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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. Muslims

    Islam is the only religion based on reality. and you all people will see it very soon. It is my suggestion to all of you, to read about Islam, realise the thoughts and then talk about it, without having any information aobut ISlam and other religion we should not talk on. thanks

    March 23, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • God

      You can call me Allah... or you can call me Al ... call me Al *singing along with 72 virgins*

      March 23, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  2. brad

    Now that religion is going away, we'll have a world full of free thinkers. But even idiots can think freely. An idiot, whether atheist or believer, can think idiotic thoughts.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
  3. jaobryab

    JESUS SAVES!!

    March 23, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • God

      I do. I have an IRA but I took a huge hit when the stock market crashed.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  4. Bob

    What countries have they cited where these "mathematical trends" have actually continued according to their models and religion has "all but vanished"? Yes, the power of faith is something that does not follow the laws of physics... but in a way the authors do not seem to comprehend. Ask the Soviets how their centrally planned strategy to make religion "vanish" worked for them in Poland? The undeterred faith of millions was the primary lever that undermined one of the most powerful nations in the world and led to it's non-existence.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Brandon

      The difference is that there they had attempted to stamp out religion by force. Turns out the easiest way to make someone fervently fight for something is to attempt to take it from them – regardless of what that something is.

      In this case, there is nothing causing this dwindling in theism other than the march of time and changing social environments.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  5. Jo

    I love my children more than anything yet I wouldn't send them to hell for eternal torment for not loving me back. This is why I don't believe in God or heaven or hell or the devil or the bible. Men wrote that stuff thousands of years ago to try and understand how and why they were here. Islam and Christianity are ruining this world and causing needless suffering due to our ignorance. I say good riddance.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
  6. Kev

    Lol. Kind personality. Says who....? If you were a true atheist, you'd realize that once God's removed from the equation, so goes "moral absolutes" it becomes relative.. What exactly are you hanging "kind" on too anyway? The better of humanity? What happens when it becomes socially acceptable, or shall I say "kind", to kill the mentally challenged, or better yet, atheists?

    March 23, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  7. LiberateUs

    Oh great! Just what we need: more cults similar to Charles Mansion

    March 23, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  8. nikolai

    Since Bible prophecies are often fully understood only after they are fulfilled or are in the process of fulfillment, we will have to wait and see. It is of interest, though, that Paul compared the sudden destruction following the cry of “Peace and security!” to the birth pang of a pregnant woman. Over a period of about nine months, an expectant mother becomes increasingly aware of the baby that is growing within her. She may be able to hear her baby’s heartbeat or feel its movements in the womb. It may even kick her. The signs often become more and more pronounced until, one day, she feels a sharp pain, a pang, indicating that the hoped-for event—the baby’s birth—has arrived. Hence, however the prophesied cry of “Peace and security!” may be fulfilled, it will lead to a sudden, painful, but ultimately blessed event—the destruction of wickedness and the beginning of a new world system.
    14 The coming destruction will be fear-inspiring for faithful Christians watching from the sidelines. First, the kings of the earth (the political part of Satan’s organization) will turn on the supporters of Babylon the Great (the religious part) and will destroy them. (Revelation 17:1, 15-18) Thus, in a stunning plot twist, Satan’s kingdom will become divided against itself, with one part attacking the other, and Satan will be powerless to prevent it. (Matthew 12:25, 26) GOD will put it into the hearts of the kings of the earth “to carry out his thought,” namely, to rid the earth of his religious adversaries. After false religion is destroyed, Jesus Christ will lead his heavenly armies in a complete rout of what is left of Satan’s organization—the commercial and political elements. Finally, Satan himself will be put out of action. With that, the curtain will fall, and the long-running drama will come to an end.—Revelation 16:14-16; 19:11-21; 20:1-3.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Brandon

      You know how you lose an argument? You respond with:

      "OH NO! THE END IS NIGH!"

      The Bible says none of us can know when the Apocalypse will occur. Thus, it is extremely presumptive of Christians to predict the occurrence end of days. God has told you that despite your attempts you will be wrong. That is, if you believe what the bible says.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  9. THANKGOD

    GOOD RIDDANCE ❤

    March 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  10. terry

    It seems to me is that what most of us failing to realize is without GOD there is no love or joy they refuse to believe all of these things come from GOD. When non-believers try to explain GOD or religion is like a cave man explaining the function of the human body. They can only explain what they see and it is never any deeper than that. The people that hold on to GOD is because of what they have found and not from being brain washed. By the way, TO ALL NON-BELIEVERS, being brainwashed for GOD is a good thing for a Christian!! If you do not find or know CHRIST, you will always be on the outside looking in and trying to explain to someone what you see because you do not understand what is going on in the inside.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
    • Brandon

      If you honestly believe that only theists have happiness and goodness in their lives, then I feel very sad for you. Note, for example, that most of the replies on this forum from people who see this as good news are of the opinion that religion breeds hate and violence. I.E: These people want the world to be a happier and more loving place.

      Furthermore, your argument also assumes that happiness and good originate with JC, or at-least the Judeo-Christian God. Are you seriously arguing, then, that there were no happy or good Sumerians, Akkadians, Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Vikings, Mayans, Aztecs, Incas, etc? That before the Judeo-Christian god entered the scene the world was a place of only sadness and evil?

      March 23, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      So, I don't love my wife, my parents or my children and didn't find great joy in my children's birth. You are not just an idiot, you are a phucking idiot!

