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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. Hussain

    There is no God, sure religion has given the world fancy buildings, but there just isn't evidence of God. Religion came about when people didn't understand the world around them properly and a God seemed a sensible choice. But when people started asking questions like Galileo he was maligned and demonized. Thankfully we understand the Earth and our place in the Universe a lot better and these days religion just seems to create problems and conflicts and not much else.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
  2. John

    Religion is the source of all imaginable follies and disorders; it is the mother of fanaticism and civil discord; it is the enemy of mankind. (Voltaire)

    March 23, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  3. Shawtayee

    I am the prophet of Zeon Zum Deikun! All must heed my word if Humanity is to survive! We MUST abandon Earth! For as we defile that from which we come, we doom ourselves to the same fate as that which we defile!

    March 23, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  4. Alex

    Progress.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  5. John

    Our's is a terrible Religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilt. (Mark Twain)

    March 23, 2011 at 7:51 pm |
    • Yooper

      Excellent quotes, John. Keep 'em coming!

      March 23, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  6. TheVeteran

    Listen folks, having a friendship with God and organized religion are two TOTALLY different things. This article does not say that unbelievers are increasing. It just says that people have had enough of organized religion.

    For the record: Denominations are unbiblical. There shouldn't be ANY denominations AT ALL.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:50 pm |
  7. lawrence

    Say what you will, but all the arguments against religious belief have been around for centuries, and organized religions persist. This statistical outcome is much stronger than the trends this study claims to reveal.

    I know many western Europeans, they are still stinging from the government sanctioned "state church" that many of these countries operated for centuries. They will say anything to distance themselves from this history. From my own contacts, Czechs especially will not be following this trend. They tend to be more religious than Americans, their belief systems are very familiar to American Anglicans and Catholics, even if they voice little approval of the Church hierarchy.

    My guess is they will evolve into a new or imported organization, rather than reconcile with the old one. They will not remain unaffiliated for life.

    Mark Twain said, "There are lies, dam_ lies, and statistics."

    March 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  8. dollydocker

    the fact of the matter is that the god concept has been on extended life support for the past 100 plus years secularized societies function more harmoniously without religion ,faith and based systems are based on ignorance and a lazy ethos " it is god's will" which of course is the easy answer and avoids having to answer the real questions about our existence , the bedrock of reality is reason ,science and mathematics and how you life your life . one doesnt need god or religion to "be good" or lead a good life ,the sooner civilization casts off the last vestiges of the "guy in the sky " the better .religion in general poisons everything that it comes in contact with .

    March 23, 2011 at 7:49 pm |
  9. Shawtayee

    Ereism is the way forward! Humanity is defiling Mother Earth, the very cradle of life! The only compromise is to continue our existence in space!

    March 23, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  10. TCVAN

    You don't know if it will happen in the US or not??? Ever drive around on a Sunday morning.....do you see all those cars in the church parking lots? Or, perhaps notice that the restraunts are packed Sunday mornings and early afternoons from all the folks going out after church. No, not in the US dude.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Yes... the dumbing down of America is going along nicely...

      In DOG we trust...

      March 23, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
  11. John

    There was a time when Religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages. (Ruth Hurmence Green)

    March 23, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  12. John

    All thinking men are Atheist. (Ernest Hemingway)

    March 23, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • ja12

      and he blew his brains out. ya ill listen to him

      March 23, 2011 at 8:06 pm |
  13. John

    A man is accepted in a church for what he believes,and he is turned out for waht he knows. ( Mark Twain)

    March 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
  14. sian

    Every knees shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord

    March 23, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • John

      Yeh get on ur knees and please jesus with ur tounge....thats what religion is all about

      March 23, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Yooper

      You know, if your interpretation of Jesus was correct, you wouldn't have to work so hard to make everyone else believe your nonsense. People recognize truth; they need to be indoctrinated into your fairy tales. Time for your to step out of your Dark Ages fable; it's a beautiful world out here!

