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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. Natalie

    Glory be! Best news I've seen today.

    Imagine!

    March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  2. MarylandBill

    The reasoning in the argument seems flawed to me. The argument is based on two assumptions that are arguably false. The first assumption is that people want to belong to the majority. Yet, since most of the countries mentioned still has a majority of people affiliated with Christianity, it would stand to reason, based on that assumption that people would be switching to being affiliated. Since that is clearly not happening, the first assumption is incorrect. The second assumption is that being unaffiliated brings greater advantages than disadvantages. I think that also can be shown to be false. Certainly being actively involved with religion has been shown to have all sorts of benefits; even being affiliated has advantages such as greater choice of schools.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  3. BinWasilla

    "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction". –Blaise Pascal 1623-1662

    "Man will not be free until the last king (politician)
    is strangled on the entrails of the last priest."–Deidrot

    March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  4. Cubist Tut

    Religion is like a Supermarket.

    Picture yourself in a vast supermarket that is fully stocked. Yet instead of selling food, this supermarket sells religions. The departments are all the same but have taken on symbolic meaning. For example, the meat department sells Judaism, representing the animal sacrifice needed for blood atonement. The cereal aisle is where Hinduism is found since cereal boxes often feature characters. “A different God in each Box! Collect all 330,000,000!” In the baking goods aisle Islam is for sale since all the other foods started with this stuff but became corrupted when it was baked. New Age religion is found in the candy section since the power behind both is in how appealing they are. Dead religions, beliefs no one holds anymore like Greek Mythology, Molech worship, and golden calves, are found in the frozen food section. Christianity, with all its scenes in gardens and Agricultural parables, is in the produce department. Mind sciences are available in the magazine aisle. There is a person sitting in an empty shopping cart pushing himself around the store – a Buddhist, of course. There is another person who can’t find anything in the store at all – an atheist. Some shoppers are strictly vegetarian, some eat only meat, but all the diets are of equal value. They all basically do the same thing – feed you. In charge of the checkout counter is death itself. After your selection is made, you pay with your life. Whether there is anything outside the exit door and what happens there is the big question. – Doug Powell

    March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  5. fundies

    I have faith in cabbage's ability to make me fart after I eat it. I have even more faith in dried apricots and peaches ability to make me fart. My wife hates it when I eat the peaches. She says the peaches smell like feet. Maybe so, but my gas smells like concentrated sulfur after eating them.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  6. Chris

    Some "mathematicians" said it's going to go extinct?

    Well, that settles it then...give me a break

    March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • Sarah

      So happy for you to have a new place to live. Sorry it wasn't left in tip top cinidtoon. Thankfully you're in and settled.I'm sorry you didn't care for March. I liked it a lot. I thought Mr. March was a complex character. Oh well, we all react to books so differently, don't we?

      March 1, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  7. mike

    Hopefully reason will take religion's place.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  8. isma99

    remember god(allah) who controls the world

    March 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  9. Nancy

    "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.'

    March 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  10. NoFluf

    "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."

    Seems like a slightly illogical conclusion given that religions grew from non-existence to regional/global dominance. I.E. – there was a time when there were 120 followers of Jesus but in time it became the dominant religion in the West with 100's of millions of followers globally.

    So it's possible that people will identify with the majority but certainly not even likely or even necessary. There must be other factors taken into account.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  11. EDC

    Finally! The world is coming to its senses. Religion is a man-made problem and can be solved by eliminating it all together.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Are you sure?

      I heard a saying once: "Good people will do good things, Bad people will do Bad things, but for a good person to do a bad thing, that takes religion." But I've also heard of bad people "finding god" and then becoming good. So...I guess it works both ways. The problem stems from the extremists trying to force their belief on others. If people could be taught tolerance and how to co-exist, that should solve the problem with wars. But, that's contradictory too, because all religions boast supremacy, so yeah....the correct thing would be to eliminate it.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  12. hillbilleter

    In reading all the celebratory postings, I am struck by one glaring fact. People with a good heart do not disparage the personal religious beliefs of others. They respect the rights of others, as they hope their own rights will be respected. Thus, there are many bad people posting here.

