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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. Justin Moore

    Quoting the Bible does not support an argument for God. It's a book that's been rewritten, modified, and made to fit to individual people's whims (King James anyone?) There is nothing in the Bible but fairy tales. Before you start blindly quoting passages, perhaps you should go and really think about what you are quoting.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • JesusisLord

      Heaven and earth will pass away but His word will never pass away.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Ryan

      Then quoting "The Origin of Species" doesn't support Evolution. The book was written over two hundred years ago by a racist names Charles Darwin, and it's been rewritten and modified dozens of times since then. It's a collection of racist theories (such as the drawings showing black people on the evolutionary ladder between chimpanzees and neanderthals, and Asians under Caucasians) based on ideas that floated through his head rather than real science and has yet to have any of it proven, thus it must be taken totally on faith.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • larryb

      "amen" but tell that to them that believe every word was from god

      March 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Craig

      @Ryan

      Darwin was a product of his times and was less racist than most.

      And if you're looking for 'proof' in science you will be looking a long time because science doesn't deal in proof. Evolution, however, has tons of evidence. You don't have to take it on faith, you can go out and do research yourself.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
  2. amy b

    What I don't like about this article is its implication that those who are religiously unafiliated are that way because its the popular thing to do. There are those who choose to be this way for reasons that that have nothing to do with peer pressure,or not wanting to be part of the minority; but maybe the writer thinks this way because he is thinks everyone is as suseptible to peer pressure as he sounds to be.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  3. JesusisLord

    There will, in fact, be a great falling away before The End.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Eric

      Good job Mr. Obviously Ambiguous

      March 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  4. Marty

    I hate to grace this silly article with serious comment, but here goes:

    1) These are mathematicians, and only mathematicians.

    2) They are extrapolating current trends, assuming no intervening influences such as war, catastrophe, economic setbacks, technological stagnation, or even changing social trends.

    3) They are basing their extrapolations in part on "two big assumptions based on sociology," which are questionable and not supported in this article.

    4) The first is that it's more attractive to be in a majority than a minority. Well, yes and no. As any parent of teenagers can tell you social minorities create their own "attractiveness" - remember the hippie movement? Secondly, it presupposes that people are members of a religion because they find it "entertaining" and "attractive."

    5) The "utility argument" is the second assumption - assuming there are economic, social, etc., benefits accruing to those who abandon religion. This presupposes a kind of persecution, subtle at least, which may not happen.

    6) It assumes that religion is based on fashion and attractiveness, and not on any kind of objective truth.

    7) It forgets Islam.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • shehzad

      There will always be followers of islam until enternty whatever country they belong to. It's the only true religion with Quran as proof of direct revelation from God.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • larryb

      and besides...you believe in fantasy

      March 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • Ryan

      The false prophet Muhammad was in a political position of power when he created his false religion. Whereas, the Lord Jesus Christ came as a servent to humanity. He held no political esteem, or power, nor did he seek it. He performed many miracles verifying his authenticity. All of his desciples except John were martyred. Why would they take this to the grave if Jesus didn't rise from the dead. They would have known they were following a fraud. Jesus was an unblemished Lamb led to slaughter. All sin deserves punishment because God is a God of justice. Jesus died for your sins...in your place. The only unforgivable sin is denying his sacrifice and truth. I feel for you my friend. Turn to God to reveal truth to you. Not what you have learned, but true revalation from Him. I know Him personally. He lives within me. You're prophet is a dead man. Mine is the living God YAHWEH.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Amused

      1. Congratulations! You CAN read!
      2. See #1.
      3. This is also quite clear – And your point?
      4. Yes, because this is clearly the most common reason for social behaviour!
      5. The utility argument deals with people who recognize that their affiliation with organized religion provides them no advantages nor utility, and just costs them extra money with no benifits. Duh!
      6. Indeed, religion IS based on fashion and attractiveness, and not on any kind of objective truth.
      7. In what way does the study "forget Islam"? And how does that affect the assumptions?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  5. jan

