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. RealisticHumanist_986487563

    Yay! The world is finally waking up from the Matrix! RELIGION IS NOT REAL: STOP PRETENDING!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  2. 2 Cirius

    This study supports Oxford University's centennial study of religious affiliations. Changes are taking place because so many now see that many religious claims have no foundation ergo all religious claims must be suspect. For example, the Hubble Telescope has proved that neither heaven nor the New Jerusalem are "up there." So, did Moses really talk to a burning bush? Did Jesus really walk on water? If God exists, how can a human understand a being who can create 300 septrillion stars?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  3. Martin Stevenson

    There was on mention in the article about "religion taxes" charged in many countries. In Germany, for example, if you state that you are affililated with one specific religion, you automatically have to pay "religion taxes" to support that religion. More and more Germans have found they can keep that money by claiming themselves to be "unaffiliated" with any religion. A generation ago it would have been unthinkable to consider the idea of being unaffiliated–even if one were. Making that claim now doesn't mean they are not religious. It just means society has changed enough that they can tell the government they are not affiliated, while still going to church regularly. Granted it's a lie, but they'd just as soon keep the extra cash each month and donate to the church themselves.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  4. Kevin, Virginia

    Thank baby Jesus (in a tuxedo shirt, becaus it says im classy, but i like to party) that religion is in decline. lets hope this happens faster rather then slower.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Greg

      I like to think of Jesus with, like, big eagle's wings, singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with, like, an angel band, and I'm in the front row, and I'm hammered drunk.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  5. 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 12:23 pm |
  6. Bill

    a thought
    mired in ego: you cannot be right because I am right...
    mired in ignorance: how can it be that you not think like me...
    without prejudice: I love you for what you are, not what you claim to be...

    March 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  7. MikeB

    Imagine there's no Heaven
    It's easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today

    Imagine there's no countries
    It isn't hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace

    You may say that I'm a dreamer
    But I'm not the only one
    I hope someday you'll join us
    And the world will be as one

    March 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • thisis4u

      Hippy. Also, probably one of his worst songs. I'm just giving you a hard time, though. Wouldn't it be nice?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Susan

      "The nations were angry, and your wrath has come... The time has come... for destroying those who destroy the earth." Rev. 11:18

      March 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  8. William

    While going through this blog. There seems to be a lot of serious remarks made to the post and to each other. I pose a statement. We as historians, academics have searched and found that God says he created the world in seven days. That is so stated. He has stated that an ascension to heaven is 50000 years as a day as well. This is a comparison to people who think and NOT the simpleminded. What is the origin of the "DAY"? Is a day a 24 hour day or something else? Maybe people, just MAYBE we are not giving a just estimate of God and His message. Maybe we are trying to contain Him and give him human qualities in an effort to denounce Him? Let's give this some thought before we have that beer or SHOUT out over the net!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  9. CHHoosiers

    I grew up Catholic, and as soon as I left my parents home I had declared myslef unaffiliated. I did not want to be stapled as one of any group but American. It doesn't mean I don't believe or do believe. Wonderful living in a country that you can do well without the support of a religious group.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  10. T50T

    I think there should be a distinction made between the prevalence of ascription to religion vs. organized religion. Mostly from what I see, many people reject organized religion and are opting for more personal or family culture based religious experience that has changed with contact with outside beliefs and education. I don't think we should focus on how religion is 'dying', but how it is changing. As long as there are questions we don't know the answer to, belief, and the codification of belief (religion), will always exist.

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

      "As long as there are questions we don't know the answer to, belief, and the codification of belief (religion), will always exist."

      Thank you for finally pointing out that religions simply make sh-t up to explain the (currently) inexplicable. Now, if those followers would simply jump onboard with that reality...

      March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  11. Adrian

    I pray for the end of religious practices; it's been the bane of humanity since the dawn of thought. Have faith! As long as there are poor educational standards, especially those prescribed by the GOP, we will always have religion. Amen.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  12. Jazz

    CNN will not rest till everyone is Gay and Godless!

