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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. mikel

    Well, this coincides with the upcoming day dedicated to the atheist, i.e April Fools Day......

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

      Hey look, an all powerful superbeing is floating around up in the clouds and he sent his illigitimately born god son to die for you because a talking snake convinced an incestuous couple to eat a magic apple.

      April Fools!!!!!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  2. D. Clemens

    Do you know what apostacy means? We are living it now. Do you know what comes next? The faithful do.

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

      It would only be "apostacy" if there was a deity to turn away from. But since there is nothing, no god, it makes more sense to finally accept that 'theism' was a phase in the development of humanity, a stage that is slowly coming to an end. The enlightened will only 'turn away' from all the irrational promises that religion had to offer. By doing so, they are turning toward life.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  3. JesusIsAlive

    Haha all the atheists are loving this article. Dont be fooled. You know God is real but you refuse to believe because you love your sin. Turn to Jesus so He can forgive you. The offer is still on the table, not for long though.

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

      I don't believe in god for the same reasons I don't believe in sasquatch, the tooth fairy, or unicrns. It has nothing to do with sin. Hopefully the flying spaghetti monster will not judge you so harshly on the day of pasta reckoning.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Jan

      IYou're not being a true Christian. That offer is there indefinitely and unconditionally.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • Gaffe

      What are you ? A used car salesman ?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      You assume that atheists are all sinners. Other than not believing in the same myths as you, what sin am I committing? The sin of thinking for myself? I treat people in the manner I wish to be treated. I strive to be someone that I would want to spend time with. I don't "sleep around," I don't do drugs, I don't gossip, I'm never intentionally mean to anyone. Can you say as much?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • Leroy Jackson

      turned from Jesus because his morals and the morals of his god are inferior to mine – i hate sin and human suffering so i turned away from jesus

      March 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  4. Amy

    This seems like a normal evolution, to me. Religion was a way for early people to explain things that happen both to them and in the natural world. Religion has evolved from multiple gods (the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, etc) to the now accepted 1 God. As more and more is known and being discovered about the world and what makes people "tick" using religion to explain away these things is more and more irrelevant. Now days, people have their religion and it supposedly "guides" them in their daily lives, but most seem to find ways to use "religion" when it's convenient for them and many don't follow those so called guides to the letter. If you "NEED" God in order to be a good person, there's clearly a deeper issue at hand as it's not God who makes your choices, regardless of what you want to believe, you make choices for yourself.

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

      I agree. You make your own choices in life. We are not puppets on a string being led around by an invisible force. But if one does not believe that The Creator exists, then what is there for you beyond this life? You can either believe and have faith for a more glorious future or not and live life without abandon now because this existence is all you can hope for.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Alyssa

      BForce, you assume that not having to account to a deity for your actions removes your obligation for having to account to others. Society is a far greater moderator of a person's behavior than religious faith is. I'm an atheist, and don't believe that a deity is tracking my behavior. But I also know that if I cheat on my taxes then I have all sort of potential negative consequences for that behavior, to include incarceration and societal shame. That, more than anything else, keeps people from walking astray of the society's rules.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  5. Leroy Jackson

    go to wikipedia and look up 2 things about the US – first- the poorest states and then second the most religious states – I have no proof for the corelation but the most religious/ conserative (red states) are also the poorest states – it was recently determined that Mississippi is the most conserative state and it is also the poorest – (side note: also the least educated)

    March 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • derp

      Education is the enemy of poverty. Religion is the enemy of Education. Poverty is the result of relion over education.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Rach

      Why are you making this in to a political thing? It has nothing to do with politics.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Alyssa

      Rach, I think you're wrong. Politics, especially in the US, has increasingly greater religious overtones.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Leroy Jackson

      politics and religion are closely related – the two used to be one – the seperation is actually relatively speaking a new thing – i am sorry but i think it is a political thing – if you don't think it is a political thing and you are religious please do not ever vote or express an opinion

      March 23, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      The correlation is easily explained. The poorer you are, the more prone you are to believe in an afterlife. If your life is one of poverty and suffering, wouldn't you be eager to believe someone who tells you it will be better after you die? Wouldn't you be willing to behave in whatever manner they tell you is necessary in order to get into heaven?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  6. Brian

    truly ridiculous. Here is a case where the scientific mathematicians are absolutely 100% wrong. In order for what they say to be true then none of these countries would have any active churches, synagogues or mosques. Humanity would be extinct first.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  7. Tom

    Switzerland would be the perfect place to live. High standard of living. Low unemployment. Moderate taxes. Decent health care. And minimum religious nutters to worry about. Wonder what it takes to become a citizen?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • derp

      It is nearly impossible to get swiss citizenship unless you are born there.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      It takes money. Lots and lots of money.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  8. WOBH

    "The Jewish tradition that says prophecy is for fools and children is probably wise," he added.

