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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. Owlie

    Religion brings ignorance, hatred, war, and Dark Ages. We will not prosper as a species until it is gone. Thus sayeth the prophet.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  2. radam82

    Yay for secular humans! : )

    March 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  3. keeth in cali

    hogwash and sensationalism.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  4. answerman28

    Yes but greed, stupidity and ego will never be extinct. They’ll always be weak minded people that need strength in numbers and those who think they’re so “all that” they MUST be connected to some supernatural super power. And they‘ll always be some greedy Evangelists willing to spew the bs to get their money. But other than that its awesome we’re stepping out of the dark ages.. (500 years since the dark ages supposedly ended)

    March 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  5. radam82

    Those sound like wonderful places to live. : )

    March 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  6. areligious

    Great news! Thank you Jesus, er Mohammad, er Buddha, er Easter Bunny!

    March 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  7. RationalThinker

    I live in Canada and I can't wait.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
  8. Colin

    Can you imagine the children in 100 years time. "You mean, they actually believed that an invisible being in the sky would cause them to live happily ever after if they followed some riles laid down in the Middle East during the Iron age. No, way, that is soooo lame......."

    March 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Mary

      Exactly!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
  9. Bob

    Did anyone else notice the photoshoped picture for the article? I's surprising CNN can get away with that.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • ryan

      I think its a tilt shift camera as opposed to photoshop.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  10. Joe M.

    Based on current trends, I predict the dominance of the KFC religion and the everlasting adoration of Colonel Sanders. Its spreading now – even as we speak.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  11. PRISM 1234

    It's amazing to read the comments here!
    But for those who are ready to cele'brate, I say, You don't understand some things... and it is that those who know God our Creator will NEVER be gone (not even in a "secret Rap'ture", because it is taught wrong in our churches), not until the Last day, when every eye shall see Him, in the clouds of glory....
    The world will make a laughing stock out of organized religion of today, as the time goes by..... But real God's people will be still everywhere, in every nation, not inden'tif'ied by group, or a building, with their faith and co'nvict'ions unmovable.
    But...That's not the end of "organized religion", people! There will come one on the scene and will be organized, but it will be the one you will love, enco'mp'assing all of them, but without Christ Jesus of the Bible.! It will have a leader whom you will love, pay allegi'ance too, and h'ail his comming... And you will not know who he REALLY is....Think it won't happen? God gave this generation an example: Adolph H'tl'er. He gave it, so that this generation would see, and be warned what's to come.... And he gave an example to show this generation how masses of people can be swept into following one man, no matter how evil he is...
    I don't say these things here to stir up anything, but so that when it happens, some of you will at least remember, and perhaps understand...Although I know, some never will!

    March 23, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
  12. T3chsupport

    It's not that religion itself is going away. ORGANIZED religion. The organized part of any religion is the most dangerous and ridiculous part.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  13. Doc Vestibule

    The Church of The Subgenius will never fade from the world!
    Only "Bob" can save us from the Xist and blunt the Stark Fist of Removal, all for the low low price of $30.
    Plus, it is the only religion that offers eternal salvation or triple your money back!

    March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  14. Josh in Toronto

    There was a great article in yesterday's Globe and Mail (Canada's national paper) about the divide about religion that appears at the border. 40% of Americans believe that man was invented by a god in the past 10,000. 56% of Canadians believe humans evolved over time based on natural selection. That is a startling difference for two countries that share so much in common. I blame the absurd approach to American educational funding and the profound lack of separation of church and state. Now there are Evangelicals controlling what gets put in science and history books. Guess what, it's not science or history.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  15. Shane

    All those countries seem like very desirable places to live — peaceful and reasonable. Utopian, even.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • displeased

      Exactly!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
  16. momofcrt

    All signs of the time. The devil is getting his hooks in deeply. We need organized religion, what better way to promote the communion of saints?
    People are so selfish and want to think they're god but in reality there is but ONE GOD and Father of us all.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      @momofcrt
      And that God's name is Jahweh.
      Or maybe Allah.
      Or maybe it's Angus, Belenos, Brigid, dana, Lugh, Dagda, Epona, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Atehna, Demeter, Dionysus, Eris, Eos, Gaia, Hades, Hekate, Helios, Hephaestus, Hera, hermes, Hestia, Pan, Poseidon, Selene, Uranus, Zeus, Mathilde, Elves, Eostre, Frigg, Hretha, Saxnot, Shef, Thuno, Tir, Weyland, Woden, Alfar, Balder, Beyla, Bil, Bragi, Byggvir, Dagr, Disir, Eir, Forseti, Freya, Freyr, Frigga, Heimdall, Hel, Hoenir, Idunn, Jord, Lofn, Loki, Mon, Njord, Norns, Nott, Odin, Ran, saga, Sif, Siofn, Skadi, Snotra, Sol, Syn, Ull, Thor, Tyr, Var, Vali, Vidar, Vor, Black Shuck, Herne, Jack in the Green, Holda, Nehalennia, Nerthus, endovelicus, Ataegina, Runesocesius, Apollo, Bacchus, Ceres, Cupid, Diana, Janus, Juno, Jupiter, Maia, Mars, Mercury, Minerva, Neptune, Pluto, Plutus, Proserpina, Venus, Vesta, Vulcan, Attis, Cybele, El-Gabal, Isis, Mithras, Sol Invictus, Endovelicus, Anubis, Aten, Atum, Bast, Bes, Geb, Hapi, Hathor, Heget, Horus, Imhotep, Isis, Khepry, Khnum, Maahes, Ma’at, Menhit, Mont, Naunet, Neith, Nephthys, Nut, Osiris, Ptah, ra, Sekhmnet, Sobek, Set, Tefnut, Thoth, An, Anshar, Anu, Apsu, Ashur, Damkina, Ea, Enki, Enlil, Ereshkigal, Nunurta, Hadad, Inanna, Ishtar, Kingu, Kishar, Marduk, Mummu, Nabu, Nammu, Nanna, Nergal, Ninhursag, Ninlil, Nintu, Shamash, Sin, Tiamat, Utu, Mitra, Amaterasu, Susanoo, Tsukiyomi, Inari, Tengu, Izanami, Izanagi, Daikoku, Ebisu, Benzaiten, Bishamonten, Fu.kurokuju, Jurojin, Hotei, Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, Inti, Kon, Mama Cocha, Mama Quilla, Manco Capac, Pachacamac, Viracoc.ha, or Zaramama.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • coder

      the vatican alone could – if it wanted to – solve the world's homeless problem – the vatican is the largest single land owner on the planet – and did i forget to mention they have money, more money than god...... SO – if the vatican was so concerned for human life... couldnt they stop hiding pedophiles and start solving the bigger problems.....

      March 23, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • TheGuy

      And what is his/her name?...God, Allah, Yaweh, Ra, Sun God, Zeus...?

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

      Interesting perspective. I guess people who aren't religious value helping their fellow man more than "promoting the communion of saints".

      March 23, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  17. coder

    mohammed, moses and jesus walk into a bar.... buddha the bartender asks "what will ya have".... they each order a glass of water... as they sit and ponder about all the people murdered in their name... god shows up and asks them one by one "how many have your followers killed?"... One by One they answer many have been killed in our name, for you....

    March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  18. ryan

    Modern religion fades to tomorrow mythology.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
  19. bw

    thank God.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  20. W.G.

    how sad .

    March 23, 2011 at 2:11 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.