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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. Alex

    Great news!!!! Now let's stamp that BS out in the other 300+ countries!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • ilon

      very nice! right along side with you on this!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  2. Templar1

    How clever and sophisticated of you. Did I forget to mention it is false? Go back to school and look up Bartlett's quotations again.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  3. RedTeam

    They are attempting to over simplify a complex social trend down to a purely mathematical equation. As others have pointed out this study does nothing to note the difference between being spiritual and religiously affiliated. Also I think the data is skewed in the sense that just because someone does not attend religious services regularly if at all does not make them unaffiliated with a particular faith. I think what the trend points to is that with the increasing development of the Western World and the nonstop work week and its long hours is driving people to crash on their couch, flip on comedy central and take a nap for some quality down time. Attending Church is much a social experience as a religious one and while the saying goes you can't pick who you get to sit next to in Heaven I can certainly pick weekend at Bernie's III over having to sit next to my lazy fat neighbor who lets his dog run free in my yard and the other hundred human nightmares I spend the week dealing with. I can get the same spiritual experience through direct prayer and reflection without someone preaching at me that I'm going to a fiery place full of agony but God loves me and that the church needs a few extra bucks this week. Its not about a lack of faith, I just want some free time away from the whole world and I am guessing a lot of people feel that very same way.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • nevermind

      Totally agree , religion really is not a social practice, actually if you are religious enough you wouldn't need to go to the church or the mosque and will have your own readings without needing to proof to the world that you are religious ....being a muslim and following islam , the religious practice for me is when i'm alone , praying or reading about religion but in the mosque i can't really say that i added something to my faith, you only show your face among others who may be there for the wrong reasons ( of course not everyone ) but still it's pretty much fake

      April 1, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • RighterOfWrongs

      I don't think you read the article. They're predicting the extinction of organized religion. It DOES note the difference between being spiritual and being religiously affiliated. If you are non-specifically spiritual, you are non-affiliated, meaning you are not part of an organized religion. Furthermore, it is not basing numbers on church attendance, it is based off self-report from the census. The people who are listed as non-affiliated are the people who said they were.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
  4. Hooray

    This is wonderful news.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Kirk

      You are so right. A world without religion would be a wonderful place. Religion truly is the root of all evil.

      April 3, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  5. Brian

    One reason those European countries are losing religion is because the lower end of their society immigrated. Alistair Cooke once posed the question: "Why are Americans so religious"? His answer: "Because most of the people who settled America came from the backwoods of Europe and backwoods people are more religious."

    March 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Templar1

      Where do you suppose Cooke came from? Another opinion of his with no verification or merit.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  6. AGuest9

    Finally, we can be rid of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Great Pumpkin!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  7. ILoveJesus

    I totally REJECT what the mathematicians are predicting and I am going to go on preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ until the end.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Kafir

      Didn't see that one coming.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • nevermind

      Well , i think that the idea of REJECTING something , is pretty much the idea of wars ...if religion becomes unpopular it's because simply people don't want it ..so preaching wouldn't change anything , you gotta accept humanity first and that includes a choice .I'm not supporting atheism but i'm being fair and i am muslim . If one day the world isn't as religious as today , i wouldn't be bothered , i don't need the world to follow the same thing that i do to believe i'm right , it's a matter of choice

      April 1, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  8. Templar1

    How clever and sophisticated of you. Did I forget to mention it is false?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  9. ITEOTW

    If science were to tell you that they needed one person to sacrifice their life to prove the nonexistence of God, how many of you atheists would step up?

    Now what happens if science just said after they killed you off..."whoops, we were wrong" Who's willing to take that risk?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • jens

      Nonsense.

      You are portraying science as a god, when it is really humanity's way to organize and keep knowledge. The methodology used is that of testable explanations. As such, an irrational human sacrifice would logically be rejected.

      Only religions – including Christianity – have ever required such sacrifice from their followers.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • gabriel

      You shouldn't believe in something just because you are afraid that if you don't, bad things will happen to you.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Once again, your argument is nonsensical. You cannot prove anything through death other than death itself. The existence or non-existence of god cannot be proven.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  10. Jack

    Thank god!

