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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. jk

    The study cited at the end of the article is presented as if it were incorrect. But no timeframe is given, and 1968 was not very long ago. Don't these new findings support, rather than undermine, the prediction? And surely other evidence, such as the massive church and religious school closings in America's Catholic community, and the increase in interdenominational religious services, also support the prediction.

    It would also be helpful to counter the claim that humans are unpredictable. Determinists would have a very different opinion of that, and one that is supportable with scientific evidence (of debatable value, but surely more solid than a religious prof's off-hand commentary).

    March 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  2. statistical oxy

    its a tad premature for this author and his "experts" to conclude that data=the death of religion in 9 countries. a more suitable and less sensational observation is "data suggests people in 9 countries are declining to self-identify their religious affiliation in govt and voluntary social surveys." Of course, thousands of people would not read nor comment on an article so pedestrian in nature.

    yes, ther is plenty in this article that goes beyond the stats, but these fail to rise above anecdote. And the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  3. Skeletor

    When I want a religious outlook, I go to the nearest tank filled with sulfuric acid and dunk my head a few times.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
  4. Peter

    Many of the big scientists in the past were believers. Tesla, Newton, Pascal ... Strongest believers are either simple people that don't ask much than receiving God's word by pure faith or people that broke borders of ordinary human being conscious. They got high enough to understand there is great inelegancy behind atom, solar system, galactic, life, cells, bio-chemical processes etc. It doesn't mean God is intervening every second in nature and our lives. No, he made physical laws and things are rolling by those laws. Leaf from the three is losing pressure of the water and food as the winter comes, it gets yellow and falls down. It has to fall down, gravity does its work. We know if we abuse nature it will pay back by global warming, huge hurricanes, bee disappearing, etc. That is normal. It is a law that was embedded in the nature. On spiritual plane He is much more active, but that is long story that I am not sure you guys have patience to listen.
    I know a dozen of doctors who grow up in atheist families, without any religious background. They experienced divan energy world and turn to Heavenly Father.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Giant Pair of Skates

      mumble much?

      March 23, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • God

      I took care of Newton and Tesla. Pascal was great to go to Atlantic City with....

      March 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  5. Religions are BS

    Fundies that want to impose their religion on others always assert that they think for themselves!

    It doesn't take long for those that come & proselytize at my house to end up justifying their religion as the beacon of their morality. All I had to do was to say, "let's talk about mastur bation," and the conversation would end rather quickly.

    Perhaps religious sheep just can't think on their feet! 🙂

    March 23, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Converted

      And you find that ok to talk about with strangers... more proof that religion is needed in this world. Man is fallen, they need the teachings of Jesus Christ or we become a world with no morals or values.

      God Bless!!

      March 23, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Converted: I can see someone referring to religious worship as mental masturbation...

      In DOG we trust...

      March 23, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
    • hehe101

      Converted: How do you feel about the muslim "martyrs" who blow themselves and hundreds of people to bits in the name of the invisible man in the sky (Or a much more realistic prophet?). Now think of how Jesus died "for the sins of others". He was a martyr. Martyrs will die for the sake of religion or ideas. I know he's been said to have done "great" things for humanitarian reasons, but seriously? I honestly need to know WHY he exactly did what he did (if he came around in the 60s and 70s he'd seem to blend in). I do apologize for calling him a martyr if it offends some of you. But if someone were to do that today, what would your response be?

      March 23, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Converted

      @hehe101
      He did it to atone for the sins of man. Man has been fallen from the time of Adam. He knew it was to be... and it happened only when he allowed it to happen... therefore he continually said "it is not my time".

      As for the acts of man in the name of God... I hope they are right for the path to eternal life is narrow and the gate for the nashing of teeth is wide.

      Spirits are real... we have one in us. This spirit can communicate with powers beyond our comprehension and have done for ages. Religion is one way to try to understand this by studying the writings that have been passed down through the ages.

      God Bless!

