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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. Arcwraith

    I read a study a while back in the U.S.A. that showed a large percentage, 45% or something like that, have abandoned organized religions likr Catholisism or Christianity in favor of inner-faith beliefs many citing that religious texts were written by man to control a populace as seen fit in specific ages. I found this remarkable considering a great deal of the wars ever waged on this planet were for religious beliefs as written in specific texts.

    Now wars are waged over a god thats new and old and ever lasting... money

    March 23, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Al

      No I would say that most wars today are still religion based.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Tim

      Wars have always been religious base but a lot of time the real reason was for money. Organized religion likes their money too.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  2. Angelo

    This does not mean that people will be "god-less", this looks me as a trend towards spirituality, and less to traditonal orginized religions.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • SeanNJ

      Once you get rid of the fear instilled by the dogma, a lot of people find, over time, that the "spiritual" part of it is unnecessary. That's kinda what happened to me.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  3. ???

    The problem isn't religions or atheism as so many people are claiming in their posts. It is unrelenting fanaticism, whether it be be by those who do it in the name of a religion or those who do it in opposition to all religion.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Ed

      good point

      March 23, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  4. Timmy

    Now that's the news!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  5. jv

    When will it happen here?

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

      We should ask a prophet that question.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  6. Shamrock6

    Wow! This just made my day!! This is some of the best news that the world could ever hope to hear. Finally, FINALLY – we are evolving beyond the point where this old way of thinking will no longer be necessary. This is a great thing for humanity as a whole. This means that we, as a group of people, are finally rejecting old, judgmental ways of divisive thinking and slowly embracing a system of thought that will hopefully unite us and allow us to live another 1000 years. WOOHOO!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  7. Jim Myers

    "Driven to extinction" seems to imply that the movement away from ancient mythologies is something other than the fact that logic, science, education, self-worth and common sense are enabling folks to rightly perceive religion as man-made fables originally conjured up by ignorant men to account for a world they could not understand. It is about time mankind threw off the shackles of these tales of supernatural beings in the sky and faced our challenges and opportunities with minds free of these tall tales. Perhaps, instead of the headline used, it should have read "Religion will finally and thankfully dissappear in 9 countries, experts predict". Let us pray (so to speak) that the trend continues...the faster the better.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  8. Ken Bradshaw

    Once again, CNN has an agenda in who it chooses for these belief columns. There is a way of acting about something, as if its premise is so basic that no one with common sense should dispute it. That has been a theme or an aproach through out the CNNs believe columns I have read. CNN has been slyly anti-religion while pretending to be covering it. It reminds me of Mark Antony's speech in Shakespear's Julius Ceaser "I have come not to praise Ceaser, but to bury him" then he goes on to do just the opposite. This column carries th eimplication that religion exists as a herd mentality. I don't know. My experience is that religion is very personal and is found in quiet moments of study, reflection and prayer. A common theme on this site is that religion is the source of great evil in the world, while ignoring the greaert love, charity and kindnesses that frequent religious observance And also ignoring the awful atrocities of many avowed enemies of religion. Ken

    March 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • CNN Editor

      I apologize for not recognizing that your position is the only completely unbiased one out there. In the future we will seek your approval for all stories in order to ensure their is no bias in our work.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Ken Bradshaw

      CNN Editor,

      Now you are pretending. You know full well what you are doing. Ken

      March 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      Well, with the CNN Editor's response like that, we are assured that the people of faith will be portrayed as Ken noted in his post!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Marilyn Stroh

      Amen. Thank you for your beautiful insights, and divine thoughts.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • believe

      @ CNN Editor: "their is no bias?" Heaven help if you are truly an editor!

      March 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • CNN CEO

      I approve this message.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • Ken Bradshaw

      CNN CEO,

      Thank you for approving my message. Now what are you going to do about this editor who keeps running these bad columns? Ken

      March 23, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • Religions are BS

      It's lame trying to justify religions with doing good causes. You seem confused - one can be/do good without religion.

      And religion is a personal thing? So, why stuff "In god we trust," "so help me god" down people's throat? Why force atheists and agnostics to lie? Religious sheep are religious sheep! 🙂

      March 23, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Mark

      Hogwash, more have been killed in the name of religion than by nonbelievers. Some anthropoligists believe religion began with drug use, particularly hallucinigens . Sounds like "quiet reflection" may have begun that way.

      December 11, 2011 at 1:17 am |
  9. mat

    Anyone else notice that these nine are also some of the most advanced, enlightened, and tolerant countries in the world as well?

