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. nonny

    How can the earth die when it obeying a particular principle.It's like saying nitrogen cycle, oxygen cycle, gravitational force, season, duration of pregnancy(which brough you into life), water cycle will disappear. All this shows you that life did not just come by change but was properly designed. The problem is that man is not meant to rule man. Man can only be ruled by a divine and supreme being through willingly giving up fleshly desires and being made new in spirit.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  2. Papa D-Fudge

    I wonder if a rise in the collective intelligence of humanity is helping people to stop believing in the fairy tales and mythology of religion. I for one, am glad that people are coming to their senses, and not trying to live in the 21st century by doctrines and dogmas created millennia ago, when people believed the earth was flat. Religion is like Star-Trek, fun stories, but the folks who take it way too serious are pretty weird.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
  3. Frank

    CNN is becoming the forum of choice for atheists, judging by most of the comments here.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Colin

      Either that, or there are many more atheists than you thought.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  4. BusyPerson

    I know that there is a God. I have seen miracles in my life that could only be explained by a gift from God. I really think our days are numbered. I'm really feel sorry for all of you that don't believe. May God have mercy on you.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  5. darla

    How many people has been killed since Organized Religion has been enacted. Religion doesn't makes one a better person they makes one a robot controlled by the leaders of this Religion so they can make them do their bidding even if they order a group of people killed.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  6. Hippitty Hippo

    Witness the actual truth of human reality:

    Religion is a mental dysfunction. Humans are actually a type of high-order, self-aware ape. High-order apes are known to have hierarchies within their groups (i.e., alpha males and the sort). The idea of a god in a self-aware group of apes comes from the natural inclination, or instinct, for the top alpha male to seek an alpha which is his superior even though none exists in reality. Thus, a god is born to be this alpha.

    This explains the advent of supernatural gods and religions. Both are used to explain away the unexplainable and to comfort in times of hardship.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  7. fundies

    I am an expert and I predict that someone else will predict that religion will be driven from 10 countries, not 9. duh.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
  8. RedRomo

    The bilble says, that in the end times there will be a falling away of religion and belief in general. ..seems right on course. The bible isn't a book of stories as much as it is a book of prophecies...and the last few remaining are seemingly coming to pass. Interesting times. Either the prophecies will come true and we'll see Jesus...or we wont. Either way, the end of religions is coming.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • JAMTX


      March 23, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  9. Nicholas Wozniak

    Until someone can explain what happens to the soul after death, and until someone adequately and satisfactorily describes the nature of the universe and mankind's place in it, we will contune need some form of religion. Denying death of course is an option, but a blind one.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Please define "soul"...

      In DOG we trust...

      March 23, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
    • nikolai

      In the Bible, “soul” is translated from the Hebrew ne′phesh and the Greek psy‧khe′. Bible usage shows the soul to be a person or an animal or the life that a person or an animal enjoys. To many persons, however, “soul” means the immaterial or spirit part of a human being that survives the death of the physical body. Others understand it to be the principle of life. But these latter views are not Bible teachings.

      Can the human soul die?
      Ezek. 18:4: “Look! All the souls—to me they belong. As the soul of the father so likewise the soul of the son—to me they belong. The soul* that is sinning—it itself will die.” (*Hebrew reads “the ne′phesh.” KJ, AS, RS, NE, and Dy render it “the soul.” Some translations say “the man” or “the person.”)
      Matt. 10:28: “Do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [or, “life”]; but rather be in fear of him that can destroy both soul* and body in Gehenna.” (*Greek has the accusative case of psy‧khe′. KJ, AS, RS, NE, TEV, Dy, JB, and NAB all render it “soul.”)
      Acts 3:23: “Indeed, any soul [Greek, psy‧khe′] that does not listen to that Prophet will be completely destroyed from among the people.”

      Is the soul the same as the spirit?
      Eccl. 12:7: “Then the dust returns to the earth just as it happened to be and the spirit [or, life-force; Hebrew, ru′ach] itself returns to the true God who gave it.” (Notice that the Hebrew word for spirit is ru′ach; but the word translated soul is ne′phesh. The text does not mean that at death the spirit travels all the way to the personal presence of God; rather, any prospect for the person to live again rests with God. In similar usage, we may say that, if required payments are not made by the buyer of a piece of property, the property “returns” to its owner.) (KJ, AS, RS, NE, and Dy all here render ru′ach as “spirit.” NAB reads “life breath.”)
      Eccl. 3:19: “There is an eventuality as respects the sons of mankind and an eventuality as respects the beast, and they have the same eventuality. As the one dies, so the other dies; and they all have but one spirit [Hebrew, ru′ach].” (Thus both mankind and beasts are shown to have the same ru′ach, or spirit. For comments on verses 20, 21, see page 383.)
      Heb. 4:12: “The word of God is alive and exerts power and is sharper than any two-edged sword and pierces even to the dividing of soul [Greek, psy‧khes′; “life,” NE] and spirit [Greek, pneu′ma‧tos], and of joints and their marrow, and is able to discern thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Observe that the Greek word for “spirit” is not the same as the word for “soul

      Unify all creation in worship of the one true God
      Rev. 5:13; 15:3, 4: “And every creature that is in heaven and on earth and underneath the earth and on the sea, and all the things in them, I heard saying: ‘To the One sitting on the throne [God] and to the Lamb [Jesus Christ] be the blessing and the honor and the glory and the might forever and ever.’” “Great and wonderful are your works, God, the Almighty. Righteous and true are your ways, King of eternity. Who will not really fear you, Jehovah, and glorify your name, because you alone are loyal? For all the nations will come and worship before you, because your righteous decrees have been made manifest.”