      March 23, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
    • terry

      Brandon,
      Yes, I am saying that love or the ability of loving comes for God and God alone. God love is for believes and unbelievers. All things created naturally are good, such of fruit, vegetables, nuts etc. None of these things come with side effects. These are things we as human do not create and these natural things are innate to this planet. Your love, joy, happiness is natural and not man-made. You cannot teach anything you were not given. Also, you listed cultures in past times. They all had one thing in common and that is they believe in a higher authority. They worship God or gods they believe or knew to exist. I believe they had experiences of God or gods that led them to worship God. People today believe in no god. But I tell you that God do exist and the evidence is all around us.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
  11. Anne

    Blood for the blood god. Skulls for the skull throne.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:28 pm |
  12. Goddog

    I think if Jesus were to return to the Earth today, he would be a terrific bowler.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • The Dude

      The Dude approves of this message.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • ramon machtesh

      He would say, in Aramaic, there are new money changers, and there are strangers on the Temple Mount. If you read what Jesus actually says, it's clear he would be considered an ultrorthodox, rightwing zealot today. He'd be in Itamar, on the fence, with a gun, preventing the next massacre.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • God

      Jesus/I are pretty good bowlers, especially after the new ergonomic wrist braces we/I got the other day from Target.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
  13. Ed

    These idiots failed to realize "unaffiliated" doesn't always mean "unreligious"....it often means "none of your damn business".

    March 23, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • Linda

      Well, you might want to read then. NOYDB means don't check any box. Unaffiliated means "I am not affiliated with a religion."

      March 23, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  14. WC

    I shall get my emigration papers in order.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  15. Pope Benedict

    We need to eliminate religion here too. At least tax the churches. 45% of Americans think the earth is only about 6,000 years old. Why does everyone blame the teachers? They should be blaming the churches (and the parents, who drag their kids to church for brainwashing before they are old enough to know better).

    March 23, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
    • AnarchistScholar

      Prove that it is older than 6000 years. 😉

      March 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm |
    • AnarchistScholar

      ^assuming we all talk about '6000-year-old earth' in the sense of the planet Terra going around Sun 6000-times

      March 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  16. Michael

    As an atheist this is great news. You cannot stop the march of reason and sanity. The idea that people are willing to allow a bunch of thousand+ year old texts rule their lives as opposed to let them stand for the historical and cultural artifacts they represent is baffling to those of us who choose to be good for good's sake. If anyone can claim moral superiority it's people like me who choose to be thoughtful, caring, considerate, inclusive, sharing and kind becuase of an internal moral compass and not an outdated one based upon tribal hatreds, smallmindedness and fear like the bible...

    March 23, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • Kev

      Some moral compass you have there... Once moral absolutes are removed, good becomes relative Micheal, a true atheist would know that..

      March 23, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      And the so-called "great" religions have done a wonderful job in providing moral guidelines... Just look at the Inquisition, the brotherly love demonstrated by the Irish, the Islamic fundumentalists' actions, the Jewish fundumentalists, and so forth...

      How do you like your stake?

      March 23, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
    • Kev

      And the so-called "great" religions have done a wonderful job in providing moral guidelines... Just look at the Inquisition, the brotherly love demonstrated by the Irish, the Islamic fundumentalists' actions, the Jewish fundumentalists, and so forth...

      I won't argue that great atrocities have been committed in the name of religion, but the actions by handful, lusting after their own greed, pride and power hungry ego's are a complete perversion of what Jesus taught.. Jesus is the moral guideline, not religion...

      March 23, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
  17. aubrie

    I think this is a good thing. Matter of fact, a GREAT thing as long as people look inward and become more spiritual.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • Greg

      People will look inward more often ... and become even more self-centered they are today. Humanity will always have their gods. The grave danger is when an individual's God is themselves, then they become without hope and useless to society.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  18. gavin

    If God and heaven and all that actually exist and the only ones who are welcomed are the boring, unimaginative, uncreative, intolerant zealots and bigots who've accepted JC as the lord and savior, do I really want to be there? I think not. All these religious people on here threatening free-thinkers with eternal fire-inspired torture based on the mad scribbling of so called prophets written in an old book.
    Sorry if I've offended anyone. I like Christians, I like all people religious or not, if they're nice people. I can't stand fear based threats that supposedly come from devout believers.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • aubrie

      Amen.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  19. Tom

    My God is better than your God. Mighty Crom lives in the Earth he laughs at your Sky God.

    March 23, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
  20. JanetMermaid

    Please please please take our religion too! We don't need it anymore. It causes far more harm to society than it does good. Religion is behind the attempts to ban any two people who love each other from marrying; it is behind attempts to let a woman be in control of her own body. Nothing good ultimately comes of religion, especially the zealots in this country. Shooting abortion doctors, shooting politicians they deem "unsuitable", perpetuating racial hatred, etc. I'll bet if you survey all remaining members of the KKK every one of them will claim to be a "good Christian".

    March 23, 2011 at 5:19 pm |
    • Amy

      JanetPreteniousBore......get a life. Might I add, that demanding that the incredibly large, incredibly diverse society you live in place a ban on things that you, JanetHaveNotaClue, are not personally interested in or don't have an affinity for, actually makes you a fascist.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:34 pm |
    • Jo

      Amen

      March 23, 2011 at 5:38 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.