      March 23, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
  15. robin

    They run centers in the US where they train women to respect abusive men, degrade them, force bibles on them and send them home cooking.

    RELIGION IS PERVERTED. I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT IS WRONG WITH GETTING RID OF IT. IT'S ALL BACKWARD IN MY HEAD OF RIGHT / WRONG.

    I think it's totally, morally unacceptable to live in a country where religious values are enforced on me that I'd never support. I do not believe in doing things with force, cult life, brainwash, out of necessity for financial gain or to "save my own life".

    Lived in schools with perverts who forced me, silenced me, controlled me, beat me, forced apologies out of me for things that are absolutely disgusting, wrote the same sentence for months at a time not allowed to speak and was taught that all of this is "god's will for us". Forced back to an abusive, molester, controlling, psychotic image oriented father and still struggle as an adult with getting away from THOSE. I HOPE THEY KILL OUR GOVERNMENT AND DO SOMETHING LESS RELIGIOUS AND OPPRESSIVE WITH THE REST OF THIS.

    i'D LIKE MY LIFE SAFE AND FREE FROM THEM. I WISH THAT THEY WOULD DIVIDE THE PLACE UP BETWEEN PEOPLE WHO FEEL THAT WAY. I'D NEVER LEAVE MY OWN SECTION.
    fix it!

    i WOULD LITERALLY LEAVE THIS COUNTRY AFTER WHAT I HAVE BEEN PUT THROUGH AT THE HANDS OF RELIGIOUS PSYCHOS TO LIVE A FREE LIFE. I WOULD GET ON A PILGRIM BOAT TO BE AROUND PEOPLE WITH AN INTELLIGENCE THAT I CAN RESPECT. I DO NOT BELIEVE MY EYES MOST OF THE TIME.

    GROSS.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • Yooper

      uh, Robin, it may be time for a little therapy. good luck; you're going to need it.

      March 23, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
  16. Jason

    Unfortunately the operative word is "organized" religion. That's not to say that religion will be eradicated completely. I live for the day when that is true.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
  17. Jane Doe

    Why can't people be civil towards one another? How can we ever have intellectual dialogue when we can't even step past our ignorant viewpoints? The arrogance and mockery spewed on this board is disheartening.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
    • John

      disheartening....lmfao, its the internet.

      March 23, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      How can one have an "intellectual dialog" with people who believe in fairy tales?

      In DOG we trust...

      March 23, 2011 at 8:05 pm |
  18. Yoann

    So the new world order will be fought for between Muslims and atheists

    March 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
  19. believer

    one thing I always say, if you believe in God, and His Son who shed His blood to cleanse our sins so we have a chance to be with our Father in heaven and live eternal life, we would have to love each and everyone on this planet and when we do that we are happy in our life, and lets say this is it no other life beyond this life, also we have lived happy and got the best friends out of it..We got nothing to loose either way..

    March 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Alex

      moron!

      March 23, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
    • Jason

      Loose? You mean lose, idiot?

      March 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • Dan613

      @ believer You are an idiot! BS!!

      March 23, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
    • Tom

      Or, there is nothing an agnostic can't do if he doesn't know if he believes in anything or not.
      Nice run on sentence by the way.

      March 23, 2011 at 7:55 pm |
    • paul

      you've got it all WRONG.....Christians are not perfect....they are forgiven for the sins they have committed while on this earth...the Bible says that there is none perfect, except the father in heaven - so don't let past sins keep you from following God...you can be forgiven and join God in Heaven

      March 23, 2011 at 10:43 pm |
  20. Yooper

    He sees you when you're sleeping
    He knows when you're awake
    He knows if you've been bad or good
    So be good for goodness sake

    March 23, 2011 at 7:35 pm |
    • Dave

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPOfurmrjxo&w=640&h=390]

      March 23, 2011 at 8:00 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.