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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. Allen Russell

    YES! End ALL religions! Way to go! Religion is such a waste of time. Prayer is such a stupid thing. Never works. More HATE is generated from religion than anything. Family values? HA! How many rapists are religious? MOST! Good riddance to bad rubbish.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • thorrsman

      @Allen Russell, while a good many criminals of all stripes "get religion" once they are caught, their very actions prove that they are NOT religious people at all. For some odd reason, the angry Atheists like to point at prison conversion as if it gives some meaning to their own religion. I guess that "grasping at straws" comes naturally when you believe in nothing.

      March 23, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  2. Paul

    So many people making reasons why "religion" means nothing. Let me put in my 2 cents worth. God said, "I am, that I am." and I believe that he is, if you don't agree,,that's fine but there will come a day that you do believe – and I pray for you because I am that He is. May God bless you all.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      You wrote: "God said, "I am, that I am."

      Wasn't it Popeye who said that?

      In DOG we trust...

      March 23, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  3. thorrsman

    The Church strove to wipe out the Old Ways of Europe for more than a thousand years, and yet Wiccans, Druids and other such are coming back strong. Even in the Soviet Union, after more than 70 years of State-sponsored Atheism and the persecution of those of faith, religion did not become "extinct". The gleeful militant Atheists are counting their chickens before the eggs are even laid.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  4. Ben

    Well, lets go with these facts. I am a catholic by the way, and am happy that way, but I don't feel the need to push these beliefs. First off, for note the bible is contradictory because Jesus for the most part a Rabbi of the faith, and a Rabbi is simply a teacher who studies and critiques the Torah. That is the life and calling of every Jewish Male in society. The New Testament can be said through Christ's teachings to be a second Talmud. Secondly, the understanding of Islam here is false. In essence they are the same God because Mohammed based his beliefs on Christianity and Judaism. He actually felt comfortable with the other religions and felt that Christ was a prophet, though not the Messiah. As well, Islam is not a religion of war whatsoever. They are actually in my opinion the most tolerant. Maybe not in its current state, but in history, they were the only religion to allow free practice to people in say Jerusalem or Spain. In fact, it was the Jews who first gave Mohammed shelter in Medina. Also, Revelations was a political discourse about Nero. A lot of the signs were pointing to Nero. As well Christ isn't mentioned. See, a lot of people don't understand the ministry. Christ was a man of peace and said that people should be peaceful in life and violence in the end was fruitless. People forget this. This is why Mohammed respected him as much as he did and Islam was always so accepting. The Muslims saw the other monotheists as their brothers. So, yeah. Hopefully this well end the fighting.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  5. Thomas Aquinas

    God is the most powerful force in the universe and master of all. He speaks to me every d... hang on... My grilled cheese is ringing. It's God. I gotta take this one.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  6. MM

    Just because someone choose not be affiliated with a particular religious group does not mean that they don't believe in God. This article is trying to lead the readers to believe this but that is not the case. More and more people are joining churches that does not identify with any religious denomination. They are called non-denominational! Although some people have lost faith in the church they have not lost faith in God.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  7. Simpleton

    Feeling down one day driving an unfamiliar road I looked up to a sign that said: need help? call me... Jesus, 555-555-5555. So I did, the next morning a Mexican showed up at my door with a lawnmower.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
    • Ruhlmann

      Did it cheer you up?

      March 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  8. Barbara

    Now people when sick or their loves once are dying will pray to EU or to North American Union that shortly will be created. They can also pray to US dollar or English pound whichever has higher value. In the future they can also pray to Amero if they chose to. I however will still have my faith and God that always is there for me when I need him. Thank you mother and father for raising me in the Catholic faith. This is the best gift I ever received from you. Bless you all.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  9. Simpleton

    Ahh Religion. A great tool for our developement I light on the path of good behavior, a hand to hold in times of despair, and the relief that this is not all for nothing by having somewhere to go when it is all over, heck we even protected ourselves to not eat unclean meat untill we learned how to cook out the tricinosis.
    So are our real ancestors hear with those space ships yet?

    March 23, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  10. Carolyn

    Who are these experts? Plus, how many people lied on these censuses? Jeez, many census takers cannot even spell surnames correctly not to mention other flubs – ask any genealogist.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  11. morgan

    If only this were true. Alas, the world will never run out of terrified imbeciles who have no need for science and reason. Gods and demons indeed. Mankind will never cease to be afraid of the dark...

    March 23, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      I'm afraid you're right...

      In DOG we trust...

