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. JoshtheApologist

    In 1970, nearly 80 percent of the world's population was religious, and by 2010 this had grown to around 88 percent, with a projected increase to almost 90 percent by 2020, the report states. The growth of religious adherence can largely be attributed to the continuing resurgence of religion in China, it notes.

    In 1970, agnostic and atheist populations together claimed 19.2 percent of the world's total population, largely due to communism in Eastern Europe and China. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, large numbers of the nonreligious returned to religion.

    According to the report, projections to 2020 indicate a sustained decrease of the global share of the nonreligious, mostly because China is witnessing a resurgence of Buddhism, Christianity, and other religions, and Christianity is also growing in Eastern Europe.

    "If this trend continues, agnostics and atheists will be a smaller portion of the world's population in 2020 than they were in 2010," says the report. "Although the number of atheists and agnostics continues to rise in the Western world, the current growth of a variety of religions in China in particular (where the vast majority of the nonreligious live today) suggests continued future demographic growth of religion."

    Christianity and Islam dominate religious demographics and are expected to continue that dominance in the future, according to the report, which notes that the two religions represented 48.8 percent of the global population in 1970, and by 2020 they will likely represent 57.2 percent. The study also predicts that there will be 2.6 billion Christians by 2020.

    January 22, 2014 at 5:23 pm |
  2. IHV

    Voltaire made the same pronouncement, I guess time will tell

    May 10, 2013 at 8:29 pm |

    70% of people will realize there beliefs are more convoluted then that of a crack head by 2050???

    As much as i hope you are right, i can't believe average intelligence will come that far by then!

    I simply hope the biggest cause of murder fades out, or at least 70% percent will realize that it is just an excuse to be invading territory, killing races and flat out being an ignoramus!


    May 10, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
  4. Leisha

    Oh please!

    April 2, 2013 at 8:37 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      You disagree I take it?

      April 2, 2013 at 8:42 pm |
  5. Vinicius

    with proponents of rubost biblical faith. A publication of the Christianity Today empire, BOOKS AND CULTURE provides a forum for some of the most incisive writing and cutting-edge thinking to be found among Christians anywhere. One is not talking about puff pieces and cotton-candy testimony. Rather, the kind of thoughtful and self-critical engagement with the Great Conversation and myriad contemporary issues that one expects in the fat intellectual monthlies and the Reviews of the New York and London Times are on offer here, and in abundance. This reviewer who fights his wife for possession of each issue and sometimes finds them tucked away in bedroom squirrel-holes of which she believes him to be ignorant has watched this young-ish paper emerge as something of a renegade among evangelical organs and find its voice and stride within just a few years. Its trajectory has not been far from astonishing. CHRISTIAN CENTURY was once known for thought of this quality and still hits the occasional home run. If it can sustain its current run, BOOKS AND CULTURE looks rather to be the .325 hitter of which franchise glory is made.

    June 28, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  6. Edimar

    I'm impressed you should think of smoehitng like that

    May 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
  7. Auth

    Dear Anne -I also ripped out the iltacre in People Magazine tracked down a local training in Washinton DC. I attended a Stewards For Children training this morning. The presenter was Michele Booth Cole, Executive Director of Safe Shores at the DC Childrens Advocacy Center. She facilitated a great training, that had me both concerned and inspired.I am hoping to take it one step further and become a trainer myself for Stewards For Children. I just wanted to say Thank You, Anne for your mission, and for all you are doing to keep children safe. Count me in, to join you on this journey!Sincerely,-Hilary Boboshko, LGSWSilver Spring, Md

    April 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm |
  8. Emiliano

    hey jd sorry i did not call today for my meeting with you.I hope I can rudhcesele soon.thanks for the suns pick.I was hoping you would take the Rockets all day,so you saved me money and made me money.How do i set up another appointment?Thanks

    March 4, 2012 at 1:26 am |
  9. Baricz

    Extremely well put! You capture my own beielfs to the T'. If there is another point that I might add to your list it is this: the false equivalency that theists and religions have a monopoly on morality and justice. An oft cited example for the immorality of non-theist beielfs is Hitler, Stalin and Mao, conveniently ignoring the fact that all of them led cults of personality making them more religious, in fact, than non-theist.I remember a conversation with my mother (I think I was around 15 then) when I told her that I believed in existentialism, that I didn't see the point of life as it is on Earth; though in hindsight what I meant was a life in which one finds the purpose of existence by existing'; the purpose not being pre-ordained or directed in any manner by a religion or doctrine of some sort. This seemed to concern her a bit, and she made a strong case for a belief in an overarching power that affects human life (thankfully she did balance this out with gifts of Camus and Sartre to explore existentialism) and then followed a brief interregnum of a few of years when I actually did pray (a strange artifact of those days is the chain that still hangs around my neck, with a teeny little Ganesha . But eventually I couldn't keep up the hypocrisy of praying for things' while not believing any of it, so I stopped. It was like a boulder of guilt was lifted from my mind when I did.

    March 4, 2012 at 12:33 am |
  10. Marianmay

    Like all the others etposd here before me I want my children to trust in and serve the Lord their God with all their hearts. To be Godly men whom not only my husband and I can be proud of but that they can be proud of themselves.Like the question presented by Barbra I want them to know and be all those things; able to cook, clean, be smart with finances and confident able to make sound decisions. Be strong in their convictions and if the need arises stand up for those convictions. However, I also want them to know that if they fall' make a bad choice or a mistake that it is okay. Our God is a loving and forgiving God and will be there to help them through anything if they give their will over to him. I have heard so many stories of people both young and old that strive for such perfection that when a failure' or imperfection arises they are not prepared to deal with it.Sure we all want to think we are raising the best children out there perfect' in our eyes but the truth is we are human and we are imperfect. I want them to be able to accept that, lift their eyes to the heavens above and know that God the father loves them unconditionally and so do we!

    March 3, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • Tomek

      What\'s it take to become a sublime expueondr of prose like yourself?

      April 1, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  11. Bongane

    Glad you didn't get hurt from that fall. Sorry to hear about that stomach bug. I think it's great that you're vtrising to be healthier. I need to do that too!

    March 3, 2012 at 9:42 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.