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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. Pim

    In Amsterdam, The Netherlads thers's a great Coffe Shop called ABRAXAS.

    All are welcome

    March 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  2. Ian

    Wow listen to all the hateful comments toward Christians, apparently, you liberals aren't really that "tolerant" after all...
    Maybe you should consider changing your bumper stickers

    March 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Patrick

      "...comments toward the DEISTS" I think you mean to say. Agnostics and atheists don't have need to separate the lot.

      Why do you think I am liberal???

      March 23, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  3. american me

    Hopefully religion will die out in all countries. The world would be a much better, safer, more peaceful, happier, more tolerant place without it.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  4. bluegrassmama

    Being a PK and raised going to church 3 – 4 times a week I saw the "behind the scenes" of organized religion. It's not anywhere close to what many of you think it is.... It's a business like any other business. It's full of ego's and spitefulness and backstabbing and any other negative things that you may come up with to say of some of those you may work with..... These are the same people that you will see smiling and hugging and greeting people as the enter the building on Sunday morning....... It's sickening!!!!!!!! From about the age of 18 or so I decided I no longer had the need for all that hype!! You will find the most beautiful awesome sanctuary as close as your local park, animal reserve, etc. This is God's place... Not some building with a bunch of fake people claiming to be Christians.
    I believe there is a higher power than me and it doesn't matter what you call him/her/them...............

    March 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  5. Bob

    What do you call 9 countries without oraganized religion? (You know what's coming) A good start!!! Ba da boom!! Thanks, I'm here all week!!

    March 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  6. Ahmed H

    Look , you guys that think you control everything in your life. I wont offer any rebuttals as this wont change anything within your minds but wait untilt the day you die and see what comes with believing your too good to believe in god.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Ahmed H

      Kent , I did understand the point I was trying to respond to some of the comments.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Patrick

      Too good to believe in God? What makes you claim that? I have a hard time understanding how beliefs would be based on pride. I'd be interested in an explanation.

      I do not believe in a god or gods because I have never had reason to. Suffice to say that, come our deaths, I don't think either of us will find ourselves disappointed.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
    • Ahmed H

      Hey Patrick , I do see your point and dont get me wrong I am an anthrpologist by education , I do understand the the darwinistic theorises that are present , I mean organized religion has been under attack due to the people that claim to represent the religion. I have been throughout the world and have studies diffrent cultures with the same religion but the interpretaions have been diffrent , I can agree with blaming the represtation of the religion but to blame the religion itself should be wrong , Patrick , if you dont mind engaging me in a conversation what makes you feel that god does not exsist.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  7. Steve

    Bob, the JW's are the biggest running joke regarding unfullfilled prophecy. They claimed 1914 would see the end of the world and to this day point out they were right as WW1 started that year. But that was not what was predicted was it? Extra evidence of the error was the fact they kept backing up the date, first to 1915, then 1918, then 1925. Hmm..didn't arrive. Must be 1975 then. Nope. Then after that they said the 1914 generation would see the end...well they are back tracking on that one too now. "The End" has been impending in your organization since its inception...great marketing technique that increases converts and keeps the cohesion of the flock together but when it is an empty shell over and over and over again it never ceases to amaze me the power of religious based cognitive dissonance.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  8. Bob

    Ahuru Mazda and his prophet Zoroaster are NOT going to like this. Good thing they have 5 hells, plenty of room for us non-believers.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  9. Will be glad to see religion go...

    Too many people have been persecuted and/or killed in the name of religion or God. I will be glad to see religion go!

    March 23, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  10. hate-sucks

    What a surprise – educated people buying into imaginary gods less and less .......

    March 23, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  11. Not so fast

    In the far future I think there will ultimately be some general religion – some means of cohesion and order within the masses. And that is ok. Because many of us who don't believe in religion believe in a God – or something greater – just not one that is held to mortal man's concept.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
  12. Victor

    Any study on the Middle Eastern religion of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Turkey or Hinduism/Budhism in India/Tibet.
    Well Stephen Hawking mentioned in his recent book, that God in not needed in the creation of the Universe or Universe's

    One can not see the "Air", but can feel it. that way I can not show you the God, but just ask to "Beleive" in him.
    Personally I do think all the Holy Books are manipulated by Humans.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
  13. Susan H.

    Can't you all see what a spiritual battle this all really is?? Choose TRUTH, Choose CHRIST.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • x

      Excuse me, was that, Choose Truth *or* Choose Christ?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Lubya

      If it is truly a spiritual battle, then you'd better make sure you're on the side of truth, fairness, equality, humanity, honesty, and freedom, or you'll just be another hypocrite to me.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
    • Kevin

      Christ isn't truth. It's a way of life. Truth is fact and that is something religion isn't. You can go about your life having other people tell you how to live it and to be good while they do atrocious deeds when the door closes behind the last parishioner, but I will live by my own ideologies thank you very much. Stop relying on an inanimate object to save you. Just be good because you can be, not because you should be via a novel idea by people over 2,000 years ago.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Daniel Dunlap

      Yes, let's. And, of course, let's also immediately give up any rational thought and objectivity. Oh, and a significant portion of our money, too. Not sure how our money actually makes the journey to a fella that's been dead for thousands of years, but I reckon that's what faith is all about, eh? "Oh, I give what I can to the man with the diamond ring. He's a part of heaven's plan, and he sure can sing." Mark Knoffler

      March 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  14. About Time

    The list of countries I would consider moving to just increased by 9!

