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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. gerald

    And we are surprised by this article?

    Not Christians:
    Luke.18

    1. [8] I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

    The Bible works. Prophecy is fulfilled and people do not believe. Only one of 10 lepers who were cured returned to thank Jesus. The Rich man in the story of Lazarus said let me go back and tell them. He was told they wouldn't believe anyway. Nothing new.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  2. religious doesn't have to mean religion

    just because you are "unaffiliated" doesn't mean you don't believe in certain tenets of decency...i treasure all faiths equally even the disenfrancised...Jesus would not like what is fought for in His Name...either would Mohammed or anyone else for that matter...

    March 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  3. Citizen3c

    For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Romans 1:20 (New International Version, ©2011)

    March 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  4. Jon

    Religion is not going away in the U.S., where stupidity is a national pastime.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  5. EC

    I think I need to move to one of the countries listed in this story

    March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  6. antHONY

    I believe intelligence plays a role here, and not just the want to belong to the majority group(as the article states).

    At some point we ALL came to an understanding that there was no EASTER BUNNY or TOOTH FAIREY. At some point we came to the realization that there was no SANTA CLAUS... and that society creates these things at a toddler level to create some form of self conscience to curb behavior and get us thinking whether we are "naughty or nice".
    Same thing holds true for religion. "God sent his only son to die for us on a cross so YOU better not sin or you'll go to hell". At some point, the intelligent mind starts to weigh the logistics of Noah fitting pairs of EVERY animal on an arc as unrealistic.
    At some point we realize all the mythical stories of the Bible were only told to keep us in check as a society...
    these Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth were not meant to be taken literally ... and as society matures, so does its belief systems, and willingness to accept that a heaven filled with angels in robes playing harps and God with his big white beard looking down on us all is just just isnt feasible (just as we realized there was no Santa).

    March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  7. Litterboxrox

    Fine. More Westboro Baptist Church for us.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  8. thisis4u

    Reason will not prevail until we realize that religion/spirituality is not, necessarily, contrary to reason.

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

      "Reason will not prevail until we realize that religion/spirituality is not, necessarily, contrary to reason."
      Perhaps I misunderstand, but this seems to indicate that religion/spirituality is holding back reason, but if reason is not contrary to religion then why is it being held back. If reason is not being held back, then why wouldn't it prevail?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Guest

      And, that won't happen until religeons start to act reasonably.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  9. Try Logic

    Happy to see my country (Canada) on that list!

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

      Couldn't agree more. Mankind is long overdue in facing reality and to realize that all of mankind is equal with the same hopes and aspirations. One does not need any god to remind them or enforce a set of rules to keep us all in line. Humanity can do that all on it's own.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  10. MoJoRisin

    Could it also be possible that people define themselves as "unaffiliated" because its really no ones business what religion you practice? Must we have poll of everything we do in life? What diety a person chooses to kneel and pray to is his/her given right. To pray or not pray? It's between them and their chosen diety, if they should chose to have one.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  11. Spacely

    I'm an Agnostic Jew. Jagnostic? Anyway, happy the way I am. Religion has always been something internal to ourselves that we "adjust" to our current mood. Made by us, for us, of us.

    It'll be OK.

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

      Jagnostic, I like it. I was raised catholic, now an atheist. Am I catheist?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Spacely

      Either that or Athlic 🙂

      Ben Athlic? Is that you?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  12. amy

    Couldn't happen fast enough.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  13. Adriana Birmingham, Al

    That sounds like good news to me!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  14. Methusalem

    But, they prefer to go back to paganism, and continue believing in humanity – they call it race. They will think they are special and of superior race (Caucasian)

    (Rev 17:16 )
    Because God has put it in their hearts to do his purpose, and to be of one mind, giving their kingdom to the beast, till the words of God have effect and are complete.

    Of course, as we are witnessing it, the West builds alliance with children of men the Arabs (Turks) to strike against children of God

    (Dan 11:30 )
    For those who go out from the west will come against him, and he will be in fear and will go back, full of wrath against the holy agreement; and he will do his pleasure: and he will go back and be united with those who have given up the holy agreement.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  15. DoubtingThomas

    Fantastic News!!! Ignorance and fear must end before mankind can move forward. Religion makes a virtue out of not thinking. It has been a shackle on humanities leg for too long.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Doubting Thomas should be Empirical Thomas.