    Except that prophecy is an assertion without any evidence or mathematical modeling to support it.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  9. Gaffe

    Good riddance.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  10. Alex

    Good, maybe I'll move to one of them. Austria does look beautiful.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      I hear wonderful things about Prague.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  11. Um OK

    Silly story. Yes there are trends that can be seen, but major events in history result in huge changes in mathmatical models. Humans are not bits in a computer program. Will the ongoing conflict between Islam and the West result in accelerating or reversing the decline of Christianity? Hard to say. Would another major war change trends? WW2 and the rise of Socialism were the major drivers in the decline of religion in Europe. How might a catostrophic natural or man made disaster in the heart of Europe effect religiousity? Look at church attendence records before and after 9/11 to understand my point. Unforeseen events will guide these trends.

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

      I think the growth of Islam actually drives the decline of Christianity. Because how can one cast a cynical eye on their religious and call it preposterous and not unconsciously do the same to your own?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  12. ITEOTW

    It isn't religion that's harmful to society, it's man's own evil and corrupt nature which has infilitrated everything in this world including religion. Now it's just another excuse atheists use to blame to religious when they themselves aren't any better.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  13. Beam

    I am not surprised...

    Luke 18:8 (New King James Version)

    8 .... Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?”

    March 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  14. Ed

    It's about damn time. Too bad it is taking so long.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  15. John Browning

    To all the naysayers who are happy to see religion disappear, I would say to you that none other than Jesus would also be glad; He lambasted the "religionists" of His own day for their utter insincerity and hypocrisy. With regard to Christians in general, the most important thing is one's relationship with Jesus Christ, not with a church, and especially not with many of today's liberal churches. To be a Christ-follower brings a peace to one's self that cannot be gotten anywhere else. There are some good Christian churches around who practice what Christ preached, and they will always be around. I respect your right to disbelieve or doubt in today's "religions" and churches, but one should read the four Gospels and learn ABOUT Jesus, not about a brand of religion.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  16. Your God

    This is the best GOD DAMN news I've heard in my lifetime. HAAAAAALLELUJAHHHHHHH

    March 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  17. 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 12:08 pm |
    • derp

      Dumbest thing I have read all day. The reason no atheist would step up is because we do not believe in an afterlife. We intend to maximize our experience in this life before checking out. Christians on the other hand should be lining up for this. After all, if they die, they get to enjoy the eternal awesomeness of 72 virgins, gold lined streets, and coolers filled with busch lite.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • Unknown Muncher

      Unlike religious fanatics, scientists don't claim to know what happens when you die, thus making life actually meaningful and precious. Therefore, the likelihood that anyone would ask that a person sacrifice themselves for such a stupid reason can only be achieved in the name of a lie of mammoth proportions...religion.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:16 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 12:29 pm |
  18. Reality

    As noted many times:

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the "bowers", kneelers" and "pew peasants" will converge these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of "worthless worship" aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • KC

      The Romans tried to get rid of Christians by feeding them to the Lions. All that did was make Christianity more appealing. This study will be proven incorrect because the state that these countries listed in the study are in is very passive and non eventful. People in these countries just go on with their daily life and enjoy a ton of personal freedom. Let one terrible thing happen and I assure you religion will seem like a great idea. One people get comfortable in their wealth and freedom, they forgot God and religion. When things go terribly wrong many, not all, look to a God they had previously denied.

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

      KC, it doesn't bother you that you yourself indicate that religion is used as a crutch? That in unfavorable conditions it is shown that religiosity rises? This isn't because people find god the worse things get. This is because they're looking anywhere they can for comfort, even if it's not really there.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Leroy Jackson

      emotions of any kind do not make something true – if a person runs to a faith out of fear it does not mean that faith is true –

      March 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
  19. T's Girl

    The end of the article said Berger made his prediction in 1968. However, many religious groups have dramatically increased their numbers since the late 1960's. So I have no faith in these reports, which we're asked to believe, have any true "scientific" basis at all. Truly, this appears to be a concept that has gained these authors some notoriety and cash!

    The comment may have already been made, but stating that one who says they are not affiliated with a partiular religious group also does NOT mean they are not actively seeking a religious expereince. I also find it interesting that the study left out any reference to the Jewish faith.

