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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. Peter

    Einstein said that there are two ways to look at life: as if nothing is a miracle, or as if everything is a miracle. You could say, as if nothing is God, or as if everything is God. For those of us who understand God is not a "being" – not a "him" or a "her" but just what "is" we are more in line with our true nature. If you have never gone "inside" how can you say there is no God? Many of the unalligned you speak of fall into the category of spiritual, but not religious. For instance, I attend a fine church that honors all paths to God, and believes in the divinity of all saints. So, I may be instead really alligned with ALL religions, just not the dogma.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  2. Derek

    Religious beliefs gets better economic rewards. Please check Historical data and it is proven.

    When peoeple question it's belief OR as mentioned above affliationg itself with majority... that is why countries like US , Europe are in desperate state and in economic woes.

    Asia a, South America hwich have strong belief are progressing fianancially and emotionally.

    Do you need to think twice or question me ??

    Historical data has proven it. come on awaiting comments.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  3. Da King

    God has ask us to get rid of religion and just follow his teachings. Religion is of man for man. Nondenominational true Bible based churches are growing through out the world. His will will be done. Few know the Truth.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  4. RandomHuman

    The key word here is 'may'.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  5. Dude

    Benjamin Franklin Paid for a pew at both a Catholic and a Protestant church. He periodically showed up at both to avoid alienating either group.

    As politics fractions ever further, the political value of being a church goer will be out weighed by the cost of alienating everyone who belongs to a different church, or is unaffiliated.

    There are people who go to church or other house of worship in sincere belief. Others do so because they want to be seen there. The value of being seen going to church is diminishing.

    If all religious services were held online and anonymously, how many people would bother?

    March 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  6. John

    Islam will replace christianity in the west, not secularism. Secularists do not have enough children to sustain a secular society.

    Christiantiy and Islam are both thriving in Africa and Asia.

    Essentially white people are abandoning religion but they are going extinct as a race due to their tiny families today.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  7. stevec

    Religious organizations have always provided a platform for social control over an un-educated population. As education levels rise, religious organizations decline. When people learn that you can't "buy" salvation, then the usefulness of a religious organization is reduced. You don't keep, what you don't use.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  8. xwish

    thank god religion is dying. πŸ™‚ there is no god, pitiful religious sheeple.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Gerald

      I bet you get your rocks off on that don't you?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Megeido

      Xwish:
      You will remeber those words in hell!! and wishing you can take it back, but it will be to late for you. in hell there is no second chance!! repent because the kingdom of God is near!!!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  9. Kit

    Prayer changes things. Praying now.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • pk

      two hands working accomplish more than a thousand clasped in prayer..

      March 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Arthur

      One pair of hands at work will accomplish more than a million pair folded in prayer.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  10. Gerald

    Do any of you think you would have gotten anywhere without at least the "concept" of God? You would be crawling around killing each other over a water-hole. Your lives would have little or no meaning and probably would even be extinct at this point. We're pathetic creatures barking at each other for no other reason accept to be noticed and heard. Might as well believe in somethinng beyond this insignificant planet.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Rob

      I've gotten quite far in life without any belief in God. I have a stable job, a nice house in the midwest, a good family with strong values, plenty of good friends, and a genuinely happy, healthy life. Why would I need some bizarre, abstract idea of a divine being, for which I see no good evidence?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • zenith9995

      But aren't we doing that anway? When religion gets involved, then it becomes "this my watering hole because GOD TOLD ME this was my watering hole, and I have DIVINE RIGHT to use it."

      March 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Over It

      You don't give the human race much credit do you? Whoever brainwashed you, Kudos, good job.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • Gerald

      Over it: Human race gets their credit. How about genocide? Holocaust? Many world wars? Want to take credit for that?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
  11. Candid One

    Other recent surveys have found that the US is the most religious among the developed nations.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Birthdayboi

      And the most backward socially...

      March 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Birthdayboi: you wrote: "And the most backward socially..."

      May not be true, but they're certainly working on it...

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

    people = sheep

    March 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm |
    • Silly people

      Sheeple?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • fundies

      YEAH! let's have a sheeple chase. Give me the clippers so I can do the shearin'

      March 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  13. conradshull

    But, anti-religion smarties, it's not happening in the Islamic world. So, what ball's in whose court and how is the game, and what game, is going to be played?

