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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. deepak

    This is dangerous. Only Christianity can confront Islam, which is a political religion in a primitive format. Islam itself has to be extinct as it cannot cope with the electronic age, but it will create enough mayhem and tragedy if left unchecked. It is most important that Europe and the west aggressively deIslamize Muslim immigrants. Liberal approach is suicide of the west.

    April 9, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  2. Carmen

    I consider myself a religious person but i detest organized religion and Amenners. I detest anyone who tries to shove their religious belief onto other people. Also, i find the biggest hypocrites, bigots, liars, cheaters, and all around bottom feeders of society are the self proclaimed "saved".

    April 9, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  3. Wait, what?

    First of all, there are many people who have spiritual beliefs who consider themselves "unaffiliated" with any one religion.

    Christianity isn't the only "religion" (kinda love how people immediately start in on the Christian group) so it's not like this is reason to "stick it" to the Christians. Grow up.

    I love how everyone on these ridiculous boards talks about "leaving people alone", accusing Christians of being "all judgmental" and stuff. Did you read your own comments? Boy. You really showed us. Phew!

    Christians are human beings just like everyone else and therefore have people in their group who do things that aren't right/are hurtful/etc...
    What are atheists good for? Spewing hatred on people of faith? (people of faith being all of us, not only Christians)
    Meanwhile, being desperate for science to find a way that they can live forever because beneath that spiny exterior they are terrified of death?

    Ha! Ridiculous. I hope all of you negative nancy's find some peace.

    April 9, 2011 at 7:40 am |
  4. Rationalist

    It's about time. Religion can have a positive role in a persons life, BUT, organized religion is toxic to a civilized society.

    April 8, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  5. Jane 3:16

    Curt the difference is that the Grand Canyon can be empirically verified. God cannot. If I start to say there are worms in my brain that make me able to heal anyone with cancer, everyone should believe me simply because I say so?

    April 8, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  6. Nine Nine Nine

    god is DEAD. Hail Satan and the year 1!

    April 8, 2011 at 7:00 am |
  7. Agnostic Front

    Yeah..but...the most important question here is:

    How do magnets work?

    April 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • DoodleSheep

      Pixies and fairy dust of course. And a can of spam.

      April 9, 2011 at 1:46 am |
  8. Woohoo!

    Universal healthcare, working politics, AND no religion in the next century?

    Damn, step aside US. Canada is gunning for you!

    April 7, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • bobby

      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

      April 7, 2011 at 10:54 pm |
    • Canuckian

      yeah and we got lots of oil, trees, water and even lotsa geese to fly down and crap on your lawns and parks too, eh.
      But you can have our Prime Munster Harpo if you want him.

      April 13, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  9. Taxman

    In addition to all of the comments, we still need to read and honor the IRS tax code books!

    April 7, 2011 at 1:44 am |
  10. Let Everyone Be

    Let everyone be who or what they want to be, dont pass judgement but dont push any religion on anyone either.
    The End

    April 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • Wait, what?

      So I'm confused.
      Let everyone be? Or judge them? Which one are you doing?

      April 9, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  11. wilson

    Religion extinction? This was the best news I've read all day.

    April 6, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
  12. Tony David

    the sooner, the better

    April 6, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
  13. God

    Guys. It's me. Ask yourself where does consciousness come from? What is it? If you think this is a stupid question, then remember that everything you hear, see, smell, touch, and think depends on this one thing. Without it, what is anything? Can you say? If you say "well, that chair is there, even after I die", just think about it first. The chair is there the way you see it when you see it, as you remember it. Right now, it is part of your consciousness. So what can you say? What is it? A bug sees it differently. What is it? How is it there? Without consciousness, what is it?

    Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha all saw/lived the same thing. People who use the word "God" don't know what they are talking about, so they speak in beliefs, and fight over their personal definitions. This is an idiotic pastime, like fighting over what is inside a locked box, without ever even making an effort to unlock it and look inside - something anyone can do. And yet people fight and argue instead. The athiests are doing the same thing.