      March 23, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Converted

      @hehe101 (again)
      I may not have answered the question you asked "what would I do if a person did what he did today?" I would look in ahh and wonder how I could get such great faith. I just read a book called The Fire of the Covenant about the Mormon handcart pioneers and was wondering why and how. Then there was a story about a guy that was listening to people criticize these people. He was one that came across the plains and told them all that they do not know what they are talking about. He was there and the testimony they recieved and the "realness" of a living God was known to them. How do you deny when you know? That is the point... Joseph Smith was a martyr and could have denied his faith at anytime... However he could not for he talked to God... How could you deny that?

      I know that many people will not comprehend this... I did not for many years until my experience when I felt the spirit and it taught me these things. Now I cannot deny (I pray) even if my life is on the line. However, satan does not like people to turn to Jesus Christ and will try to convince them in doing things in the name of God when it is actually his (satans) work. I run everything through my "Jesus Filter"... If it doesn't go with his teachings... I don't do it.

      God Bless... I hope you get your experience... but without the pain I had to go through.

      March 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  6. Maureen Mower

    The more connected our world becomes, the more we begin to see that there is more than one "truth" in the world. and we begin to question what we have been told is the "only truth" by the leaders of organized religions. This is especially true among the younger generations, who take full advantage of all that the digital age has to offer, and whose minds are open enough to accept new ideas without automatically dismissing them if they don't fit a particular worldview.

    Add to that the fact that many have seen their parents, extended family members, neighbors, friends and others fail to "walk the walk" of their faith (ie: passing judgment on others while engaging in "sinful" behavior themselves), and seeing the same example in our elected leaders and other prominent people.

    All of this leads many to conclude that organized religion is either antiquated, too rigid, hypocritical, or just a waste of time. Those who choose to believe in a "higher power" are more likely to develop their own personal views based on reading and research, or just how they feel at the time. Others are likely to turn away from religion completely, or consider themselves "spiritual but not religious".

    Personally, I don't think this is a bad thing in any way. Organized religion has been responsible for far too much divisiveness, oppression, hatred and suffering. To this day, right here in America, there are people who would like to see us drop nukes on all Muslim nations, and while they may claim it's due to 9/11 or their fears of terrorism, the truth is that it's really a combination of both racial and religious hatred that existed long before the Twin Towers fell. And just look at the suffering still going on between Israel and Palestine – including the events of the last few days.

    I think the best thing that could happen to achieve real peace between Israel and Palestine would be if every single religious relic in that area were razed to the ground. When there is no longer any religious significance to the place, there will no longer be anything to fight over. And if we could, at the same time, allow all organized religions to fade into obscurity, all the better. That is NOT to say that we should interfere with an individual's religious choices, of course. But when we begin to accept that religion is a PERSONAL choice and nothing more, we can move away from religiously based prejudice, hatred and violence and begin to accept each other as fully equal human beings who are no different, better or worse than anyone else because of what they do or do not choose to believe or which supreme being they choose to pray to.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
  7. Barbara

    Religion is going to win over you materialists and money worshipers all around the World. It is only the matter of time. People's eyes are opening slowly how countries are run by mindless criminals who are telling people in what to believe through stupid media and lying newspapers. You want us to lose religion, families so you can be our only salvation and enslaved us to your liking. This is not going happen never because Christ is our salvation and our hope not you lying, corrupted medias.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • God

      I am enlisting the Republican Party to help.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  8. Finally

    THANK GOD!

    March 23, 2011 at 6:12 pm |
    • God

      You are most welcome.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  9. Intelligence vs religion

    As intelligence increases, artificial belief in deities decreases and people actually take ownership of actions. What a wonderful world it would be!!

    March 23, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
  10. CT Woman

    Majority effect....utility effect.....what about the reality effect? Education, and in particular, science education, is making religion obsolete. Embrace reality!

