science i'll stick with it being a BS in BS.

      I'm sure you haven't gone out and stoned (i'm talking about pot) anyone lately in the name of Jesus. You're being a bad christian. Jesus said that unbelievers should be brought to him and slain at his feet. Right now I pretty much only seeing Muslims carry out their holy duty, Christians have been doing really bad lately.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Steven

      Eric –

      "You're being a bad christian. Jesus said that unbelievers should be brought to him and slain at his feet."

      Please name the book and verse where Jesus said this. If you're going to make bold statements like that you need to back them up.

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

      Luke 19:27 But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Steven

      Eric –

      "Luke 19:27 But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me."

      Clearly you haven't actually read that in context, or you would know that Jesus is telling the parable of the ten minas (Luke 19-11-27). He is teaching about a noble king, and those that don't want said king as their ruler. In that verse, he is quoting the king, not speaking for Himself, and referencing verse 14. This is a perfect illustration on how to take the bible out of context.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Eric

      Interpreted for centuries as those that don't follow jesus will be destroyed. Or are we going for the liberal reformed version of jesus telling a harmless story?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Rod

      If you are referencing the end times, then yes I agree. But your original statement made it seem as though Jesus would slay an unbeliever right then and there. You then went on to say that Muslims were the only ones doing that. There is no confusion that unbelievers will face judgment at death, or during the 1,000 year reign, according to the bible. Note* these are not my words, just what the bible says.

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

      Eric –

      Well, Rod beat me to it... but I don't understand the liberal reformed version you are talking about. I think the bible it pretty cut and dry.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Eric

      Not jesus him self, but he is saying that unbelievers should be slain. I just don't see any follow through. Don't see too many children getting stoned for dis-obeying parents either, but then you say, but that was the old testament, but then are perfectly happy to quote it when you oppose gay people.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • Steven

      Eric –

      So you're telling me that Jesus said his enemies should be slain, yet He also says to love your enemies (Matthew 5)? That seems counter productive to me. You also mentioned gays not being in the NT, but what about 1 Cor 6, and 1 Tim 1? Those are just two off the top of my head. I have to ask, and not rudely, but where are you getting your biblical information?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • Eric

      Hey, i never said the bible was consistent.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Steven

      Funny how this gets brought up repeatedly, yet not one person can show inconsistencies.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • pookie

      @Steven
      "Funny how this gets brought up repeatedly, yet not one person can show inconsistencies."
      Hmm. Lets see now... picked up Gideon's Bible .... its open at page one ... what's this? Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are two different accounts of creation? On the first page? How did that happen?

      Ever read the Bible Steven? Its ok. More Christians have read Harry Potter than the Bible. If you do have a week or so with nothing to do, crack it open. We need more atheists.

      April 18, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  5. Rozmarija Grauds

    Our Supreme Court has 6 Catholics on it, which no doubt influences cases before it, such as Michael Newdow's, the lone fighter for Separation of Church and State. Our Founding Fathers would be mortified at the thought of National Day of Prayer coming up , and all the benedictions made in Presidential speeches!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  6. CoolguyMcSly

    Though this CAN be partially attributed to a rise in atheism, a move away from "traditional" Abraham religions and different, more personal perspectives on God are also a large factor. The changes in society make religious practices over a millennium old less practical and more difficult to follow and relate to, though the concept of faith itself is alive and well.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • CoolguyMcSly

      *Abrahamic

      March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Rozmarija Grauds

      Yes, read the statistics that atheists are the LEAST likely to be engaged in any sort of criminal activity, atheists account for the smallest percentage of people in prison. Atheists have only themselves to answer to, and cannot "confess" and be "forgiven", so they have to walk the straight and narrow. There are more than official count, because if they come out of the closet in most communities, they'd risk job advancement, their children get persecuted at school, nd some have private property damaged and their pets mutilated.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • CoolguyMcSly

      Don't know where that came from but... ok. Thanks.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  7. Gary

    Hey, not a problem. If people want to struggle on their own, with no reserve of strength except their friends and family, that's fine. Those with a true relationship with God, in Christ, know the strength available to them. And they are more thoughtful of others, and less cynical in many cases as well.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • gina

      "And they are more thoughtful of others" Really????????

      there always has to be a zinger with the religious.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Alyssa

      Except that the additional strength that you refer to could just as easily be mental disorder through delusion and hallucination.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  8. Rob

    I doubt it will ever completely die out. Some people just have to have something to believe in, as being accountable for your own life an actions is just too difficult. Tis better to rely on 'gods will' than use your brain.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  9. xiaobao

    Why so angry? A country unburdened by religious idiocy will always be better than those backwater 3rd world countries worshipping their fairy tales. This is good news.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  10. David Johnson

    @Anita

    Why do you think god never had a daughter?

    Curious...