    "If you look at the data, 'unaffiliated' is the fastest-growing group" in those countries, Abrams said.

    this is the worst methodology i've ever heard. they are modeling the trend in the number of "unaffiliated" tick marks. a 7th grader could do the "mathematical modeling" here and get results with the same amount of rigor. this only means that those ticking "unaffiliated" consider themselves merely "unaffiliated" to the very rigid categories the census form gives them, ie: "catholic" or "protestant" or whatever. there is no greater category for "christian" or even "judeo-christo-muslim." more importantly, many people are very spiritual but don't think that they fit into a pre-existing, pre-defined religious category.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Amused

      And your point is ... ?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  6. hope

    Jesus lives thank God for hope in eternal life through him!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Eric

      Because either of them can be classified decent beings.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Sandor

      Ameeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  7. dc4sense

    Nothing as irrational, dividing, oppressive, or illogical as religion will ever be extinct. Sad but true.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  8. Eric

    Thank God that only 20,000 people died in the tsunami, because that's so much better than zero. Good job God.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Ryan

      When did God say he would keep people from dieing in this world? I'm not following your point.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Eric

      if god is all knowing then he would know of pending disaster, if he's unable to prevent disaster then he's not all powerful, if he's able and unwilling, he's an evil god and doesn't deserve our respect in the first place.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • goingtoheavenforsure

      Genesis 3:3 But of the fruit of the tree which [is] in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. You know the rest she ate we die.Thank God we did not eat of

      22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

      This means to live forever in sin. Which u dont have to Jesus is ur savior. Ask and u will be saved . FREE! Ask now πŸ™‚

      March 24, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  9. Ryan

    I'm Irish, and I have no idea why they're predicting that Ireland will be without religion. Ireland has the highest church-going rate in the world (96% as of 2010), and the people of Ireland are fiercly proud of their Catholic heritage, one they fought for 800 years to protect. This report is completely biased and false. I think one reason they're getting numbers like this is people choosing "unaffiliated" thinking they don't want to state their religion or, as I've heard peopl do on surveys, thinking it meant "Non-Denominational."

    March 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  10. abd

    Thousands of people comments on religion topics including me, go to other topics such as the econoy is screwed up, and the houses sales is the lowest ever, you don't see a single comment. so religion will always be there, and people will always talk about it no matter what they say that it is taboo to talk about it.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  11. Robb

    Hopefully, the responsibility many Christians–certainly not all–believe they have to repress and discriminate others who are different or who don't fit their mold, will also quickly dissipate over time as well.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • JesusisLord

      God loves you, man. He's seen you at your worst but still loves you entirely. Find HIm before you die. Hebrews 9:27

      March 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  12. some emo kid

    In Amsterdam, the churches are all vacant and turned into stores or houses. Why? They were occupied by the Nazis and were glad to turn their Jewish neighbors in to be taken away. The churches are vacant but the Anne Frank house is a shrine. Give the religious in this country a strong leader and a cause, let them turn in their educated or liberal neighbors to the gas chambers, and then see how long they still believe in a just God.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Ryan

      Get your facts straight. It was the Nazis exterminating Jews and Christians in World War II. The churches were one of the few places that wouldn't turn the Jews away. Christians like Dietrich Boenhoffer and Corrie ten Boom were put in prison camps for it.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  13. paul

    good riddance, i say! the world will be better off if people find their own spiritual path or no spiritual path at all. religion is irrational and promotes ignorance and prejudice.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  14. Bill

    Wonderful news! Too bad the US will never become agnostic; we'd be so much better off.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  15. Sandor

    All the time the World had a religion – the atheism is a religion too – don't worry God wants a relationship with the humanity not A RELIGION – Read the Bible please!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • FoxHoleAtheist

      How's that religion of not believing in Unicorns and Bigfoot working for you?