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

      Those who bash religious belief are as guilty of closed-mindedness as the religious zealots who treat anyone with different beliefs/nonbeliefs as lesser beings. Isn't it amazing how both ends of the belief spectrum become so hateful towards others? The hate they voice does nothing to sway anyone to their opinion but tends to alienate people and makes themselves look like intolerant jack-es, instead. Can we please have civil discourse?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Really? You mean the way the religious zealots force everyone around them to run their lives in accordance with the particular doctrine in favor at the moment? Now, if they'd take their idiotic "In god we trust" off the currency, stop with the moronic "Prayer Breakfasts" in governing bodies, leave out the "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance, curtail the omnipresent nativity scenes at a certain time of the year (celebrating Attis, perhaps??), end the tax exemption for palaces of brainwashing, and so forth, perhaps those of us who actually use their brains might be a bit more accommodating.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  13. NoFluf

    "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."

    Seems like a slightly illogical conclusion given that religions grew from non-existence to regional/global dominance. I.E. – there was a time when there were 120 followers of Jesus but in time it became the dominant religion in the West with 100's of millions of followers globally.

    So it's possible that people will identify with the majority but certainly not even likely or even necessary. There must be other factors taken into account.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Are you sure?

      I think what Abrams meant is "trends."
      There is a trend now with people questioning the existence of god and the skeptics, and people are flocking to this trend. Kinda like the ipod trend, and the iphone trend, and the organic foods trend.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  14. weak sauce

    New Zealand sounds promising... 🙂

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

      Agreed

      March 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  15. gerald

    And we are surprised by this article?

    Not Christians:
    Luke.18

    1. [8] I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

    The Bible works. Prophecy is fulfilled and people do not believe. Only one of 10 lepers who were cured returned to thank Jesus. The Rich man in the story of Lazarus said let me go back and tell them. He was told they wouldn't believe anyway. Nothing new.

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

      I’ve learned to put faith in myself, not a god. This has lead to a much happier and productive life.

      Nice to know people are starting to see the light from the our beautiful sun shining on our round earth and realizing we no longer need fabricated stories to lead our lives. It is time to but the bible on the shelf and make it a part of human history.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  16. Meep

    Awesome! I'm moving to NZ!

    March 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • weak sauce

      I know, sign me up!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  17. Bernard

    The countdown for the religions of today is ticking and sooner or later the will end up with her predecessors somewhere in the mythology and weird hippie bin. And the world will be better off without here burden.
    And most of the EU countrys can be put on that list, leading as always.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Maty

      EU- leaders in amorality and bottom-dragging!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • NoFluf

      Don't count your chickens before the eggs hatch.

      "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."

      Seems like a slightly illogical conclusion given that religions grew from non-existence to regional/global dominance. I.E. – there was a time when there were 120 followers of Jesus but in time it became the dominant religion in the West with 100's of millions of followers globally.

      So it's possible that people will identify with the majority but certainly not even likely or even necessary. There must be other factors taken into account.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  18. fundies

    born in Babylonia, moved to Arizona, King Tut. bum-bum, bum-bum, bum-bum bum-bum

    March 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Eric G.

      "Got a condo made of STONE-A"

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

      Yeah, Eric G. that's what I'm talking about. we're a couple of wild and craSy guys!!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • Kevin

      "He gave his life – for tourism . . . tut tut, tut tut . . ."

      March 23, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  19. Adam

    Good to see less people believing in silly fairy tales and imaginary gods.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
    • Maty

      Are you always this tolerant?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Gerald

      And if you presented your work to your company Board of Directors and they said the very same thing you just said, would that make you feel like a man? Someday someone will tell you how insignificant your body of work is. Think about that when you slam others beliefs.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Derrick

      A+

      March 23, 2011 at 3:28 pm |
    • Zodnick

      Is your lack of faith a form of rebellion for your parents naming you Adam?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Megeido

      You right Adam, and more people in hell because of it.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • Adam

      No, I think my lack of faith is a combination of common sense and a good education.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
  20. Brad

    I wonder how much of this is related to taxation though? In most European countries...if I remember correctly, aren't people required to pay taxes to "the church" if a religious affiliation is declared on the census or tax forms? This seems like it would be a major driver to skew the numbers versus a pure survey.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • NoFluf

      No – the taxes are paid regardless. No more if you identify with an estbalished religion.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Bob

      New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Ireland aren't European.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • jens

      Brad, when I grew up in Germany, church tax was automatically deducted from the paycheque every month. To get out of it, I had to withdraw (in writing) from the church and inform (again, in writing) the registrar's office that I am not affiliated. Only after all that was done were church taxes not withdrawn anymore.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:30 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.