    Finally, for all of you out there you must post anti-religious comments, please don't blame "religion" for everything ugly. I expect to see the regular token response, but that biased mind-set is really getting old considering all of the good we know that has been done by religious persons/organizations vs the minority of the bad (which was only done in the NAME of religion and would have no doubt been done anyway, regardless of what malicious idea was used to promote it)

    March 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Scotsman

      Aah yes, the old "No True Scotsman" argument.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  20. Anthony

    Atheists are the illogical ones. You go to college and are force fed Liberal Atheism then you come out just like every other "intellectual." Give me a break. You find a reason to do whatever you want, then rather than investigating anything you claim to say there is no God. You didn't come to any logical conclusion due to intense thought/study, but you wanted an ideology to support your lifestyle.

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

      No logical conclusion?
      There is no evidence for a supernatural being. So why should I think there is one?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Ex-believer

      Not true. I became a non-believer when I learned about Noah's ark. Two of everything? Even bacteria, microbes, every living plant and animal?? And if that "story" isn't true how can you trust any other part of it.

      QED

      March 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Um OK

      No purely rational person could be anything but an agnostic. An atheist believes there is no God, while a theist believes there is. Both sides have valid, but unprovable points of argument. To accept either argument as fact is, by definition Faith.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • The Jackdaw

      Have you ever had a conversation with me? I think you will find that I have plenty of evidence in support of atheism. Also, I am far from liberal, although I will concede to being educated.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • Lucy

      I find it humorous when religious people find education a threat. Surely if one's faith is strong enough, it is healthy to have it questioned, challenged and explored- right?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Dmoney

      thats funny.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Meow

      Given that there is no factual basis for religion at all and it is solely based on faith, I would say that the people who believe the Earth was made in 7 days are the illogical ones, and perhaps they would benefit from researching our fossil records and carbon dating.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Ryan

      I am agnostic, in that I simply don't know which to me is far more humble than saying anything is in the affirmative

      I am fairly conservative, socially liberal on some issues, conservative on others, but I think that the ability to think critically and admit what can and cannot be understood, doesn't really know party lines

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

      You got it completely opposite Anthony, at least as far as me and all the other atheists I know. I was raised in a religious household, and I didn't bother questioning any of it until I was maybe 14, 15 years old. When I actually bothered to examine it from both sides, it was beyond clear to me that god is a man-made creation.

      Trust me, I wish I believed in god, in an afterlife, etc. I'm sure it brings you a lot of comfort, and I wish I had that. But I cannot trick myself into believing in something that all my rational thought tells me does not exist.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Don Juan

      Anthony - it's not about Atheism. It's about supporting organized religion. These things are mutually exclusive.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Leroy Jackson

      virtually every morally progressive movement in the US was lead by non-believers. Religion is not morally progressive by definition. Usually a non-beliver upgrades the morals of a nation and then when the masses adopt it religion begins to claim it was their view all along – If christianity had had a greater influence – slavery would still exist legally in the United States – women would still not have the right to vote – child and spouse abuse would not be considered abuse – religious persecution would be rampant – people who thought different would be killed – the mentally ill would be labeled possesed – children born out of wedlock would still be considered lower class human beings and so on

      March 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Steevo

      Anthony: Seems you've been drinking the coolaid for a long time and can not perceive reality anymore. Go ahead and believe in your fairy tales and supreme beings, but you have no right to denigrate the opinions of those of us who do not believe in such stuff. The countries discussed in this article are well developed, intelligent societies. More and more countries will follow their lead because there is no truth to religion–only fables and fear to induce less intelligent people to embrace these concepts.

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

      And religion isn't an ideology to support your (and many others) lifestyle? To my knowledge, there's no proof that there is a god and there's no proof that there isn't. Beliefs are like opinions, and I think you know where I'm going with that. I'm not saying you're right but you have no more of a way to prove that you are as I do. I accept your (and everyone else's, for that matter) belief in God, a courtesy that no "believer" that I've ran into has given to me.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • Ted

      I respect everyone's right to believe as they wish, but me personally, I find it much more of a stretch to believe an all-knowing being created us vs a scientific explanation for how the world was created. We see science in action around us every day of our lives, when was the last time someone posted a YouTube video of a proven unexplainable miracle? I know you have your "faith" but faith is not factual.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Rach

      I find this amusing. You all are commenting on Anthony's post but just as it is your right not to believe it is his right to believe. You all are providing your beliefs which when you think about it, is not better that a "church goer" trying to force religion on a non-believer. For people who do not believe in God, you all sure spend a lot of time trying not to prove it. If he does not excist, why do you care? Does it cause you some serious physical harm for people to believe in God? The article stated religion was going away. It does not state that people are going to stop believing in God, Allah, Buddah, or who ever they choose to worship.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      I didn't go to college, Anthony. I used my brain and figured it out for myself through simple logic and reason. I read the Christian bible more than once. I also read a lot of other books that were much more interesting and informative, not to mention coherent.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:57 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.