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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. Alan

    IIslam will be the dominant religion of the world in the next 25 years while most "christian" countries today will become "unaffiliated" as the article puts it. Don't know if it's good or bad but that's what the world is trending to.

    March 24, 2011 at 12:36 am |
  2. zanne

    just wondering something. how come people of other faiths (or no belief in God at all) are allowed to make fun of, call down, and insult the intelligence of Christians? if a Christian does any of that to people of other faiths he is called insulting, narrow minded and discriminatory. hardly seems fair.

    March 24, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  3. frank

    As long as everyone can respect each other, it shouldn't matter. Right?

    March 24, 2011 at 12:20 am |
  4. Apostle Jean Morris

    This means it is time for me to work harder. God loves you and so do I.
    A.J.M.

    March 24, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  5. Godless

    This article is quite simply the best news I have read in years.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
  6. Ravi Gehlot

    Most people that I ask tell me that they do not have a religion though most say that they pertained to some religion in the past but grown up to be unaffiliated. So I asked why they became unaffiliated. Some tell me that they did not approve of all the scandals that have been going on with the priests in the Catholic church raping kids and evangelists driving super expensive cars obviously bought from collecting money at church. Others tell me that they can not comprehend how the world can go to war so many times over religious views and so they deemed that it must be a bad thing to favor religion.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:45 pm |
  7. Matt

    The profession of shaman has many advantages. It offers high status with a safe livelyhood free of work in the dreary, sweaty sense. In most societies it offers legal privileges and immunities not granted to other men. But it is hard to see how a man who has been given a mandate from on high to spread tidings of joy to all mankind can be seriously interested in taking up a collection to pay his salary; it causes one to suspect that the shaman is on the moral level of any other con man. But it's lovely work if you can stomach it.

    One man's theology is another man's belly laugh.

    Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.

    God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent – it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.

    The most preposterous notion that H. sapiens has ever dreamed up is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not receive this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history.

    - Just a few quotes from Heinlein in celebration of this new trend!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
  8. Walt

    The parallel to the extinction of language is an interesting one. As a smaller percentage of the population adhere, it becomes more difficult to require BOTH parents commit to indoctrinating the offspring. Since belief in God is not an organic phenomenon, but exists merely to sustain class inequality, the lack of commitment from _both_ parents fails to transfer the beliefs to the next generation. In biological terms, this could be called a "recessive" trait. Excellent article.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  9. Michigan Don

    Any ime religon sullies itself with politics it will always come out being discredited and ignored. Look a the history of the world and tis will be seen each and every time. Apostates like Huckbee will eventuall destroy organized religon here as well unless He who is, and was and ever more shall be intervens first.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:01 pm |
  10. samuel summers

    I just love it when people talk about god. You pi-s-s-ed-off cos i didn't capitalize god? You are thus insane.

    Believing in god is much like arriving at a train station in a strange new city, meanwhile, it's night time. And it's raining.

    You vainly search for a familiar-face as your hard-wired loneliness within this urbanized island of steel screams out for a gentle touch, a human touch.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
    • Tiggy

      Ooh, did you write that yourself? May I quote it on my Facebook page? I think my Christian, Jewish and agnostic friends would all relate to it.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • samuel summers

      Tiggy, thank you. yea, I'm the one who did it,,,

      March 24, 2011 at 1:16 am |
  11. ab_contador

    This article made my week - this is great news! We can only hope this trend holds for the US as well. Organized religion is a terrible waste of time, energy and resources.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
  12. Tuboneca

    Why should false religion stand if they continue to teach lies to their followers?

    March 23, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • arensb

      It's never stopped them before.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  13. albie

    This article made my week - this is great news! We can only hope this trend holds for the US as well. Organized religion is a terrible waste of time, energy and resources.

    March 23, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
  14. Colin

    The degree to which a country is atheist is a direct indication of how smart it is and how good its education system is. Look at these countries – the most advanced in the world. I hope the USA can join this exclusive club ASAP.

    March 23, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
    • truethinker

      i would take god over a high test score anyday. Sorry. you might think your smarter, but im happier, so who really is smarter?