    March 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  11. ITEOTW

    it's funny how atheists talk, saying religious people are all hateful when in fact it is they on this message board who sounds the most hateful of all people. But you can't blame them since there is no love without God. I guess they are proof right there.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Observer

      "there is no love without God"

      That is likely the most ridiculous statement anyone will make all day and that's covering a huge area.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • gina

      there is plenty of love without religion. you are blinded if you believe otherwise.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • ITEOTW

      have you ever been to a place of true evil? Don't worry if you haven't, because you'll find out within the next 100 years when you wake up in hell. Then you'll realize what I mean.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Bemused

      ITEOTW: "You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it."... Quote from The Matrix... my delusion is better than your delusion, lol.

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

      ITEOTW: So YOU'RE the one who dispenses hell? Funny how you self-righteous pompous buffoons resort to "you'll find out after you're dead". lol, grow up a little sonny, give me a break

      March 23, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • gina

      See this is the problem with nuts like you. Just because I don't believe what you believe I will wind up in hell, according to you. Wake up call, I don't believe in Hell.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Greg

      "it's funny how atheists talk, saying religious people are all hateful when in fact it is they on this message board who sounds the most hateful of all people." -ITEOW

      "because you'll find out within the next 100 years when you wake up in hell" -ITEOW

      Hypocritical much? Don't complain about atheists being so hateful and then condemn people to hell. That's being more hateful than the atheists (as you claim)

      March 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Quag

      @ ITEOTW, atheists are not hateful. We mock at times because we have researched the subject and have come to the conclusion that none of it makes a bit of sense. We engage with those who are religious only because we feel that religion has a negative impact on our lives and that there is potential for further negative impact.
      During a debate the atheist uses logic and reason. Religious debaters will undoubtedly turn to an argument which has one or more logical fallacies. You can use those on someone who hasn’t done any research, but using false logic on an atheist serves to reduce your credibility even further. It means you are either ignorant of proper logic structure or you are disingenuous.
      Religious people also like to attack science without having a grasp of the topics they trash and without any knowledge of the scientific process. For instance, the big bang, abiogenesis, and evolution are completely different subjects. I don’t care what you think of these subjects, but you should know the difference if you’re going to engage in a debate. Otherwise you sound uninformed.
      Peace and Ramen

      March 25, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  12. Azion

    If everyone would follow the example Jesus Christ left with us then we would have a more peaceful world. What is the greatest commandment? "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind." And the second LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. wouldn't that be amazing if we just listened to God and followed this command then there would be peace.

    And for those that believe if religion is extinct that there will be peace. You are fooling yourselves. If people are not divided on religion then they will be divided on the color of their shoes. people are people and full of sin. There is division of political views, ethnic division, poor and the rich, healthy and the sick, weak and the strong, the fool and the smart, there will always be division and that is why we need God.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • gs

      ...i'll admit that most pro-religion arguments are a little ridiculous to me, but i have to say that you put that quite beautifully. it's good to hear the point of view from a person of faith who seems to avoid dogma and has a base in reality

      March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Alyssa

      " there will always be division and that is why we need God."

      That's an oddly backwards statement from a believer. You posit that we will always have divisions (I even agree with you). It's pretty clear though that if there is a god then he doesn't care to remove the divisions we place upon ourselves. So what would the point of god be if he's not going to do anything about it?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • gs

      @Alyssa: i think the argument he/she is trying to make is that maintaining a belief in god can serve to unite people across these divisions (and yes, it can. i've seen it) and remind people that there is always something greater than themselves. you can agree or disagree but his/her point isn't without merit

      March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Azion

      God is not there to control us. He is not going to remove the division because it is our choice to be divided. Sin is a choice just as God is a choice. As for me and my house we will serve the Lord. I choose to have a relationship with God and by faith believe that one day I will spend eternity with him. I am comforted by this and place my hope in this.

      I am not hear to change anyone's mind but to share what I believe. If you believe there is no God then that is between you and God. But I do have one question for those that do not? Where does your hope come from? Yourself? Other people? Things? oh I feel for this generation.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Matthew Polmanteer

      I'm agnostic but I couldn't agree with you more but the problem is Christians very rarely follow these principles. If they do I support them fully. There are a basic set of life principles and I can get behind and it doesn't matter what religion they are part of I will support there efforts in bringing those principles to life. The problem I see with Christianity is it breeds tolerance as long as you are exactly like us!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Rod

      "The problem I see with Christianity is it breeds tolerance as long as you are exactly like us!"

      Can't that be said for just about everyone? Why single out Christianity?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  13. thack

    This is great news. Religion is a relic that should've died out a long, long time ago.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  14. Doc Vestibule

    Faith is one thing, religion another.
    Faith is personal – it is something that can only be experienced on an individual level and as such should be kept personal.
    Religion is a business that exploits faith.
    Religion is perhaps the oldest, largest and least productive business is history and I am gladdened to see that its days are numbered.