      March 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
  12. Pailine

    Oh-Oh! The sheeple mind-control scam is dying out... expect "the coming" of even MORE drummed up, crazy & senseless rules & laws to rob sheeple in mass then!

    March 23, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  13. PraiseTheLard

    I wonder when the next Prayer Breakfast will take place at the White House...

    In DOG we trust...

    March 23, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  14. God

    http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002293175744

    I am here to answer any questions you might have...

    March 23, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
  15. nedu

    I think this study is talking about Christianity and not necessarily all religions. It is an open secret that the western world is fast turning away from true Christianity. In many so called Christian churches in the western world today, the focus is increasingly becoming humanism and sensuality, not sensitivity to God. So, I can see how true Christianity may eventually come a scarce commodity in the America and the rest of the western world.

    "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it." (Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:13-14))

    March 23, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  16. Gilbert S. Maciel

    I believe in god, I have my beliefs of a spirit world, but I dont affiliate myself with any religion for several reasons. None that were described in this article. I dont like the idea of categorizing myself like others do based on what I believe for one, 2, I am more private when it comes to sharing what I believe and praying, 3, I dont go to church, i do everything i need to with god in the comfort of my own home or with family. I like the idea of being recognized for being "ME" not for what I believe in. I dont like others trying to feed me in what they believe in, in trying to covince or turn me into jioning one of their groups. I believe what I believe not because of what someone else says or because what a book says, I believe whats in my heart, my heart is my guide. And on top of that, religion has centuries of history involved in violence. Many people have died because of what they believe in, trying to force others to believe what they believe or wiping out another rival religion. Religions have turned adults into children, to become highly dependent, judgemental, and/or in some cases insane and violent. Religion does have a bad history in mankind, mostly because of lunatic religious leaders in the past. So im proud to be none affiliated, and to be known for who I am rather than what I believe.

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

    It's fine to be religious just admit that the government shouldn't be affiliated in any way with Christianity. I dont want to read any of your "literature", im studying quantum mechanics over here. Any person who believes in a literal interpretation of the bible should be neutered or denied the right to vote, one of the two. I know life sucks quite frequently but God isn't gunna pay the rent, stop shortchanging yourselves, and attribute our achievements as a species to our own brilliance.

    March 23, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
    • Logan

      Thats funny, you know nothing of Quantum Physics. The Higgs Bson is known as the "God Particle" because everything could not have happened without Intelligent design!

      March 23, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
  18. Alex

    ahh religion...ignorance is bliss

    March 23, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Jim

      Ahh atheism....ignorance is bliss....

      March 23, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  19. zest

    So many critics above have no concept of church history... for one thing, the Canon was decided at the Council of Carthage, not Nicea...

    March 23, 2011 at 7:58 pm |
  20. str8 against h8

    It's about god damn time! FINALLY people are coming to their senses. Although we still have a long way to go, some of my hope for humanity has been restored.

    March 23, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
    • Maddie

      easy now, religoin means a lot to me. Just because you don't, doesn't mean you can harp on those who do. Plus, I do not see how this article has any merit whatsoever. Okay so in a few countries out of the hundreds that exist in the world, the amount of people who put unaffiliated went from 0.2 – 4.2. A mathematic formula cannot describe or predict religion. Religion does not follow the trends of where math or science says it should. For instance, this past weekend, I was helping to run a retreat for my church, where I saw 42 lives changed, and hearts returning to God. As long as there are still those who believe in it, Religion will never die out.

      March 23, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • holyguac

      It's too bad the world is still going to hell in a handbasket. Getting rid of religion doesn't seem to be making anything better. Religion didn't help, it seems humans are beyond hope. That's why claiming any kind of affiliation – christian, muslim, atheist – is just plain ridiculous. It's not what people "are" that matters, it's what they do, or don't do, that makes a difference. More people, less resources, more trouble, that's where we are headed as a species. Big whoop.

      March 23, 2011 at 8:17 pm |
    • Melvin

      That's what Christianity has been trying to tell you. Religion isn't the problem. Nor lack of religion. Man is. We are all flawed. Some of those flaws equate to sin in the eye's of God because they are choices in direct opposition to his standards to healthy living. The only salvation is from Christ, not religion, not your parents, not anything else. He is the remedy to these flaws because He is God. And when you acknowledge the truth of Christ and God's way then you can be cured, healed whatever you want to call it, from the inside out. To see this you must begin to honestly deal with Christianity and what it says about itself instead of bashing it because some people know it's truth so well instinctually that they hide in fear of it.

      March 23, 2011 at 8:54 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.