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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. ScottK

    If "Organized religion" is driving you toward extinction' have it drive you to "Patty O'Tools Irish Pub!!

    March 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  2. Civilization

    What the sociologists fail to consider is that religion has existed since the beginning of history. Every culture throughout history has pursued a "God shaped vacuum" in their soul, as Saint Augustine put it. "Unaffiliated" may just mean that they aren't a part of a major denomination.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  3. Megeido

    ajninnyc
    Because the Bible says that every need shall bow: Romans 14:11
    for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” this will happen before Judgement day, you might not believe until your last breath, but When judgement day comes you will bow down to his presence and worship him. When is bowing to God bad? I love to bow down and worship my lord 🙂

    March 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  4. Neptune

    This is the first sign of true intelligence on this planet. Organized religion is evil. It is the cause of the Inquisition, Jihad, Crusades and most wars.

    The truth is simple: If god is infinite, how can finite man comprehend the nature of god? Anyone that tells you that they comprehend the nature of god is either lying or wrong. Mortal man cannot comprehend the infinite.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  5. Tuut

    They make it seems that "losing" religion is just a hype. Because everybody is doing it, so should I. That's just wrong, I never became an atheist because others were, in fact I never knew about other atheist until I was much older. All those unaffiliated people just grew some common sense. They stopped believing in fairytales. Unless god himself descends to earth (0% change for that) the numbers will keep rising as more and more people come to their senses and let reason guide their life. Thank god for progress.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  6. Joe

    Too bad only in 9 countries.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • ScottK

      9 out of 195... Its not going to be in our lifetimes, but someday everyone will understand, organized religion is to large of a liability to continue to exist.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  7. John Sharp

    No hatred, just distaste for the ignorant. I am not trying to make anyone not believe. I simply request they don't try to make me live by their beliefs.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  8. Aucausin

    Am I alone in wishing that they'd make a religious article outside of the belief blog? The comment boards here are hard to use and my reply button hasn't worked all day. It's hard to get your point across to people when they can't find your response to their response.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  9. eddie2010

    "Religion relies on human beings. They aren't rational..."

    I guess he was referring to the members of his religious group. That's why you can never talk to the religious types – they sneak the lie in right at the beginning. "Humans aren't rational..." wait, yes they can be. "First God..." – wait, where did this god come from?

    March 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  10. Say What

    I always say "consider the source"... Look at the last name of the author of the data.

    Enough said.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • ScottK

      Are you 12?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  11. fundies

    I once worshipped a Coke bottle. I started after I saw that movie with the clicker people. Then I worshipped Stacia for a few years. She was definitely from heaven.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  12. Ruck

    actually the founders of religion, had intelligence that far surpassed those they were surrounded by. They said to themselves "we as a society will not last if all of these clowns go around living by their own rules, and behaving as if it's every man for himself. We must have rules to follow. But I how do I make people follow these rules...... I've got it, I will conjure up a story of higher power that has sent me these rules, and those that don't follow them, are guaranteed to spend an eternity suffering for their "sins"...... yes, that will work, it has to, it's the only way I can get these idiots to be civilized...." And thus, religion was born.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  13. Pog

    "As for me and my house, we will server the Lord" Religion and Faith is never to be measured by Majority Popularity, Celebrity, or "Religiousity". It is quiet resolve that come what may, one's faith would not waver. Faith is integrity in the midst of adversity, and if history is correct, the vast majority of human beings give up on their faith when faced with either adversity or, in some cases, prosperity. But thanks be to God, yes I said it, "Thanks be to God", ther will ALWAYS be a people whose faith remains firm, whose resolve to serve is a true as the needle to the pole.

    O, for a faith that will not shrink
    Though pressed by every foe
    That will not tremble on the brink
    Of any earthly woe!

    That will not murmur nor complain
    Beneath the chastening rod
    But, in the hour of grief or pain
    Will lean upon its God.

    A faith that shines more bright and clear
    When tempests rage without
    That when in danger knows no fear
    In darkness feels no doubt.