      December 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  16. I_Mean_For Real

    for real,
    get a life,
    now the nuts will come out spewing scripture all over the place

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

      You are a nut not to believe in Jesus!! shame on you!!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
  17. Suzanne Russell

    As long as the human heart desires to know it's creator, there will be what you call religion. People know inside their hearts that there is a God. Those that know Him, know how great He is. Those that want to ignore Him will say that His influence and followers will go away. They are hoping. But actually the Bible does say that believers will be taken off the earth in one fell swoop. It will be a terrible time for those who are left though and not the ideal place that some are expecting. The good news is, even then people can turn to Jesus Christ for salvation. But it would be much better to turn to Him now!

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

      Actually the "Rapture" appears nowhere in the Bible. Keep dreamin'

      March 23, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • William

      How about something to think about instead of offensive talk. Yes, it is true some books state the end of the world as something terrifying. What about scientific reasoning. The book also states the sky will be rent asunder (the atmosphere breaking) and the mountains will be pounded (meteorites breeching the atmosphere).
      That's something that can happen? Right? Kind of makes you want to give up beer and start thinking clearly eh?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Gorteza

      Look, there is no God. Jesus is a story that was preserved for how many years???? We play a round of telephone and the message from the beginning will most likely get distorted by the last person. Religion is a contradiction. By "word of god" be good, but you can be "wash away your sins" if you do something evil. How does that work? You pray to god to help you get through things, you pray and pray to whom? Yourself. If there is a god it'd be yourself. BLAH!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
  18. Pastor Carlton Evans

    Good, because religion is man-made and relationships are God-made. This is the will of God that all religions die because they are not from Him. God wants us to be in a real spiritual, loving, unified, and respectful relationship with him (vertical) + each other (horizontal) = the cross of Jesus Christ!!! What I just provided to you is called revelation that only comes from God!!!

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

      Thst's right you are correct – Rev. Sandor Berta – Tulsa Oklahoma

      March 23, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • William

      As a person with the name Pastor in your name, why are you not careful with what you write on social blogs? Within a human being to guide us with such as relations to each other and relations with ourselves. We would be lost. Not to mention the example law to keep us from harming each other. This human being must be great. He must be sent from He who is ever watchful. An original man with original/divine thought. Not something from emotion or sentiments. Please spare us with this misguidance.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • panther17

      Sounds more like an idol to me.

      Exodus 20:4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness [of any thing] that [is] in heaven above, or that [is] in the earth beneath, or that [is] in the water under the earth:

      LEV 26:1 "'Do not make idols or set up an image or a sacred stone for
      yourselves, and do not place a carved stone in your land to bow down before
      it. I am the LORD your God.

      DEU 4:16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an
      idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman,

      Guess that would cover statues of Jesus on a cross as well in churches. Statues of Mary. Bunch of idol worshipers.

      But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

      β€œAnd when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

      β€œOur Father in heaven,
      hallowed be your name.
      Your kingdom come,
      your will be done,
      on earth as it is in heaven.
      Give us this day our daily bread,
      and forgive us our debts,
      as we also have forgiven our debtors.
      And lead us not into temptation,
      but deliver us from evil.
      β€”Matthew 6:6-13

      Hm, I don't see grab your cross and pray.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  19. APeasant

    Consumerism is the new religion, don't be fooled. Im no fan of organized religion, and I think its brought about many terrible things to society, but science is entirely beholden to the organizations funding it. Science was once used to fight oppressive religious powers, so what will we do when what once used to enlighten is now used to control?

    No priest and no scientist can convince me what I believe is wrong, because there is only one real way to find out in the end

    March 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  20. Sandor

    All the time the had a religion – the atheism is a religion too – don't worry God wants a relationship with the humanity not A RELIGION – Read the Bible please!

    March 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • robert

      Atheism is not a religion, it is a position on the claim made by theists that god exists. But what does one expect from a religious fanatic but ignorance? Thanks for demonstrating why this is great news.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Josh

      Good idea! Please read the bible! Less then 10% of Christians actually read the bible. I know reading it made me an atheist maybe it will make more people atheists.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • tim

      Atheism is NOT a religion.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:49 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.