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

      Sounds awesome!!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • FistedSister

      Better than the alternative.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
    • T50T

      Hah. Thanks for the laugh! Is that really all your keen mind could take away from that article? Or did you have that one in your pocket for just such an occasion?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Sybaris

      Better than straight and stupid

      March 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • NewsReader1

      Correction. Until they are tolerant, and open-minded about the Gay and Non-Religious. The fact that people are still bigoted against the gay and non-religious are the reason why CNN needs to keep bringing this awareness.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  13. Eli

    Religions die out all the time and give way to other religions. Religion evolves.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  14. T's Girl

    To "Scotsman" :

    I knew it! That cracks me up!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  15. TSloan

    The high majority of Sociologists don't hold the Secularization theory. Fact is CNN is giving a minority opinion an entire news story because they know it will rile up people and get them more page hits. Hardly anyone thinks Burger is correct. Yes religion may decline (in my opinion thats obvious), but to say that it will "die out" is either ignorant or stupid, I havn't figured out which one Abrams is yet.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Ricky Bobby

      You do understand the difference between a blog and a headline news article, right?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  16. Ivonne

    How sad. Once people kick God out of their lives the horrible mistakes made in the past will come calling on them. Many cultures disappeared because they forgot God.

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

      Which one(s)?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • AGeek

      The Chinese culture calls BS on your inane theory.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Sybaris

      Yeah, the Mayans should have kept their reverence for he bloodthirsty Kukulcan.............just like christians should keep their reverence for their god who promises to destroy the world.

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

      Religion /= God.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • T50T

      Er... no. Many cultures were whiped out because they refused to worship another people's god. Or even if the people themselves made it, they were forced to practice another's religion or they were burned as witches, heritics, or killed as infadels. You should pick up a history book on the way back from church sometime.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Sarah B.

      The people the article are refering to aren't necessarily kicking God out of their life. It's an unfortunate, and a way too common, misconception to say that if someone doesn't subscribe to a religion that they must be atheists. The article even acknowledges that. It's pretty obvious that society is evolving to a more spiritually inclined way of thinking and away from organized religion where man-made power, ignorance and autrocities have prevailed throughout history. There, as in most situations, is a middle ground – spirituality without man-made religious dogma. THAT my friends is more God/Love – centered than most religions. It's a shame that people who are disillusioned by religion fail to see this middle ground option.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  17. Sensible_Centrist

    FINALLY someone's got it right.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  18. McG

    Interesting that the very book that these religions claim to base their faith on predicts that the nations will turn against them during the time of the end... wait, what was this article about again?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  19. Travis

    Sadly, I think this is over optimistic. I do think religion will continue its inevitable decline, but Islam will still be tough to deal with, and I think it is too deeply ingrained in American culture to decline that far (though the last ten years has seen an increase of rate of secularism). Reason will win out eventually.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  20. Derp

    Notice how all the countries listed have very high standards of living compared to the very religious countries.

    Why do Christians say that turning away from God is a bad thing when all the countries that have become more secular are the ones that have such a high quality of life?

    March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • ITEOTW

      It's because those countries were founded originally on Christian principles and were blessed by it. Now they are turning away and look at how the economy and everything else is struggling.

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

      That's the ministers and priests saying that it's a bad thing to turn away from gawd.

      A declining flock means declining coffers.

      Charlatans rely on the ignorant for their welfare.

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

      Are you saying that having wealth is a sign that you are right with God? In most cases I would say the exact opposite.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • T's Girl

      Yeah like Russia and most of the old Communist bloc countries. Once again, religious people were asked to come help feed starving people, build homes, adopt homeless children, give money towards alcohol rehabilitation and help in many other ways to inprove the quality of life after Stalin had insisted children pray to him and in Lenin's name for over 50 years.

      Who you gonna call once we're all gone? Good luck.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Habs

      It is funny you should that because religious people believe that this world is heaven for the non-believers and for those who show constraint and stay away from sins as well as worship will enjoy the real heaven.... (I heard that from a muslim, I am not muslim but I respect all religions and it is alwasy nice to hear of what others stand for) thank you all!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • cnn134

      all countries with high standard? guys you need to go back, what happened to russia and the eastern countries when became communists, and fightes religion, they vanished communism is gone and you still believe those countres are better, now the article was cocluded in 1969 in the highest cof communism, and now after all those countries went back to christianity in 2011 cnn is posting it what a crazy trend 50 years later is cnn has any more useful topic as the millions in africa who started to know God if you look closer you will see that those countries who got away from God are disappearing, USA is number 1 now and where is the communism gonnnne with the wing, no one can stand aganist God my friend, carefull

      March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • BABA


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

      "Dear God, Please save me from your followers"

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

      When people are doing well they don't need god, when they are doing badly they do.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • T50T

      I'd like to point out to some of the religious posting here that Goodness does not necessitate the presence of God in one's life. Goodness come from Love and Understanding. Love comes from a chemical reaction in the brain, which along with Understanding comes from Experiencing pleasant and unpleasant stimuli and following the example of role models whose behavior has been patterned by societal expectations and equillibrium. Now go ahead and point out to me where your self-righteousness comes into the equasion.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
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About this blog

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.