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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. rita

    Really! I was just thinking that gay adolescents might be able to have their lives unfold naturally and without a constant drumbeat of interference from religious organizations. Religion has been a heavy rock on the lives and consciences of our youth. Freedom from religion would have been a great boon for my gay generation and all of the gay generations past who have found their lives thwarted by this continuous campaign of hellfire, doom and despair from religion. Imagine if their lives had not been diminished and their full potential and happiness was celebrated instead.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  2. a Pilgrim on Earth

    Maybe what is going to disappear is "churchism," not necessarily religion. Religion, from its Latin root, "religare", means to "unite": sowhat you are uniting is the individual self/soul with the absolute SELF/GOD... It is in man's nature to merge with the Absolute.
    More and more people are awakening to Eternal Truths, and those are present in every religion on Earth. A divine experience can be had by anyone at any time. In fact that makes one much more "religious" than any formal affiliation to a group, church, fellowship, etc. The rigid structures that veil real spirituality will be abated. Perhaps that is what the trend is.
    Blessings!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  3. Frank

    Many predictions have come and gone and most predictions very rarely become fact.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  4. Card Carrying Athiest

    I just want to say I find it incredibly encouraging that so many of these posts deal with how religion is harmful.

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

      Every knee shall bow to the Lord.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Eric

      Man, this Lord guy is an egomaniac

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

      And this Lord guy doesn't practice what he preaches in terms of Thou shall not kill/murder.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  5. Eric

    We all know that Jesus (if he existed) wasn't born of a virgin right? It was just a mistranslation. And if he was born a virgin then he wouldn't have been the prophesied one because Joseph, not Mary, was of the line of David, so if Joseph wasn't Jesus's father then he has no bloodline connection to the people of David.

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

      First, not even historians or scientists dispute the fact of Jesus' life. Second, both Mary and Joseph were in the bloodline of David.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
  6. Tim

    Good! How long before the US will be free from religion?

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

      If you mean not believing in nothing, then the answer is never.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  7. iamthefredman

    The Godless scientists march on to predict the "End of Religion"! Better get to church on Sunday and see all the Non-Believing frightened little children who can't think for themselves! I believe and will always believe that there is life after this life on Earth. Other wise what is the point? The science world ihas been unsuccessfully trying to "disorive" the existence of God for years. Tell me "Big-Bang Theory" people, where did the ingredients for the explosion of the Big Bang come from? And who lit the fuse? GOD! I laugh at your foolishness of trying to outwit God. I pity and pray for you all.

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

      Shows what you know about the Big Bang Theory. No explosion was involved, sweetheart.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'Better get to church on Sunday and see all the Believing frightened little children who can't think for themselves'
      say hi for me.

      'Other wise what is the point?'
      lol you believe because otherwise life is pointless? I hate to tell you this but life does not have a point, it just..is.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
  8. nonny

    I totally disagree that things will be better when religion is gone. Its like saying the world will be a better place if there is no Goverment on earth. There will be total anarchy because everybody will be accountable to whatever is law to him/her. That means anyone can justify anything wrong. All we need to get ride of is false religion.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Auntie Warhol

      I'll ride my false religion all I want, thank you. Slack!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • bam

      Yeah because religion hasnt caused anarchy already.....
      South America Central America got catholic talibanism shoved down their throat, there was no anarchy there.

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

      Are you kidding? The Bible is immoral. Read it for the first time. You'll be amazed what you will find in there.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:59 pm |
  9. D J

    YAY!!! ITS FINALLY HAPPENING!!! 🙂 I just wish it would be extinct in my lifetime so I can enjoy the peace of not having people knock on my door every sunday trying to sell me some BS about how im going to hell for my sins. BLAH!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  10. jv

    Religion's like a bad rash, it cannot disappear fast enough

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

      in really bad cases chemical attacks may have to be employed.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  11. fundies

    I am looking for Gozer. I am the gatekeeper.

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

      LOL!!!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Venkman

      I thought the gatekeeper was supposed to be looking for the keymaster?

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

      There is no Dana only Zuul

      March 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  12. Aristocles

    Those so-called "experts" declare religion to be finished (or all but finished) every time there is the slightest decrease in religiosity. They've said that God was dead four decades ago, and even as far back as the 1890s, people spoke of the decline of religion. It never happens, and it never will. Religion is as much a part of humanity as government itself. Like it or hate it, it will always be there.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Card Carrying Athiest

      here's hoping these experts are better then those back in the 80's then. =]

      March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Frank

      I agree.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Frank

    You cannot kill Christianity, it is real and cannot be stopped.

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

      Viva CRUSADES!!!!! peace and luv can't be stopped not even by human flesh as crusaders blades pierce non believers hearts

      March 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Card Carrying Athiest

      this is creepy

      March 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • D J

      blah blah blah... heard that before and guess what. ITS GOING TO DIE!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • leogorky

      Let's hope this horrible hate group goes soon. You say we can't kill christianity..christianity is too busy killing everyone else. Imagine the vast numbers of people who have been persecuted, tortured and killed all due to fairy tales.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Cassie

      Wake up!! Religion is about as real as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Al

      Like cancer? With a lot of hard work, we can find a cure.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  14. Jessica

    I wish this would come true next year. Religious people are usually do not follow all that their religion demands they do and often the people in a religion act in a way directly opposite of what their religion tells them to act. Witness the Christian mob that is against the LGBT people. Christ never ever said anything against being LGBT but the Christians dig deep into the bible to find something that lets them hate them but ignore hundreds of other things such as eating fish or wearing a cloth of two fibers.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  15. Frank

    It does not say that people do not blieve in a higher power, it only says that at the moment people are turning away from religious affiliation.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • calvin

      Yes, it only gives us inferences about peoples concern for twisted religions that blame hurricanes on gays, is tax-exempt and can't stop building east wings with the people's money instead of being more charitable and educational in regards to population control – MORMONS, MUSLIMS, FUNDAMENTALIST CHRISTIANS!!!!!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  16. RodBinNC

    THANK GOD!!!!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Al

      Now that's funny.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  17. Josh

    Great article! I can hardly wait until going to church seems as antiquated and ridiculous as worshiping the sun. Religion is social cancer.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  18. Sophie

    I can feel the Xians racing to breed already.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  19. Duke13

    I see from some of the comments that many here will get to hear the words of Jesus that were spoken in Matthew 7:23; "And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."

    March 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • D J

      hey Duke13, do the world a favor. Think about what your going to post next time and then DONT POST IT. no one cares about your stupid quotes. and if you want to be witty, then think of a quote yourself instead of stealing someone elses to try and make you look smart. 🙂

      March 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Observer

      While quoting Matthew, why not quote the passages that label MILLIONS of Christians as adulterers?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • hehehe

      Mary had a good time with someone other than her husband (the result – nutjob called Jesus). But Mary was smart and claimed divine virginity but alas her illegimate child was executed and died a terrible death

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

      Duke – right on, brother in Christ.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  20. Mohammed Iqbal

    Congratulation, it is a good news. religion brought wars, crusades from the day of its beginning til very this day. Finally, atleast realizing that the mother of evil is what, is a good start.

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

      ABOUT time..... religion is for the ignorant which was 90% of the population when it arose to control them. it is 2012 get with the times

      March 23, 2011 at 1:10 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.