      March 23, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  10. VirulentShadow

    Evolution is not a religion. There is the fact of evolution (like the fact that gravity exists), and then there is the theory of evolution (like the theory of gravity) which is the most complete and verified explanation we have to explain how the fact of evolution happens. Also, evolution has nothing to do with Big Bang Cosmology (and the BB never said that "nothing exploded"... ironic actually that "God" is the one who made everything from nothing). And dude, evolution doesn't say that while dinos were living, they grew wings. Read a frakkin' book, man.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Human1

      How is it that evolutionists can believe so easily in a man-made concept such as evolution, but cannot open their eyes, minds and hearts and believe in the natural instinct that God created all? Bet you didn't know that one SINGLE human cell, is more complicated and efficient than any city in the world COMBINED. It would take 900 books with 500 pages in each book to write out the information that each SINGLE human cell contains. Now how can perfection like that be contributed to "evolution" or chance? When bridges fall apart, they don't spontaneously come back together do they? No matter how much time you let pass, this will not happen. I'm Muslim and believe fully in the creation of life by Allah (God) and would encourage you not to cheat yourself of knowing Him and being appreciative of His many blessings to us, namely one of them being that he has given us the gift of speech and the best intellect of all living animals.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
    • Craig


      The number of things you don't understand is staggering. Starting with how long 3 billion years really is, followed by the fact that bridges don't reproduce and so don't undergo evolution.

      March 23, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  11. deuce

    GOOD! Maybe as more people stop worrying about the afterlife they will start worrying more about the current one and actually make some real changes in human society.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  12. Meat

    I wonder how that data would look if they were Muslim countries? Most of these Arab countries are very poor, and very unconnected to the outside world. They are very devoted to Islam, and I highly doubt that their "unafilliated"numbers are growing.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Hippitty Hippo

    Religion is a mental dysfunction. Humans are actually a type of high-order, self-aware ape. High-order apes are known to have hierarchies within their groups (i.e., alpha males and the sort). The idea of a god in a self-aware group of apes comes from the natural inclination, or instinct, for the top alpha male to seek an alpha which is his superior even though none exists in reality. Thus, a god is born to be this alpha.

    This explains the advent of supernatural gods and religions. Both are used to explain away the unexplainable and to comfort in times of hardship.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Human1

      I hate to say it but YOU sound like you have a mental dysfunction, not to mention a little too much time on your hands to come up with a, for lack of a better word, dumb theory.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:34 pm |
  14. Deacon Blues

    The reason 'unaffiliated' was so popular is 'Flying Spaghetti Monster' wasn't on the survey. Bow before his noodley appendage!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
  15. Sam

    I would be sorry to see this happen with respect to Christianity and Judaism. If Islam is non-existent in these countries, it's a good thing.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Bernie

      christian are histories greatest monsters so i would rather see them go

      March 23, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
    • Human1

      Hi Sam,
      I felt compelled to reply specifically to your comment. I am a Muslim in America. I am also the girl that would typically sit next to you in a cubicle at the office, speak with no accent, fair skinned, and not wear a head-covering. You would never guess I was Muslim, and as such, I'm sure would not judge me with the above comment if you met me in person. I find it interesting that you specifically point out Islam, when in the Quran, it specifically prophecizes the almost complete extinction of the mention of "God". The world is coming to a sad place, I have to agree with you. But I also would encourage you, as a believer and lover and follower of God to look further into the principles of modern-day Judaism and Christianity. Jesus (peace be upon him) would not approve at all of today's concepts of the Trinity, or believing he is God (Jesus prayed, in the same manner Muslims do, head to the floor, to God, so he cannot BE God). He would also not approve of interceders in religion (such is the case with people in the Catholic church for instance praying to the "father" (priest) instead of praying to God themselves. In Islam, knowledge and seeking of knowledge and the truth is encouraged, and we do not go "through" anybody else to get to God; we build a direct relationship with him. I hope you choose to be a little more open-minded and find out more about the basics of Islam, if for nothing more than understanding, rather than believing what mainstream media feeds us in order to keep the American people from uprising against their own governments. Peace and blessings be upon you.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
  16. mick

    Yes! This is fantastic. Finally some data showing that people are becoming more intelligent in several countries, and religion and its fear mongering, population controlling techniques, lobbying of governments without the representation of the people is finally fracturing. Religion is for the weak minded, the followers, those that can't behave without someone else telling them how to behave.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  17. American Athiest

    With so much suffering in the world, it's natural that many people want a savior – a supernatural "ace in the hole" to give them ice cream for eternity and to punish the bad guys down here who seem to get away with doing evil. But simply wishing for something doesn't make it so. The all-powerful old man in the sky is a security blanket and it's time for us to face the fact that if we want a more just and merciful world, it's up to us to make it happen.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • KinNYC

      Could not have said it better myself!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  18. Michael King

    Finally good news for a change!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  19. Thomas

    Finally.Religions are pathetic and create problems all the time.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  20. Megeido

    Magic, Because God takes what is not good, what people called worthless and transform it to greatness, why? To shame all of those who think they no it all, this brings glory to God!!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:13 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.