    March 23, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Converted

      Ah science... the great proof of no religion. Science explains alot but it only witnesses gods creations... and only does so by the grace of god. I will keep my faith in Jesus Christ and let man keep making a fool of themselves.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:21 pm |
  11. calichris

    More people have been murdered in the name of religion than any other cause, don't forget that what jihads, crusades, and most of modern day terrorism are based on. its about time that the world in general abandoned these childish stories. Religions may have had some benefit when we didn't understand the natural world around us, but that time has long since passed. Time to move forward as a civilization.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • God

      I blame all of you for those things... I was golfing in Boca Raton at the time with Buddha.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
  12. brokenteeth

    Are they only referring to the extinction of Western religions like Christianity and Judaism?
    Then the Muslims will have easy conquest for your lives because sheep run from swords.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  13. Ian Adkins

    Ah, CNN's daily bone to the culture warriors. Chow down, boys! As long as there are ideologues, there will be people fleeing in the opposite direction. Folks fled from the Reformation to the Enlightenment, from the Enlightenment to the Great Awakening, from the Great Awakening to Modernism, and then all these epicycles and eddies of the last couple generations. There will always be engineers and poets, mystics and mathematicians. And I prefer it that way.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Dilbry

      As long as people are afraid of the dark and the unknown there will always be those that sacrifice the intellect to the God of the Gaps.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  14. Agnostic

    Wow!! Those countries IQs will be much higher than religious based societies. How wonderful it would be if politicians and the faithful would have to live in reality and not use religion for power and ignorance.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  15. yo

    I sincerely hope there will be one day when religion is dead. No more business for any church or "profet". I am longing for a day we will all be reasonable again...

    March 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  16. phearis

    that's okay. Militant paranoid psycho religious countries like the ... United States, for example, will more than make up for it.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • Fuyuko

      yes, because all Americans are exactly alike, and should be tarred with the same brush.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • phearis

      @ Fuyuko – I couldn't agree more. Thanks for seeing it my way. ^_^

      March 23, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
  17. Lahama

    That is the best news I have heard in a LONG time. 🙂

    March 23, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • yo

      I sincerely agree.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • Kathi

      AGREED!

      March 23, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Rob

      I agree but the counter to this our polls suggesting within "religious" countries fundamentalism is growing and we all know there is NO talking to fundies

      March 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Dilbry

      Christians and Muslims disbelieve in so many Gods. Have the courage to disbelieve in one more God for the exact same reasons you disbelieve in so many others.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  18. olli-ollilol

    Hahaha!!

    "Nuns" don't practice any religion?

    Oh, I'm sorry, I'm not bashing here, what I meant to say was "Nones."

    LOL

    March 23, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  19. A Gay Agnostic

    Hallelujah! Can't wait for the day when those who use their Bible to spew hatred instead of Christian love and acceptance have no more religion to turn to. I was raised a Methodist but have since turned my back on the so-called open hearts, open minds, open doors church and all others because of the emotional damage I have seen infliced from the "believers" out there who forget that it is not our job to judge. I was thaught to love your fellow man and that God would be your judge when you die. Why is it that the Christians out there always are so willing to share their beliefs with you but they never want to hear about your own? I thought the USA was founded on freedom FROM religion allowing you to choose or not choose what is best for you.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • joy2day

      The loss of 'organized religion' is not the loss of bible believing Christians so you can stop the celebration. Those of you bashing the bible believers as being 'in-tolerant' are only showing your own 'in-tolerance'. Being tolerant does not require me to believe as you believe or go against my beliefs to justify yours. Take a look at the bible and read that most of our laws have been acquired from old testament law for if there were no laws in society, we would have confusion.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • Rob

      I can only hope that organized religion sucking the life blood of the poor is removed from this planet. I have no issue with beliefs I have issue with exploiting the under educated with fear tactics that are used in so many religions. I have issue "tax exempt" status that these religions enjoy. Religion also is the back bone of division amongst humans that and race which both need to be eliminated as a reason for "difference".

      March 23, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
    • Jared

      United states was founded on freedom of religion. But close. And the bible preaches transformation as much as is does acceptance. the message of Christ is "come as you are, and be prepared for God to change you from the inside out"... That goes as much for straights as it does for gays. I wouldn't count on religion dying out, society is cyclical and the desire for people to seek "God" in mass has eb and flowed for the last 4,000 years. Also an interesting point, Hallelujah is a translation from Hebrew meaning "praise God"

      -Jared

      March 23, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  20. Dan

    I wonder how the 'majority effect' plays a role in countries where religion has been traditionally suppressed, yet it is now rapidly growing, such as in China.

    March 23, 2011 at 6:00 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.