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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. A Reminder For you

    To all – keep in mind what you are saying, then when those words will be replayed back for you, they will sound strangely familiar.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Nitrogen

      Are you threatening the irreligious by reminding them of the coming judgment of the lord whom by all rational argument cannot exist? Cause I'm pretty sure you can take your dogma elsewhere. Like to heaven. Go there and leave us in paradise.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  2. Frank Del Bagno

    Religion can be an open door or a wall to become a spiritual person. The wall comes when people get so attached to
    concepts, beliefs, dogmas, they miss what those beliefs, concepts are pointing toward. Ego driven religious organizations like other egoic strucutres (the fall of communism) will crumble. This is what is declining, ego is being reduced in churches by the light that people are now brining to their churches.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  3. David

    Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

    Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

    Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

    Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

    – Epicurus

    March 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Megeido

      David:
      Which God are you talking about? Because my God is awesome!!! Would you like to meet him?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  4. Allen N Wollscheidt

    WONDERFUL News ! ! ! !
    .

    March 23, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
  5. Johnnymac

    Why would you not allow my comment moderator? Because you disagreed with it? No profanity or inappropriateness. I'm done with this site...

    March 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  6. Cythara

    I applaud the demise of religion, if religion is any belief built on dubious non-self evident assumptions. There will always be, however, a sense of awe within humans to who and what we are and why we are here. Nearly all of the beauty of human art and sensibility within individuals and societies is bound up in the holding and expressing of that awe. I am quite sure that will never be irrelevant.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  7. WIll III

    People do realize that Allah just means "God" in Arabic right???? And that Jesus is mentioned in the Quaran more than Mohammad. Also the God/Allah of the Christians, Islamics and Jews is the same God. If you think otherwise you may need to pick up a book.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  8. Jimbo

    They say that people are going to follow the majority and want to fit in, they don't want to be seen as ignorant or gullible. This is why its important to have those stereotypes out in full force, keep up the good work. I would say that teens and young adults are more open to changing their beliefs, start there and maybe one day the US will be a better place to live.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  9. Rob

    Actually...Christianity is growing in most parts of Europe. What demographers don't take into account is that religious people, who have more hope, give birth to more children on average than atheists! Sure, state churches may day, but this does not mean religion will die. Furthermore, Christianity and Islam both started out as sects of 100 people or less. Both have show incredible enduring power across time and culture. Yes, Christianity devoured itself in Europe between 1850 and 1950. But again, the most likely people to have babies are those who believe in God.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • Patrick

      Why do you think "religious" (by which I think you mean people who believe in one or more divine beings) people have more hope? Or have more babies? Do you have evidence of this?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Nitrogen

      Religious people have more hope so they have more babies? I have seen a different trend, and I can actually explain mine rationally. The two reasons for having lots of kids are 1) poverty and 2) religious denouncement of contraception. The poor have kids either because they have nothing better to do or because they need to build a support system. Or they're just not aware of their instincts. Religion, primarily Catholicism, denounces contraception as evil, ergo people have more kids. In other religions like the LDS church, it's evil to NOT have lots of kids, because in doing so you prevent spirits from coming to earth to be tested.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  10. fundies

    The Beatles are more popular than Jesus.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  11. kristian

    Sam, you did a good job explaining this. Unfortunately there are to many ignorant people in this world that just simply don't understand what you are trying to say: the people who heard about the bible from the people who never read the bible. Bible is created for all of us. But only few of us are capable of understanding it. Not because it's too complicated, but because you need desire to understand it. It is funny how people became so ignorant. It is funny that they believe they will find all the answers on the internet. I'm comp programmer, I like science, but when I'm in trouble I don't pray to science I pray to GOD.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Patrick

      Right on. Desire is the key to all faith, as one must desire to believe in one's Mythos to truly accept it. There is no more powerful a force in faith than desire. It will lead us to delude ourselves in order to preserve what we so want to believe in.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • kristian

      Yes Patrik desire, desire to learn something, desire to understand someone, desire to know before you judge. That same desire that gradually created this capability of you and me instantly exchanging opinions without even knowing each other. How is it that you have desire to learn how to use this comp and internet, but you don’t have a desire to read bible? How long has bible been around in this world and how long internet?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  12. The Jackdaw

    The sooner the better.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  13. Erik

    True wisdom begins with acknowledging the existence of our Glorious Creator, and recognizing that He is the Landlord and King of the Universe, an all-powerful and authorative but patient and loving spiritual being. Organized religion is a human attempt to understand God and to figure out what He wants us to think and do. After all, He designed and created us, and He owns us. It is our duty as humans to obey Him. Those who deny God's existence, or ridicule His followers merely show that they are fillied with false wisdom.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • G

      I'm sure god wants appreciates you talking for him on the internet.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Tod L.

      "...he owns us."