    One less reason for people to kill each other.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Sue

      Humanity will always find a reason to kill each other

      April 3, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  11. Cullen

    Just out of curiousity, do the surveys of European nations include those who are on foreign worker status or some other "not-quite citizen" status? Germany, France, The Netherlands; all have a growing Muslim population. Could it be that religion won't die in those nations, just change from Christianity to Islam?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • abuzayd

      yes Islam is the fastest growing religion, not only by immigration but also by conversion rate and by birth rate. the only way to keep the economy of the aging populations of europe and the US going is by keeping immigration at current pace if not more, if you stop immigration economies will suffer, majority of the educated immigrants willing to come to these countries are MUSLIM.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Kafir

      Actually the decline in population growth helps curb overpopulation and the fast depletion of resources. If only the rest of the world would catch up before it's too late.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
    • L

      Being a Muslim , and half Arab half European ...i don't think that's an option ..all the people i've met who changed religions didn't dive into another one , they just dropped the whole idea of following a religion whatever it is ...however those who convert to any religion were atheists not former christians..i guess when u r muslim or christian , you are pretty much a follower to that religion and when you decide to disregard it , you will not fall for another one cuz really it's all the same the difference is in the history of the religion itself not the content ...

      April 1, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
  12. pilotlaw

    John Lennon said this very thing in the late 60s and drew tremendous criticism thereby

    March 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Johnl

      Wow!!! John Lennon!!! That settles it for me.

      April 15, 2011 at 9:32 am |
  13. Nick

    Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • ilon

      Best quote!!!! i don't follow anyone or anything or belief. i believe in morals, humanity, love. and compassion.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Eric

      I love that quote. Don't remember who said it first though.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Nick

      Seneca

      March 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Kromaethius The Wise

      Seneca the Younger, a Roman Stoic philosopher. The actual quote is "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful".

      March 25, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • jj

      The opiate of the masses

      April 14, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  14. ross

    LOVE IS MY RELIGION

    March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  15. Jon

    I, and most Christians that I know don't use the word religion to describe the lifestyle that results from a belief and trust that resides in the Lord Jesus, which is not religion at all in the experiential sense. It's a real and committed relationship and while not perfect in the eyes of the critic, is nonetheless secure between the believer and the Lord.

    So, without using the word "religion" if you think about it, none of those places listed above have ever been noted or described as bastions of belief or faith. Those countries and their citizens are much more interested in gloming onto the righteous and the mighty when trouble threatens but otherwise they have never had much of an interest in matters of belief or faith in the Christian sense.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • pheeel

      You must have no sense of history. Where do you think the roots of the religions that you follow came from ? Europe was huge into the personal relationship with imaginary beings long before America was even founded. Quakers, Methodists, Mennonites, Amish etc came from Europe and were not created in America.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Eric

      which as long as the relationship stays between your and you imaginary friend it's all fine and dandy, as soon as it effects my life I get ticked.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • S. Barb

      I would just add to the other comments to highlight that they are personal opinion: " the purported imaginary beings"

      April 3, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Barry Johnstone

      Sorry Jon, but I think that you are spouting religionist rhetoric like a truly brainwashed. So religion could (and should) become extinct. I can't wait for this! BRING IT ON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      April 12, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  16. Keith

    I am not affiliated with any religious persuasion but the use of a census is not a scientific tool for such a prediction.
    Who's to say the people filling in the form are being honest or willing to divulge specific information.
    Religious affiliation comes and goes in waves – always has – always will. Canada will not lose religion with the influx of immigrants from countries with devout Hindus and Muslims. Not in a thousand years.
    Peter Berger notes that people will become bored with religion and will look elsewhere. That is what is happening with a new digital generation: they're looking at their blackberries and listening to their ipods and tweeting their friends and looking for the next big fix from the corporate consumer culture... Religion as we know it will probably evolve into something more in touch with the 21st C but I doubt it will be replaced with gadgets which create a platform for fake digital friendships.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  17. JC