    Instantaneous international communication has finally enabled people to be exposed to ideologies that differ from those of their immediate communities, which in turn encourages skepticism, which is the first step towards rational inquiry.
    Finally we can equip a huge portion of the population with the tools to seek their own answers!
    I only hope that it'll finally push all the Shamans into the unemployment line.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  15. ITEOTW

    It isn't religion that's harmful to society, it's man's own evil and corrupt nature which has infilitrated everything in this world including religion. Now it's just another excuse atheists use to blame to religious when they themselves aren't any better.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • thisis4u

      Most intelligent comment I've seen so far.

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

      So much for being created in god's image. Wait, no, that's about right.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
  16. Reality

    As noted many times:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" will converge these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.....................

    March 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Kneeler

      tell us more, John Lennon

      March 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  17. gina

    It is about time. Many of our problems are because of religion and religious conflicts.

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

      Religion is the root of all evil.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  18. Ahmed Hassanain

    Hey everybody ,

    I dont want to get in an argument anymore , but it seems people that are athiest do have high iqs but who the hell are you to say that there is no god. Im not advocating any religion but the way everything is , there has to be a great designer for everything, not only that as humans we have our physical body and then our soul. Our soul is who we are and life within us . To think when you die you cease to exsist is unfathomable

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

      "there has to be a great designer for everything"

      Why?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Reality

      Hassanain,

      The latest astrophysic's view of life after death? Tis simply recycling of your body into future bodies or other things in a never -ending cycle of birth, death and renewal. No heaven, no hell, no purgatory, no limbo just the beauty of Mother Nature in recycling mode. Here today, gone tomorrow eventually returning as something different, inanimated or animated in the chaotic, stochastic life of the expanding or shrinking universe.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Bemused

      "I dont want to get in an argument anymore , but..." waa, waa, you want to spew your religious nonsense without the inconvenience of anyone with a high IQ pointing out how it is ridiculous.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • MikeB

      If there has to be a designer for everything, then who designed god?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • rich

      Who designed the designer?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • rahul

      right, a great designer that levels cities with tsunamis and lets despots rule over terrified citizens.

      sounds like the designer hasn't quite hammed out all the kinks yet.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Sos

      I understand what you're saying, but lets just suppose for a second that you subscribe to a polytheistic religion such as that of the Ancient Greeks or Egyptians. You were raised with that belief, and then someone told you that there was only one god. Would you have the same response to them? Would you think that one god handling the sunrise, the harvest, the rain, the afterlife etc. would be too much for even one who is a god? I would think so.

      Now lets say you're a Christian, would you say that the lack of the belief in Jesus as the Messiah, or the belief Mohammed as the focal point is unfathomable? That would knock out Jews and Muslims (along with other religions). Under your logic, it seems that it is sufficient to believe in one god, regardless of the religion itself based on what YOU believe.

      But how did you come up with those beliefs? You were taught them by someone, based on where you were born or your personal experiences. What makes you RIGHT?

      Why can't we look at the split being made at different places in the "Faith Tree" (for lack of a better term).
      1) One has to have faith or not have faith
      2) One has to have a specific type – monotheist, polytheist, pagan etc.
      3) One has to define the style, or story, that goes with that faith.

      What makes one of these more valuable than the other?
      What makes one of these right or wrong?
      Who decides?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Alyssa

      Your inability to fathom something does not make it untrue.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • derp

      "Your inability to fathom something does not make it untrue."

      Belief in fairytales does not make them real.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Josh

      Sos –

      "But how did you come up with those beliefs? You were taught them by someone, based on where you were born or your personal experiences."

      I would like to argue this point. Many, many people have converted to different religions than how/where they were raised.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Sos

      @ Josh – If you read the entire sentence – which you quoted, you would see that I said OR YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES. Which takes things besides being raised into consideration. I welcome your response

      March 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Josh

      Sos-

      "@ Josh – If you read the entire sentence – which you quoted, you would see that I said OR YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES. Which takes things besides being raised into consideration. I welcome your response"

      That's the obvious part, though. I would say the majority of the decisions one makes is based on personal experiences. In this context, if God (or whomever you wish to use as an example) spoke to you, or if you never heard from God (etc), your decision would be based on that personal experience. I'm not disagreeing with that part of the statement. I was simply stating that many people raised in Christian homes have become atheists. Many raised in Muslim homes have become Christian. And many have remained in the faith they were raised. It's not necessarily a matter of upbringing.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Sos

      @Josh – I totally agree, and I guess my definition of personal experiences may be broader than yours. When I say personal experiences, I include education, conversations with those of other faiths etc. That's why I used the term "or" to mean that there are differences in being raised (upbringing) and experiences. I think we're on the same page here

      March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  19. Sean

    As education levels rise, religion declines.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Josh

      I would disagree with that. It's not a matter of intellect, as minds much brighter than yours or mine are religious. It's also not a matter of social status, religious upbringing, age, race, etc. You can find people from all walks of life who are religious.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Eric

      true but very few scientists are religious. why's that?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Josh

      I don't know of a study where they poll scientists' beliefs, but if so, one reason may be David Coppedge, who was fired from NASA for his beliefs.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  20. Teddy Ballgame

    Unaffiliated does not mean these people are atheists!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
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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.