    That bears, unmoved, the world's dread frown
    Nor heeds its scornful smile
    That seas of trouble cannot drown
    Nor Satan's arts beguile.

    A faith that keeps the narrow way
    Till life's last hour is fled
    And with a pure and heavenly ray
    Lights up a dying bed.

    Lord, give me such a faith as this
    And then, whate'er may come
    I'll taste, e'en here, the hallowed bliss
    Of an eternal home.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • PRISM 1234

      @ pog
      A M E N !

      March 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  14. sbg

    "Just a few connections to people who are (religiously) unaffiliated is enough to drive the effect," he said... No surprise. 1 Corinthians 15:33 is very clear that "Bad company ruins good morals."

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

      One need not be affiliated to any religion in order to have morals. Just as those affiliated with religion, killing, torturing and raping in the name of that religion are not automatically considered to have good morals.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • safety girl

      there's a bible verse for everything...puhleez... I always have to wonder, tho, if the bible is "god's" word, why are there different "versions"?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • wonderwall

      @safety girl: If you're talking about the Bible then it's because it has been translated from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into English. There are a few websites that will tell you the differences between Bible versions and why- if you choose to do research.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  15. Larry

    ReligiousFaithisaKiller.com
    When logic, reason and honesty take the place of religious FAITH we may see peace in this world.
    The Huminist philosophy looks good.
    Humanism is a philosophy of life which affirms that:
    Our existence here and everything in our universe has a natural or scientific explanation.
    We must take responsibility for our destiny; rather than relying upon a supernatural being.
    We must all be concerned with ecology, social justice, integrity and transparency in government, and seperation of church and state.
    We are enriched by art and music, motivated by compassion and affirm the dignity of every human being.
    We place our hope for the future in reason and science.

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

      Larry,
      I LOVE YOU, MAN!!!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
    • safety girl

      Imagine...

      March 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  16. Gerald

    They say, 'Hell is the absence of God'. Whether you believe in the Lord or not id your choice. But there is no denying that with each passing day Hell is becomming more pronounced.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Ruck

      hmmmmm, actually the founders of religion, had intelligence that far surpassed those they were surrounded by. They said to themselves "we as a society will not last if all of these clowns go around living by their own rules, and behaving as if it's every man for himself. We must have rules to follow. But I how do I make people follow these rules...... I've got it, I will conjure up a story of higher power that has sent me these rules, and those that don't follow them, are guaranteed to spend an eternity suffering for their "sins"...... yes, that will work, it has to, it's the only way I can get these idiots to be civilized...." And thus, religion was born.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:11 pm |
  17. Joe

    Can't happen soon enough

    March 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  18. ZeeMan

    @ Joe. If you keep losing 20 lbs you will die soon and buried and then your weight will go to zero at some point. So the scientists are correct. Based on current trends.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  19. wonderwall

    This doesn't prove anything. In the article it says that those marked as "unaffiliated" don't necessarily mean that they have no belief. If you really read it, this is the most middle of the road, wishy-washy, junk. If there's an opinion on the future of (insert topic here) out there, you can find someone will claimed to have predicted it. Those who get a fuzzy feeling that atheism has a majority future should read again.

    "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."

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

      actually the founders of religion, had intelligence that far surpassed those they were surrounded by. They said to themselves "we as a society will not last if all of these clowns go around living by their own rules, and behaving as if it's every man for himself. We must have rules to follow. But I how do I make people follow these rules...... I've got it, I will conjure up a story of higher power that has sent me these rules, and those that don't follow them, are guaranteed to spend an eternity suffering for their "sins"...... yes, that will work, it has to, it's the only way I can get these idiots to be civilized...." And thus, religion was born. walla

      March 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • wonderwall

      As you can see, Atheists are as adamant about proselytizing their belief as any other religion. Even if it means spamming every post that doesn't agree with their limited view. Yes I wrote limited.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  20. Joe

    End of Religion? Finally. THANK THE LORD JEEESUZ!!!

    March 23, 2011 at 2:06 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.