      Is there anything more pathetic than a slave who is content?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  14. Kevin

    Religion will go away?!? Awesome. I've been sick and tired of hearing from the Mother Earth worshippers about global warming anyway.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • G

      Is it fun being stupid?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  15. Eric

    I love god, he's so deliciously evil.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  16. dave Wyman

    If the "majority"effect is true, then why haven' those who were in the secular minority become extinct? I think part of the more true answer is that more and more people are able to break through the brainwashing of religion. While sentiments of religious thought are well meaning, the details of religious stories are seen more clearly – in the light of science – as nothing more than purile fairy tales.

    Should humans strive to live good lives, should we practice self sacrifice, is there sometimes redemption. Yes. Did Jonah live in the belly of a whale, was there a real Jesus, other than the Jesus who lives in human minds, is there an all knowing god? No.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • MM22

      dave: "If the "majority"effect is true, then why haven' those who were in the secular minority become extinct? I think part of the more true answer is that more and more people are able to break through the brainwashing of religion."

      No one said it holds true for every person everywhere. The "majority effect" is that social norms and changes are eventually adopted by the (keyword) "majority" of people. Why? Because it's natural for humans to want to be accepted and to reduce friction with those around them. Hence, groups generally think as groups, not as individuals.

      "Should humans strive to live good lives, should we practice self sacrifice, is there sometimes redemption. Yes."

      And yet in the absence of a god, what reason do you have to be good? If being good doesn't bring you some inner peace or pleasure, why not be like Hume's sensible knave and only do wrong where it benefits you, and good where it does the same?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  17. HT

    Enlightment to me can only come from within. I believe that there are huge gaps between knowing and understanding, between understanding and experiencing (as in living it). If one can look within to understand one's self, one's part in this life, and successfully fought the urge to tell others what to do, spiritual enlightment will be a step closer. God is either nowhere or everywhere and I believe there is a point where it doesn't make any difference.

    These "organized religions" simply take something spritual and turned it into something quite lame for one single purpose: CONTROL. It's a relief to see them withering away. All they wanted believers to do is to believe in their point of views and be their followers. My goal in life is to learn what I don't know, understand what iI know, and live in accord to what I understand in hope that I can follow my own path and not someone else's. The CARROT can be real or not, but I will never know if I keep looking at it from this end of the RELIGION stick.

    Just my 2 cents. Walk your own path or choose some one's path... doesn't matter. Fight the urge to tell others "this is it"... and of course, question those who tell you "this is it".

    March 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  18. rdrunnerxx

    "Organized religion 'will be driven toward extinction' in 9 countries"

    Amen to that!

    March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Tod L.

      Can a get a HALLELUJAH! too?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  19. Nitrogen

    WOW!!! This is really great, best thing I've heard on the subject in years! I had no idea there were such concentrated groups of intelligent people on this planet. I keep hearing these awesome things about Finland. They also have the best education system in the world, so I guess it follows that they'll be rooting out religion soon. As an atheist in America, sometimes it's hard to see social progress going anywhere anytime soon because of organized religion, it really is one of the two or three fundamental problems with our current civilization. In the meantime, how do I apply for citizenship to one of these countries?

    March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Colin

      Isn't it refreshing to hear.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Tod L.

      I didn't used to care what people believed, I only cared how those beliefs made them treat others.

      But as America falls further and further behind the world in math and science while large swathes of its populace revere things like Jesus-shaped urine stains on freeway underpasses... and then actually go out and VOTE... yeah, I think the less religion the better.

      Religion should go. Humanity is already stupid enough without it.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  20. Seattle

    The less religion in the world the better... maybe we will finally sea each other as human beings rather than some other religious creed leading us to fight over whose "god" has a bigger d*ck

    March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Seattle

      see*

      March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Dennis Williams

      History shows that organized religion is mans worst invention

      March 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • MM22

      seattle: "The less religion in the world the better... maybe we will finally sea each other as human beings..."

      Ah, yes. Because people are violent insofar as they're religious, not insofar as they're human.

      What was the cause, then, of all the wars throughout history that had to do with land, political power and fortune? What about gang fights, bank robberies and r- ape?

      Yeah. You're a moron. It's okay.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • fundies

      I would like to enter the d*ck size contest. I know I am a "long" shot, but I am game. I just hope I don't pass out again from the blood transfer.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Kris Greenn

      I wouldn't mind if the religions went away. My only thing is, I don't feel it should be completly gone. I don't practice any religion, but in some cases in order to keep a peoples culture alive they need their religion. SO I guess I'm saying keep and practice your faith quietly.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • fundies

      Who said size isn't important. Although, rather than fighting, they could have a p'ing contest. Extra points for creativity or duration of p.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • fundies

      Has anyone come across religious spammers or spyware? I could see the Jehovah's doing this. It would be similar to showing-up at your house unannounced and bugging the crap out of you. They could even make the kids do the spamming and take the blame, since that's how they do it at your home.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Nicholas

      Religion is not what is causing the killing. Indeed, religion is only used as an excuse to give a kingdom or state a reason (albeit a terrible one) to war with another kingdom or state for political/land/resource gain. It is a facade, religion is not the reason for wars (current or historic), it is/was bad governments.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:01 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.