    Jesus hated religion. So did Mohammad. It's true. What did they say about the religious leaders of their times? Nobody bothered to read? Buddha also called the false teachers "demons".

    These men didn't want to start religions. They wanted people to see the truth.

    If you want to see what they were talking about, drop the beliefs first - including those of the masters, yogis, priests, etc. - they are not your friends. Admit to "i don't know", stop dividing yourselves by beliefs and words, follow NOBODY, and start asking the questions. This is the only way. There is no other way.

    Ignore the religions and traditions. They are full of outright liars, imposing belief on others, while knowing nothing themselves. All of the religions are like this. There is no reason to call yourselves anything, just because people around you say so, or because your mother told you what you are. If she didn't tell you, what would you be? What would you be defending then? What would you be fighting over?

    If you ask, you'll see. It's not what any of you think.

    April 6, 2011 at 3:08 am |
  14. Powercosmic

    Goody! This means that Thor can make a comeback!

    He's got that cool hammer thing going on, kkkkkkrrrr-aaaack! smash!

    April 4, 2011 at 5:24 pm |
    • cgqhxckaah

      yab7bh bflxchdgwafh

      January 26, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • wcydpa

      baXMpZ wwpvfidlinuk

      January 28, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  15. loagn

    Good, 9 countries where people are intelligent and think on their own!, But i already new that because I'm a Canuck!

    April 4, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • If you were intelligent....

      You would have used the word knew as opposed to new... but you already knew that.

      April 5, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Curt

      Nine countries where people mindlessly follow the herd. Ignoring the God that created them and wants to make their life worth something. Good for you guys.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
    • Mattfromindy

      Really Curt? You want to talk about mindlessly following a herd? Look in the mirror.

      And for the record, proper spelling and grammar does not necessarily equate with intelligence.

      April 8, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  16. Rob

    Guy and Girls – Do you not read anything at all ?

    Jesus don't go out anymore – He got himself a PS3.... 🙂
    and don't really care much for nothing anymore.

    April 4, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • Curt

      That's interesting. So where exactly did you read that?

      April 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  17. jazzcat

    Holy cow! What will all the smart people blame the world's problems on if religion isn't there to kick around?

    April 3, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Curt

      Those people are not the smart ones.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  18. Dan

    It took a couple of thousand years but people are starting to use their brains.

    April 2, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  19. Dan

    Can the U.S. please be number 10?

    April 2, 2011 at 11:11 pm |
    • Curt

      Don't wait for that to happen. Move to one of those nine countries.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
  20. Tyler

    of course there is a God....why are you people so arrogant?...you think the world just came into existence on its own?

    just think of all the perfection and imperfection...its hard for me to understand people that think that everything just sort of happened...for no apparent reason

    April 1, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Since you say so... I guess it must be true...

      It's still April 1, yes?

      April 1, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • Tyler

      and also, why do atheists on this page loathe Christians so much? it's not like Christians nowadays HARM people. in fact, true Christians are some of the nicest, most caring people you will ever meet.

      The majority of atheists i meet are super-shaky in their beliefs in general, and resort to name calling to be spiteful (such as the comments below)...it's like they're trying everything they can do to deny whats right in front of them...

      as for this article, it may or may not be true that people are becoming less religious...it might just be the atheists are finally having an effect on making fun of those people, so the religious people feel ashamed and don't want to admit their beliefs.

      besides, even if most people somehow became unreligious, it's a fallacy to think that "because a majority of the country is this, it's right"

      April 1, 2011 at 10:27 pm |
    • CTEd

      Yes, Christians don't harm anyone.
      They don't harm alterboys
      They don't harm woman when they tell them they can't have an abortion even if they are going to DIE because their imaginary friend would think it's wrong.
      They don't harm anyone when they advocate for group/teacher led prayer in school so that all children can praise their god.
      They don't harm anyone when they take a secular country and add "in god we trust" to the money, and "Under God" to the pledge to try to make everyone accept their god in their daily lives.