      March 23, 2011 at 11:53 pm |
    • unabashed

      Well said, bubby. Organized religion will be the end of our species.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  15. Raider

    It's about time. Wish the trend would hurry up.

    March 23, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • Mat

      Yup. Fools cant wait.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:13 pm |
  16. eastwood1379@gmail.com

    The 21st century will belong to the Muslims. Muslims are advancing in all fields in the West such as medicine, law and engineering. Muslims are the new Jews in the West so to say.

    March 23, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
  17. George

    I think the author of this article may be a bit confused; the data shows people calling themselves "unaffiliated", but that doesn't mean they aren't religious. It may mean they simply no longer align with a traditional "denomination" within their faith.

    March 23, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
    • Azion

      finally a shed of light among the bloggers. You hit it square on.

      You all know Jesus Christ also was against organized religion because of its perverse nature. The fact that I call myself a christian simple means I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior and means of salvation from my sinful nature. I challenge anyone with half a brain to say we as humans do not have a sinful nature. If you have children you should know better. where do we learn to lie, steel, cheat, kill, or hate?

      As I have stated before if we only listen to the greatest commandment that God has given us. #1 Love the Lord your God with all your Heart and all your Mind and #2 LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. Then all in this world would be well. Think about it..... If we followed this simple rule we would show compassion to our neighbor, love our neighbor, help our neighbor in need. WHO IS OUR NEIGHBOR? well that is a simple one. EVERYONE IS YOUR NEIGHBOR...

      People tend to skew and distort what God intended and what Jesus came to teach. It is not about what you can do for yourself but what you can do for others. Jesus wanted us to move from a Self Centered point of view to a God Center point of view. A God of Compassion, Love and Hope. My Heavenly Father.

      For those that refuse to believe in God. I am sorry. I can not change your view but "they know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky, Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. Yes they know God, but they wouldn't worship him as God or even give him thanks. and they began to think up foolish idea of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. and instead of worshiping the glorious, everliving God, they worshiped idols. So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired..... They traded the truth about God for a lie."

      March 23, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
    • truethinker

      Though I believe in God very strongly, I would probably be called unaffilated. Everyone believes in God even if they won't admit it to themselves. The ways we connect to him are just changing thats all. Some like to pray privately, some go to church, some don't pray but try to follow him anyway, it depends on the person. Some call him allah.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:50 pm |
    • Shadow

      Actually, Azion, we can have #2 without #1 quite nicely. #2 is not dependent on #1. I practice #2 all the time without a hint of #1. Remember that both god and the big bang are just theories. No one knows our origins. Humans have been making up gods to explain the unknown for tens of thousands of years. Also, sin is a religious term. It only applies to people who are religious. It doesn't apply to the general population.

      March 24, 2011 at 12:50 am |
  18. LadyAnon

    I actually found a Gallup Poll that had been conducted and apparently the author of this article missed the U.S. in the decline of Christianity. Here are the numbers on a poll that started in 1948. This particular poll was conducted in 2008.

    * Number of those who say they are Christian stands at 77%, the lowest ever since this poll began in 1948
    * In 1972, 89% of those polled said they were Christian
    * When this poll began, 91% of those asked said they were Christian

    From what I've read (anyone can look this up on the internet and find it in various sources) that's now down to about 76%.

    Also interesting, a Newsweek article from April 2009 had a poll showing that about 62% to 68% of American's "now say religion is "losing influence" in American society..."

    No reason not to believe the numbers. The info was pretty easy to find on line.

    March 23, 2011 at 10:44 pm |
  19. SurRy

    "Organized religion 'will be driven toward extinction' in 9 countries."

    Countries with intelligent and progressive citizens.

    March 23, 2011 at 10:37 pm |
    • albie

      You said it!

      March 23, 2011 at 10:58 pm |
    • mexicanHater

      god dun it

      March 23, 2011 at 11:08 pm |
    • Mat

      There is another study that europe will be muslim majority this century. all the whites will be extinct or will be forced to chose between death or islam.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  20. Russ139

    Saw a man on the street corner today. He said God appeared to him. Couldn't get anyone to beleive him.

    March 23, 2011 at 10:36 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.