    March 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  15. MikeMazzla

    The first bit of good news ive heard in a while.. lets hope the demise of religion comes to the US

    March 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
  16. Amy

    It's a little sad that religion might be 'fading' away in some places. It's religious beliefs that make us all different and contribute to our innovation. I'm a Christian but I'm not unwilling to learn about other religious views. Just because we don't all agree on one religious ideal(s) doesn't mean we can't learn from each other. The ideals we inherit and personalize from religion or religious influences is one thing that makes humanity unique.

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

      @Amy: The only thing innovative about religion is in the number of ways we can delude ourselves.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Miranda

      I used to be live and let live, you believe your way and I'll believe mine. Then it seemed that more and more "Christians" wanted their way to be my way and they tried shoving it down our throats and into our faces. Religions keep gays from getting married effectively denying them their civil rights. Religions keep women from choosing to have an aborition. I think a lot of the world is getting tired of religions telling us what to do. I'm beyond tired of it and I'll do anything I can to get religion as far away from me as I can get it. You want to believe you do it in your heart, your home, or your church but you keep it out of my life, my politics, my laws. I'll vote against it, demonstrate against it, donate money against it. Religions and Christians and believers have crossed way over the line in promoting their beliefs and furthering their own agenda and pointing their fingers and being judgemental to those who don't believe the way they want. So we lose religion. I don't care. That's what happens when you push it at the rest of us, we rebel and we don't care and encourage you to go away, far far away and to be quiet, very very quiet.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
  17. Kevin

    Religion sucks. It causes exponentially more problems than it cures. The Bible, Qur'an, & Tanakh are great stories and that's all they are, stories. They're full of lies, rules, and unnecessary judgements of others created by opium addicts out in the desserts of the "Middle East" who today fill the news with unholy actions and unequal rights among men and women. What gives their ancestors the merit to tell me how to live my life and whom to worship.

    If people were simply civil and respectful of themselves and others because they CAN be, not because they SHOULD be so they can get into heaven or have however many virgins, there would be a lot less radical actions in the name of GOD.

    And by the way, do you think God would chose a person who was good and didn't believe over a person that was bad and did worship?

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

      or more likely the decline in religious teachings and the moral structure that they bring with them has led to the abject decline in society and the huge rise in the me first amoral society in which we live. As long as it feels good to me and I go first who cares about anyone else. Welcome to the atheist way.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Mark

      dont be rude, were you there? y do u think their opium addicts??? opium wasnt even discovered yet!!! Go to hell

      March 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • Kevin

      I probably would if it were real. And by the way here's a fact about opium: "The first known cultivation of opium poppies was in Mesopotamia, approximately 3400 BCE, by Sumerians who called the plant Hul Gil, the "joy plant." Tablets found at Nippur, a Sumerian spiritual center south of Baghdad, described the collection of poppy juice in the morning and its use in production of opium."

      March 23, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • Chanselor Jenkins

      it is not the lords will that even one should perish.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  18. Mark Anderson

    "The Jewish tradition that says prophecy is for fools and children is probably wise," he added.

    They probably is.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  19. Not so fast

    Thanks to the void we'll have some savvy business person turn these vacuums of untapped market into some massive next gen religion/spiritual movement.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
    • Deborah Hernandez

      Already happening. It's called yoga.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Patrick

      Yoga isn't new. It's the O.G. of spirituality!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • bluegrassmama

      Hey Deb..... ignorance at it's finest!!! (shaking head in disbelief)

      March 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  20. Jesus Lives !!!

    This is not the sports section or the news section, you were all pulled to this section for a reason, Let Jesus in your hearts he's knocking.

    March 23, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • MikeMazzla

      Actually it was posted on CNNs main page... so again your fake god had nothing to do with it

      March 23, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • His Noodly Appendage

      I was drawn to this article because this is the first good news I have read today

      March 23, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Jesus

      Yup, I do live...Oh, you're taliking about that 2,000 year old myth? Assuming that there ever was a guy called Jesus back then (Noter: the letter "J" wasn't even in the alphabet until the 9th century), he has been dead for around 2,000 years. Dead is dead!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • John

      true! 🙂 jesus is real and loves you...dont mind what other people say, its all their choice and those who will not make it right and believe in jesus will pay their consequences....ETERNITY, yup, eternity! forever! in hell

      March 23, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Patrick

      I will let wisdom and intelligence in my brain instead. Obviously this was the message of this article.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Jesusbejesus

      Dead Jesus Lives, you arent to quick are you? lol

      March 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Mark

      @ "jesus", not true! jesus is the now modern translation, his original name was in hebrew....and for man, dead is dead, but he is God! God can do anything, and he died for YOU....he rose again, and its all your choice if you wanna believe him or not, but remeber...if you die and dont believe, too late buddy! Hell time FOREVER

      March 23, 2011 at 3:52 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.