      No... they don't try to harm anyone.... they just want to tell everyone how to live.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
    • Powercosmic

      Well its hard for me to imagine that the Universe exists for a Human-centric reason, there is certainly no proof that it does.

      April 4, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • DrDrew

      The concept of perfection is imaginary.

      April 5, 2011 at 10:38 am |
    • Peggy

      Right, Ok so then WHO created god? You religious people are so simplistic. pssstt BTW there is NO god!

      April 5, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Peggy wrote: "BTW there is NO god!"

      While you're most likely correct, there's no way to know for sure...

      April 5, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • tim

      tyler:
      sorry (not really), to be the one to tell you to actually study what has been proven. not a 2000 year old novel. BUT A MATHMATICALY TESTED, RETESTED AND TESTED AGAIN MEASUREMENT OF THE AGE OF THE UNIVERSE. IT'S A SIMPLE PREMISE OF MEASURING THE SPEED OF LIGHT.
      that calculation alone ends the bible and everything it claims.
      the only miracle that is scientifically proven is that people still believe in the one item that evolves faster than anything known to mankind: THE BIBLE

      April 7, 2011 at 12:17 am |
    • jon

      To the guy that asks who created God? Well that is why gnostics refer to him as the ultimate self generated. Which I guess saying him is inacurate because the father has no gender. Concerning what you say about christians hurting others. To be a true christian one must hold to that which we where told. Including the comandments Jesus imparted, the most important being to love everyone. One claiming to do God's work while touching children are what you would call Pharasies. And remember, Gnostic is not Agnostic. Just because we were almost wiped out does not mean we do not exist, we just don't have a central place of study which makes learning quiet difficult....especially when most of that which you study is in tattered fragments. We can thank the catholics for that one.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:46 am |
    • jon

      To the guy saying that the earth's age disproves the bible. Most of the bible existed only by word of mouth for centeries. Think about what happens when you tell a story then tell your children a story and then they go on to tell their children a story. Besides, if you were god wouldn't you create something that makes sense? Creating something without reason or laws to hold it together would end in total chaos. Don't think one christian beleives one way just because another does. The old testament in the bible comes from the Torah, if yo uwant to know something about that part ask a Jew, not a Christian.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:53 am |
    • Curt

      It's nice to hear some common sense once in a while instead of all the "scientific" gibberish. If it wasn't for God there would not even be any material for a "big bang". Scientists are so determined to not believe in God that they ignore the obvious.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Curt

      It is interesting the way people shoot off their mouth as if they knew something, and then make a claim to be smart. If you had two friends and one said I don't believe in the Grand Canyon and the other said I have been there and seen it, who would you believe. So many people choose to believe the idiot that says he doesn't believe rather than the one with the real experience. People want so badly to be their own God that they refuse to listen to the truth.

      April 7, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
    • Mattfromindy

      Curt, I'm just amazed by your comments. And not in a good way. "Ignore the obvious" ? There have been hundreds of religions, all of which insisted that they were correct. Because you believe in a 2000 year old book that has been translated and interpreted to the point of fairy tales, doesn't make you correct. If someone was born today and claimed that they were the son of God, would you believe them? No. And I would ask my friend to show me some empirical proof that the Grand Canyon existed before forming an opinion. I would NOT accept a 2000 year old book that referenced the Grand Canyon as evidence, especially if it mentioned unicorns and selling my daughter into slavery. Christianity became so prominent simply as a means to keep the peasants in the Middle Age from misbehaving, much in the same way parents threaten children who misbehave by saying "Santa won't bring you any presents!". In this case, the reward for good behavior is an eternity of bliss after death, rather than the colder reality of the fact that you just cease to exist as a person, and your body decomposes to dust.

      April 8, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Curt wrote: "So many people choose to believe the idiot that says he doesn't believe rather than the one with the real experience."

      I don't know... there are many who choose to believe the idiots that state categorically that there's a god... as for your comment about "real experience" – do you know anyone who has come back from the dead or actually met your god? (BTW: stories taken from ancient brainwashing manuals don't count...)

      April 8, 2011 at 4:16 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.