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

      Doubting Thomas

      I asked the same question of Jackdaw, and pose it to you:

      Since mankind has progressed since the beginning, and there has been religion since the beginning, how has religion hindered progress?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • LutheranLady

      Oh, I dunno. See, my understanding of Lutheranism (and I'd like to think I've got a pretty good grasp on it, having studied it for 4 years now, alongside world religions – so I promise you I'm ignorant in no way) is that really, it's all about living your life. We were created to be in community with one another. Lutheranism lets you be freed from worrying about your salvation (which other Christian religions don't do) so that you can quit worrying about your own stuff and serve the people around you. Love God, and love your neighbor. That's it. What you do in between is your own business and is of no 'eternal' consequence. It's a religion that doesn't expect anything out of you other than to be human, because you are. Not all religion is thoughtless.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Chad

    Awesome: all meaning and purpose will evaporate from culture and civilization. These mathematicians obviously don't have a great deal of purpose or meaning driving their work. It makes me think of Han Solo's usual admonition to C-3PO: "never tell me the odds," or "I'm glad you're here to tell us these things. Chewie! Take the Professor in back and plug him into the hyperdrive!" and finally, "I'm not really interested in your opinion 3PO."

    March 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • AngieS

      And just what makes you think anyone is interested in *your* opinion? If society is unable to find meaning and/or culture in anything but an unattainable – by it's very nature made so! – divinity then we definitely have bigger problems...

      March 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Chad

      Angie, you valued my opinion enough to respond to it. Thanks! I must have said something that garnered your attention. That's often the case when someone is capable of writing effectively and thinking clearly (I do these things pretty well). I like my Star Wars quotes as well.

      March 23, 2011 at 9:04 pm |
  17. The Jackdaw

    This cannot happen soon enough. Religion haults progress and rewards ignorance. The comments on this page are proof enough of that.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • emc729

      And a comment like yours isn't ignorant! Think before you type that dribble.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      My views are well thought out and I wish to drown the belief in the divinely ridiculous in my drivel.

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

      Jackdaw,

      Since we as a species have progressed from the beginning, and there has been religion in the world from the beginning, how has religion halted progress?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  18. Christian

    People who are religious, therefore pious in their ways, such as the days of old with the sanhedrin and many other faiths, are pleasing themselves and not those around them, all in the name of "Religion". Being a follower of Christ imparts a relationship with the living God and "hopefully" translating that relationship to and with mankind; HIS family. If everyone not only lived what Jesus the Messiah lived and spoke, and had the intimate relationship with HIM, this world could have been in a much better place. However, since we are human, given a free will, by our Lord God, we make many ill fated choices and thus here we are. Too many "so-called" religions do not practice what they preach, and some that do are now creating chaos for the rest of us. May the Lord our God forgive us and have mercy on us. Remember, just because you don't believe, doesn't mean it isn't true. Pray to the Lord sincerely, and He will make himeself known to you, that is where the relationship begins.

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

      "Remember, just because you don't believe, doesn't mean it isn't true."
      Just because you *do* believe, doesn't mean it *is* true.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • TrueBlue42

      You mean pray to the same god that countless children did after being sodomized by Catholic priests?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Pastor Dan

      Well Spoken Christian! God Bless!!

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

      @Nonimus that is correct. That is why it is called "FAITH".

      March 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Sybaris

      Christian, you poor delusional enslaved person.

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

      That is the biggest bunch of nonsense I have ever heard. "Truth" coming from the bible is an oxymoron. There is no truth from the bible. And you can interpret it anyway you like and it will always be nonsense. The only "god" is in your delusional head.

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

      People make good or bad choices with or without any God or gods. As Christopher Hitchens challenges "Name a moral action taken or a moral statement uttered by a person of faith that could not have been taken or uttered by a non-believer"

      One day, not in my lifetime, humanity will look back on religion as a sociological function whose time came and went and what silly folly it was. There is no God. There never has been a God. There never will be a God.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • DoubtingThomas

      @mfs If you believe in things without any proof. I have a bridge to sell you then. 😉

      March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • surfdog11

      Remember though, it's only true, like religion, if you want it to be true. You can believe whatever you want to believe. Just don't force it on the rest of us. Or as it should be stated: you can fool yourself into believing anything. But when you truely believe in something that nobody else does, your pretty much delusional. But hey, it's your life (or maybe you don't understand that) waste it any way you want!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  19. annec1

    One can only hope!!!

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

      I agree 100%. And none to soon. The quicker we throw away this drivel, the better.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  20. Allen

    If you notice most countries on that list don't go to war with anyone. Only the religious dominated counties like to blow things up since they want everyone to believe like they do. Morality is not based on religion, who you are as a person.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      As Arthur C Clarke said. It is a shame that morality has been hijacked by religion.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • thisis4u

      I know lots of people (atheist and spiritual) who like to blow stuff up.

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

      yes indeed!
      Abolishing religion worked great for The Khmer Rouge and communist China. Truly the prime examples for morality.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • RealisticHumanist_986487563

      They're also more prone to attack and kill others since they believe this life is just a dress rehearsal for the REAL one in heaven (or hell) that comes after. Believing they're righteous in the long run makes it OK to cause suffering and death now. How often do you hear christians talk about the suffering of the Iraqis that was caused by Bush's "War on Terror"? Never. Inconsequential.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:37 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.