    March 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Unlike genius, ignorance has no limitations, so the ignoramuses (ignorami?) will continue to procreate, and I'm afraid that there's not much that can be done about it...

      Stupidity is part of the human condition, and as long as people find comfort in not being required to think, nothing much will change globally.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  14. Divine Light

    Through the bottomless mercy of our God, one born on high will visit us to give light to those who walk in darkness, who live in the shadow of death; to lead our feet in the path of peace.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  15. AZLADY630

    Reliigion was "invented" to keep order. Think about it. We would have anarchy and chaos without the threat of consequences. We are beginning to see it in the behaior of man all over the world. The less the population believes in God, Heaven, Hell etc. the more self serving and violent towards our fellow man we become. If only we could teach our young ethics and morals with out the religious affliations.

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

      We most certainly CAN, we most certainly DO, and we most certainly SHOULD teach our children morals and ethics completely outside the realm of religion.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
    • Idon'tneedgodtobegood

      And exactly how would you categorize the crusades, Jihad, and all the religious exterminations that have happened over the years if not "violent towards our fellow man"? Add to this the fact that "the threat of consequences" for misconduct is supplied by society and you have no more need of a religious punishment. If you want to follow a religion go ahead but don't go saying it is a necessity for a functional society.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  16. David

    The supreme arrogance of religious thinking: that a carbon-based bag of mostly water on a speck of iron-silicate dust around a boring dwarf star in a minor galaxy in an under populated local group of galaxies in an unfashionable suburb of a super cluster would look up at the sky and declare, β€˜It was all made so that I could exist!’
    ~Peter Walker (Physicist)

    March 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  17. Colin

    Hey Apollo, Zeus, Ba'al, we have some more entrants into the dead gods club.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
  18. American Citizen

    Did not Hitler make the same predictions?

    "mathematicians"

    All people base our life on the findings of mathematicians. We live for it in fact. We cannot go to the bathroom unless we speed dial our mathematician – which is an imprecise science by the way – to calculate how much toilet tissue we have remaining before we return to the store.

    I saw no indication the Southern Baptists would suffer any losses in his prediction – but only Catholics. Could that be because the SBC considers its churches as "autonomous" unrelated to any "mother" church?

    Probably.

    Got it covered I see.

    All packaged sweetly under the CNN name and spread to the international community – primarily male – primarily wealthy – primarily perceived by the public as something "good".

    Still a hate crime.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
    • Silly people

      Actually, no, he did not. Hitler was a Cathoilic not an Atheist

      March 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Rob

      Ignorance abounds, I see. You think mathematics is an "imprecise" science? I'd like to see your idea of a precise science.

      How in the world is an analysis about waning religion a "hate crime"? Pray tell.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • MM22

      silly: "Actually, no, he did not. Hitler was a Cathoilic not an Atheist"

      Not really. There's no consensus on his "religious" beliefs because he doesn't seem to have had any. He seemed to believe in mystical BS, but beyond that any "religious" pleas made to the Germany people were, like all political pleas, made to sway the crowd, not because they were genuinely held.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • Sam

      Math is not an imprecise science. Your statement on that alone explains why the rest of your post is also so ridiculous.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  19. Barney Q

    Alaha,YEWEH,Budha,Earth Mother, QuetzelQuotal all excuses to murder your neighbor, ban religion they banned smoking in public space

    March 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  20. Markj

    Couple more diasters, a few wars here and there, religion will surge again.

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

      disasters = pain & suffering & death = religion

      Some people are into this equation. I like happier stuff like puppies, sunshine, the beach, etc.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Lindsey

      AGREED!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
    • tepid

      well, all the wars at the moment are propogated by religion, and north africa sees people who are not following religious teachings joining mass media applications otherwise how would they all have known to go and protest? religion is based on exclusion, the people in power in the group committ their sins but just shrug, while others are then shunned if they committ, so why would a mass amount of people want to be involved with hypocrites? either everyone is equal under the religion as professed otherwise why hang around and be abused by the people in power in the religion? that is the issue, people are not stupid, they can believe in their religion but can be unaffiliated with any one chruch since all carry on the same way.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Roger Archambault

      Finally, some good news.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:19 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.