    I see a major flaw in the interpretation of the study. "Unaffiliated" does not mean the same thing as "atheist," nor can that be interpreted from something as simple as a mathematical calculation of numbers. What you have here, in my opinion, is a shift away from the organization of religion. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In a world where religion mingles with politics, and occasionally, the passion for politics takes on a religious aspect, some sign of individuality, of personal conscious, would seem to be a hopeful thing. More crimes have been committed in the name of religion than for any other purpose whatsoever. And what if the conclusions drawn by the study are accurate? There is a historical precedent for what comes next. The last time a major civilization stopped really believing in anything was right before a series of invasions wiped it out altogether. We called it Rome, and just like every civilization before it, the barbarians won in the end.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Hmm

      Actually Rome was experiencing a revival of religious belief as it collapsed. But belief will only do so much to counter corruption and repeated civil wars from power grabs.

      However, you are right there are some flaws in the study. The main one is to assume that rates belief must follow a linear path.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • Lindsay

      Yup. "Unaffiliated" does not at all mean, "I don't believe in squat." Belief and religion can be two different things sometimes.

      And for sure, being a Christ follower is not a religion.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Leroy Jackson

      you do not know your history – as a last resort Christianity was made the official religion of Rome – the christians went out of their way to kill the so called pagans and heretics – then Rome finally collapsed – christianity did not save it

      March 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Frank

      I suspect "unaffiliated" means that people just don't care about religion in their lives one way or the other. They have discovered that it's just not that important to their satisfaction in life. AND they don't believe all that afterlife crap that is religions major drawing card. As for Rome, it went into serious decline only after the leaders adopted Christianity. And then it never completely fell. To the contrary, it evolved into the Catholic Church. If you can't beat em, join em, and take control of the message.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Durkastan

      So nobody actually read the article? The authors distinguish between atheist and unaffiliated, and their main thesis IS that "organized" religion is moving toward extinction in said nine countries.

      April 5, 2011 at 12:11 am |
  18. Dave

    God exists over 200 years and...Richard Allen Greene, CNN is the smartest person after him. lol

    March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  19. Ginger K.

    All these countries have a higher-than-average standard of living, whereas countries steeped in religion are sinking deeper into the muck, including the U.S.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Another Larry

      They all have universal health care too.

      March 28, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • Jim

      that's very good point!!! well said...

      April 12, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  20. Greg

    The comment posted by Truth a few minutes ago, about waging whether God exists or not, and acting as if he does not matter the outcome of the wager, recaps Pascal's Wager, made by Blaise Pascal, a 17th century French philosopher and mathematician. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal's_Wager

    March 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Kevin

      I think it would be interesting to see how many of the self-proclaimed unaffiliated would reconsider and jam the Churches if it were announced that there is a massive meteor on a collision course with Earth and that we were all going to die in 72 hours.

      April 7, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Jon

      Kevin, you are a moron. You'd spend time with your loved ones.

      April 10, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Monte

      All organized religion will soon be destroyed. And very few are going to care.

      April 11, 2011 at 9:33 am |
    • Logan

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbrpR7gVbeQ&w=640&h=390]

      April 14, 2011 at 11:23 pm |
    • Craig

      There's a problem with Pascal's Wager, though: it only accounts for two scenarios – the christian god exists, or oblivion. While taking the wager would be logical if we had only oblivion as the alternative, it doesn't take into account other possible scenarios, or even the possibility that we encounter something in an afterlife that would be angry that we had decided to "accept god".

      Pascal's argument is based on the fact that we have no evidence that god does or does not exist, but that particular logic necessitates more than two scenarios – for example, we don't know if the Worm God Nigorth does or doesn't exist 🙂

      Therefore, I personally think that promoting altruism as way of living is a better bet than christianity or deity religion.

      April 15, 2011 at 4:01 am |
    • ramon

      I don't believed in religion that does not take care of the orphans and widows. This I mean any group who says they believed in God but abandoned the welfare of an orphan or the widow are nothing but self righteous group. God is not a hypocrite.
      Let religion be gone forever but let us be believer of the God Almighty, his only son our Lord Jesus Christ the Holy spirit.

      so when this end come do not be afraid but pray that the calamity would passed by you.

      April 16, 2011 at 1:02 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.