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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. Susan

    For "c"- Genesis 17:18 And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! Genesis 17:20 And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget and I will make him a great nation. " KJV
    God people need to stay together, Christians and Islamic people need to protect our rights to our beautiful faiths. Let's be friends!

    April 14, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
  2. Guest

    And Good Riddance!!

    April 13, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  3. strongbelief2

    So what did the Gamal Abdel Nassar see over that Coptic Church in Zeitun Egypt in 1968 ? Try "Googling" that from 1968 and see the info that comes up. yes – seen by 40,000,000 people over a course of 3 years

    April 13, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  4. Wessia

    Great news! Can I get an Amen for progress!!

    April 13, 2011 at 7:10 pm |
  5. curtegg

    Karl Marx said it best, "Religion is the opiate of the masses".

    April 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  6. World Peace

    Think of all the people in History who died due to relegious beleifs. Ending all organized relegion is the first step to WORLD PEACE! Relegion should be illegal...

    April 13, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Susan

      You know what, "World Peace"? I get really tired of that argument. Did you not notice the 20th century or do all of those dead people as the result of abject atheists not count? Hitler-witch, Stalin-witch, atheist whatever, Mao-atheist. How about all of those random slaughters in the middle Europe during this time? Whoa yeah, how wise we are! Now go die with out any kind of hope!

      April 14, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  7. Joseph Mzrnski

    why do you atheists get so defensive? just a bit unsure of your bizarre belief that the universe is magic (it creates itself)?

    bizarre....

    April 13, 2011 at 6:35 am |
    • Non Believer

      No sane individual believes that the universe "created itself". What could create itself out of nothing? Not possible.

      The universe wasn't created at all. It always was.

      December 8, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  8. JAdams1776

    This is the best news I've read all day.

    April 13, 2011 at 1:59 am |
  9. neptonomist sentry

    What about those dirty Moslems?

    April 12, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  10. RWESTUPID

    Religion is a mental illness. This study gives hope that someday the world will be cured of believing in ancient fairy tales. Evolve people!

    April 12, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Avdin

      As we evolve please do expect that we will look back on this time an realize what idiots we were. Not everything is reasonable, most of all reason itself. Therefore, don't assume that reason does away with God.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  11. md2205

    Most organized religion started with one person saying G-d spoke to him, while he was alone, and no one saw this. The only one that says that G-d spoke to a nation of people is Judaism, when He gave all of them the Ten Commandments (and a few more). Ever since then, Jewish parents told their children, who told their children, in an unbroken chain until now, that that event happened. And even before He did that, He gave Noah the Seven Laws of Noah. These are the laws that all people must keep: Believe in One G-d, do not blaspheme Him (meaning do not blame or curse Him), do not kill, do not steal (kidnap), create a stable family life (no adultery, etc.), do not eat a limb of an animal that is still alive (cruelty to animals), and to create an effective system of justice. Anything else that is done is not necessary as far as G-d is concerned, except for the Jews, who have a total of 613 commandments to do.

    April 12, 2011 at 2:25 am |
  12. Floyd

    Well, CNN is doing its part to destroy it. What propaganda!

    April 11, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Avdin

      well said. media and education are just as strong of "brainwashers" as orgainzed religion. After all everyone still believes the earth revolves around the sun despite the fact that einstien showed 100 years ago that its all a matter of perspective. The sun revolves around the earth. The earth revolves around the moon. The tires of my car spin the earth benieth me, I am standing still.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  13. Pam

    The extinction of religion is very good news! People use religion as a battering ram. The world will be a much better place without organized religion...especially since WE (normal people) have to pay their share of taxes while they have "crystal cathedrals" and other ridiculous displays of wealth. And, if you read, the article(!), there's a big difference between realizing the dangers of organized religion and being an atheist. I've never believed in organized religion, but I am definitely not an atheist! I believe there's something out there, but don't have the arrogance to think I KNOW what's out there..unlike the arrogance of religious followers–especially those annoying christians!

    April 11, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Sara

      Well said.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Evy

      @ Pam

      Well put! You are SO on the money. You ever notice how self righteous and arrogant highly religious people are? U know this sounds extreme but my utter DISDAIN for people who live to follow a set or rules that dictate their life is comedic. I mean it's COMMON SENSE that harming others is unncessary and karma DOES exist (but god and religion have nothing to do with that). Religion serves as a means to control the masses...and they do! In my opinion, the VATICAN should be shut down and re-opened as a museum!!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Dogismycopilot

      Thank you. Very well said.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • GreenDru

      Couldn't have put it better myself.

      April 13, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  14. Mike in SC

    Independent rational thinking is the bane of all religions. There's a reason why low education levels and religiosity go hand-in-hand.

    April 11, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • the godfocker

      that is not always true. My uncle who is one of the most religious person i know .he is a college grad.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm |
    • Dogismycopilot

      I agree with Mike in SC. Of course you will find some educated religious zealots, but many USE religion as a tool to advance their own agenda (i.e., politicians and evangelists making a boat load of money). There will still be others, but I think it is fair to say that the majority waving their hands and collapsing in the aisles at some of these churches are not the sharpest tools in the shed. I know the next thing someone will say is that I am a college grad and I am a Catholic and I am not rolling around on the floor with the Holy Spirit possessing me. Religion can be used as a meditative tool and a way to calm. But if one starts believing literally the world was created in 7 days, seas have been walked upon, and talking to burning bushes really happened – regardless of education – there is something wrong.

      April 12, 2011 at 11:34 am |
    • Avdin

      Actually, according to a recent surve of 1900 of the world's top scientists over 40% believe in some sort of god.

      April 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • CDK

      Actually, it is the other way around. Religious people have have asked and answered the question of epistemology. Non-religious people simply don't want God to exists so they stick their heads in the sand. “…their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles…”

      April 13, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  15. vee

    our friends tend to have similar interests and views as we do b/c we gravitate toward those we agree with. it is not that they have changed our views.

    April 10, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  16. Noley

    Imagine, as John Lennon put it..... "...and no religion, too."

    April 10, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  17. Steve

    All hail the Flying Spaghetti Monster. May you be touched by His noodly appendage.

    April 10, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Bill

      I for one lean in the direction of the Great Green Arkleseizure and the coming of the great white handkerchief.

      April 13, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  18. John Pedant

    "It will also wither away in Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland and Switzerland. . . "

    "Wither away"? Didn't Marx promise to do that? Maybe he finally delivered, but Marxists are still witTering away, and I suspect that theists will carry on the chatter for a while yet.

    April 10, 2011 at 7:57 am |
  19. Perilous

    This is the best news I've heard all day.

    April 9, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Perilous wrote: "This is the best news I've heard all day."

      Don't be too optimistic... As the old saying goes, there's a sucker born every minute... Organized Religions will have many victims available for a long time...

      April 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
    • Buzzy

      Same here...not fast enough to be honest, but just still good news

      April 12, 2011 at 2:15 pm |
    • hgabriel

      Newton, Pascal, Einstein were in deep fascination of the Creator and religion, in general. "Subtle is the Lord...", said Einstein. But, of course, the "texting intellectuals" of the 21st century know better.

      April 12, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  20. jj

    Hooray!!! Hooray for us all!

    April 9, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Marcus

      This report may be wrong, the GOP and Tea Party are leading us towards an American Theocracy.

      April 14, 2011 at 5:40 am |
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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.