    March 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  10. AmishAirline

    Let us Americans do everything in our power to make it 10. Please. In the name of Jeebus we pray.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  11. Louise

    As a Canadian I welcome the news religion is on its way out in my country. I can attest to the fact that religion is well and truly past its expirty date here in Quebec. Some, mostly older people still practice, but it has passed it's expiry date.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Doggedly

      The Great White North is looking more and more attractive every day. =)

      March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  12. BADGUY

    There's an interest in Religion by non-believers because religious "dogma" is now integrated with political power. An example: Abortion, which was always considered a no-no by the Catholic Church but never a "focus" to influence votes, is now the centerpiece of the Catholic Church's support for the Republican party. Since 57 Million Catholics are potential voters in the United States, any move to use religious "dogma" to influence voting patterns IS of real concern.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Rogert

      It's neither new, nor a concern.

      The state cannot establish a religion. Religious people will vote. if you are against abortion, you might consider that when voting. And the opposite is true, if you are pro-abortion, you might consider that when voting.

      And you somehow believe that people lack the intelligence to know what they are for or against and to translate that into voting.

      So who does tell these weakminded people how to vote in the past? And where their 'masters' much better for democracy?

      Good grief dude, welcome to the real world.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  13. justiceserved

    Extrapolation is a wonderful thing to the ignorant! We will all be 9 feet tall at the end of this century and there will be so many people we will be standing on each other's heads! Without ignorance there would be no Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Palin, Bachmann, or for that matter, most Republicans.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  14. Hiawa23

    No one knows what will happen, anyone can make predictions. If you believe, great, if you don't, well that's great to. It's your life. To me many of the stories in the bible seem like fairy tales as there is no way thinking logically that stuff happened. If it did maybe someone's interpretation was off. Interpretation is the key cause initially it's how we interpret things that determine what we believe in & who says the writers or the interpreters of the bible is correct. I don't know any God who tell's his people to strap bombs on their backs & kill many innocent, but many do in the name of their God. Can their interpretation b wrong or off?

    March 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Priscilla

      The stories in the Bible aren't about logic. They are about Faith.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • About Time

      @ Priscilla,
      Stand at the ledge on the roof of a tall building. Logic will tell you not to jump. Or you can jump and see where faith lands you.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  15. Ryan

    Evolution is the most impractical religion of all. People believing they came from monkeys, that blacks are between chimpanzees and neanderthals on the evolutionary ladder (found that one in the "Origin of Species," by one Charles Darwin), that dinosaurs lost their legs and grew wings (maybe pigs will fly next?), that nothing exploded and created the universe (Big Bang)? Come on, get real!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Codepwned

      I had to laugh. Your generalization of several hundred thousand years of changes so minute you'd never notice in your lifetime is silly. Honestly... change "God" in the bible to Flying Spaghetti Monster and you'll see how ridiculous it is.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Sean

      Right ... because there's is proof and we constantly try to proove and disproove – VS – Religion: "Dont Ask" just have FAITH because some old fart a few centuries ago couldn't explain why the shiny ball in the sky came and left every day and made up some story of an all mighty being in the sky. Come On ... Get Real!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • BADGUY

      "Creationism" is part of hundreds of religions in the world. Which interpretation should we "believe"? "Evolution" is a single theory. Only 1 to believe. Is it correct? Who knows! But...like all of man's attempt to "define" reality, it's the best we've got! Religious writings on the origins of man and the universe were not based on science. They were beliefs based on prior myths and stories from past generations and other societies. Such is the Christian (Jewish) writings in Genesis. The story of the 7 days of creation was taken from Babylonia religious traditions when the Jews were "captive" in that country. This was an attempt to "fill in the blanks" by Jewist writers attempting to preserve Jewish tradition in a foreign land (circa 600 BC).

      March 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • jens

      Ryan, your view on evolution is hopelessly outdated. Evolutionary science today is much more profound than the theory by Charles Darwin.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • BADGUY

      The problem I have with "creationism" is it's proponents fixation on proving it's truth. Their "canned" reasoning: "If the bible is the true word of God, everything in the bible MUST be true. If "creationism" is NOT true, than the whole "truth" of the bible is in question". OK, THAT I understand. For the religious purists, there may be a "legitimate" reason in proving that "creationism" is true. But........is there an even wider agenda? As you may remember, Southern ministers claimed for many years (before AND after the Civil War) that slavery was condoned by the bible. This was due to comments regarding a slave's relationship to his master. In current times, the Christian fundamentalist ties to the Jewish State is based on the Old Testaments claim that Jews are "the favored children of God". As such, God's commandments that the Jewish people attack and completely murder the inhabitants of Canaan (Jericho is best example) had to be "good" since God commanded such. Could the bible be used to authorize any and all action by the Jewish state against any enemy? In other words, could it be that the Christian fundamentalists have another motive in "pounding" in the truth of "creationism"? That being the use of the bible to justify political atrocities, as long as the "justification" can be found in the bible? I suspected this might be true when this whole "creationism" vs. "Evoltuion" came to the forefront several years ago. Are my worries well founded? I'm not sure!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • About Time

      Ryan,

      So your gOD isn't almighty enough to have created and designed Evolution itself? Omnipotence fail!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Azul

      making it difficult to store away (and you will want to store this item). However, it reamins a great read and reference!Also, the advertisments are quite appealing to the intellectual.

      June 29, 2012 at 5:16 am |
  16. Jacob

    Thank God!!!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  17. Priscilla

    Perhaps there will be a major decline in organized religion, but a lot of people consider themselves religious without an affiliated church/religion. I don't believe in any specific church doctrine, but I do believe in God and my faith is in Him and not an organization. I'm kind of a semi Catholic/Pagan at this point. They don't have a box for that on the census. Plus, my name isn't Eva Braun either, but that's who the census bureau thinks lives at my house.

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

      No problem. read the god delusion. PS: sorry about your husband killing 40 million people. Parent -Teacher nights must be a bit-ch

      March 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • Priscilla

      Eva Braun is the name I put on my census form. I don't think the government should need to know who lives there, so I give them the bare facts and fill the rest of the blanks with bogus info.
      I don't have to read anything about God. I'm old and I have lived and He has shown himself to me many times. I hope someday you get the chance to meet Him yourself. I found Him in a war zone.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Doggedly

      Really Priscilla? When god showed himself to you what was he wearing? I hope it wasn't that dreadful toga.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  18. capnmike

    Religion is an ENORMOUS LIE. There isn't any "god"...it's a human invention to explain phenomena and to allay peoples fear of death AND TO CONTROL THEM. As the latter, it's nothing but a huge scam. All this insanity, gods, heavens, hells, devils, angels, ...NONE OF IT EXISTS. The human race is self-destructing over whose version of this huge lie is "correct"...we will never progress until we have tossed religion in the garbage where it belongs.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Arcwraith

      congratulation captain athiest. this was a report on how religious beliefs are weining, not an excuse for you to spout your anti-god propoganda. If people believe, they believe, and I'll tell you what, fear of burning in hell is a lot stronger to people than opening their minds to alternative ideals like yours.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • BADGUY

      And fear of "burning in Hell" is what keeps money flowing into the churches of the world. Fear is a great motivator to "loosen the pocketbooks".

      March 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
    • About Time

      Ding ding ding! We have a winner. Right you are mike.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  19. Colin

    Anybody else here fell the urge to open a bottle of champagne?

    March 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Emily

      haha

      March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Arcwraith

      only if you turn it to wine 😉

      March 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  20. bob wallace

    I think the authors of the study are guilty of willful ignorance if they discount the worldwide rise of islam. they think there will be no more religion in the Netherlands? nonsense! it will be one of the first western european nations to be majority muslim!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Priscilla

      Taking religion out of Ireland isn't going to happen. This entire report is crap. You're not taking religion out of these countries. They are only leaving "organized" religion.

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

      I question the report too, because its fails to realize that the role of religion will change, as will the definition of what religion is – this is not like languages. If I were to tick off my music preference, I could say country, rock, jazz or unaffiliated.
      I might choose unaffiliated if there was some kind of really heavy social burden to choosing country, rock, or jazz. Such is the state of religion today. Whether its some church leader hitting you up for money, or the constant time pressures for volunteering a a church, its easier to be unaffiliated.

      but someday when being orthodox doesn't really have any particular burden, I'd be glad to back and say I'm eastern orthodox – when it's just a kind of preference rather than burden – people still have preferences. They may change, but they aren't "non-spiritual"

      People are still spiritual, we haven't changed that much in a few decades. When its safe to pick a choice, when it has as much meaning as our favorite color – we'll make a choice, and we'll tick those boxes again on the Census.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Moli

      Religion is fighting a lnsiog battle. Have you ever heard of Battlecry . Well its over now, but for the past two years it was about getting teens into standing loud and proud for religion. Well, now its back to Acquire the Fire .Can religion outlast politics? How so, when only 4% of America are actual, really mean it religious people. (Theres a survey i read it somewhere, ill see if i can find it).As much as I to say it, religion can't outlast politics.cynical, politically active atheist

      June 29, 2012 at 5:58 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.