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. Parkerman

    I don't believe this is completely true. Many people including myself no longer attend a church regurally, but that doesn't mean I don't have a belief. I am still a Christian, but no I don't attend any organized religion any longer like I used to. So does that mean I am not relgious?

    March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • derp

      No, i just means you are going to hell.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Mike

      If your a Christian, and I pray that you are....please attend Church and get into a Bible Study group. God loves a faithful child!!

      March 23, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • derp

      See, Mike says so, you are going to hell.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • cars

      Well you've taken the first step to living a real life ... Your church is probably mad at you, since that can't milk you out of the money you once gave them.

      derp & Mike, you're both idiots.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • nsinha1522

      And I'm a Protestant-Hindu, what do I do oh smart Mike? Belief in one's personal successes and true happiness is more important than worrying whether I'm going to hell or not!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • nsinha1522

      ***personal happiness (not "true happiness") ... my bad!

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

      This is an issue of the lack of accepted definition for words like "faith" and "religious".

      I have religion and faith. I don't have faith in things I cannot empirically experience or deduce. "Religion" is often thought of as something organized and/or something based of textual myth such as the OT/NT, Koran, Bhagahvad Gita, etc., but that is not a requirement. It really comes down to ritual. Someone can be religious about their exercise, their diary entries, their diet, their work habits and ethics. All this is based on what they put value to. The rituals surrounding that value is their religion (or part of it).

      That is one way to view it.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • RighterOfWrongs

      The people in this study listed THEMSELVES as "non-affiliated" they were not assigned to that category. If you consider yourself christian and wrote it on the census you are not part of this group, If you said "I am not a part of any religion" you are a part of this group and it is this group that is growing.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
    • Allan

      Cars, I agree with you 100 percent.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  2. noshoes

    This is really not a new insight. The West has been unaware of a steady decline in religious fervor since the 19th century. The interesting factor in the upcoming century will be the sudden explosion of charismatic / religious fervor in places like Africa and China, accompanied by the gradual loss of global and cultural influence in the increasingly secularized West. I say God is not dead yet, indeed far from it.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Kaydene

      God may not be dead, but he's comatose. There hasn't been a peep out of him for a number of years. There's also the possibility he's in retirement. Either way, the church is moribund.... and good riddance. Time to outgrow the baby-talk.

      September 16, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  3. Jarrod

    The first step towards the enlightenment that this world will undergo...religion will continue to decline unless those within the organizations get a grip on their leaders...

    March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
  4. manuscriptsdon'tburn

    I believe in Jesus Christ. He is my Savior.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Mike

      Right on and speech it boldly!!

      March 23, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • John

      I believe in God also, this article is just plain nonsense... without Faith we have nothing, you have to Stand for something or fall for anything....

      March 23, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Kafir


      I have faith in people, in humanity... with some exceptions. 😉

      March 23, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Rebecca

      @ John : "without Faith we have nothing, you have to Stand for something or fall for anything" Why is it so hard for religious people to believe that just because a person is an athiest that they have no faith in anything, just because we reject your god does not mean that we have no capacity for upholding similar values as "the church". For example: I volunteer at soup kitchens every week, I help illiterate adults how to read, I rescue neglected and abused animals, and yet SOMEHOW I manage to do all of this and more, without having a "god" tell me it is the right thing to do? It must be a "miracle".

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

      Yay, Rebecca. Thank you.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • Patrick

      Rebecca – Thanks, you said it first.

      Everyone has faith.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
    • dwerbil

      Rebecca, great reply! I've been an Atheist all my near 60 years and have volunteered in communities most half of that time. The lazy thinkers believe one has to have religion to want to do good.
      A cool site to look over that may open eyes a bit is celebrity atheist dot com.

      December 8, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Allan

      Rebecca, there is a God and he's smiling at you right now for your good deeds.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
  5. Spearwielder

    An "analysis" like this has the atheists crowing, to be sure. However, as a historian (by education, not by vocation) I have to look at both the positive and negative effects of religion on the past few centuries and wonder if these nations will truly experience an extinction of religion, and whether this will be a net positive. I also have to wonder about this being a positive step when reviewing the "track record" of historical atheistic or secular states and regimes. Good or bad...? Perhaps we'll see.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Kafir

      I'm not inclined to think that you can teach an enlightened person any sort of "anti-knowledge". In other words, you can't make an adult "re-believe" in Santa Clause.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • RighterOfWrongs

      Sure you can Kafir, you just tell them that they will die and be tortured forever if they don't believe in Santa and then tell them Santa loves them.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:50 pm |
    • GPC

      Considering the track record of religious states you shouldn't be too worried. And keep in mind the rise of secular states was a response to religious oppression by rulers who claimed to have been chosen by God. Would you really rather live in religious Kenya, where Christians torture and kill kids who are accused of witchcraft or largely atheistic Northern European countries that have strong social support systems, low crime rates and respect for children's rights?

      December 9, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  6. al

    I was in Ireland and I don't think this is true for that country. They are very Catholic. People just don't want to fill out surveys is all.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Josh

      The article said that only 4% of the Irish claimed "none". That's not very high, and probably not noticeable to an outsider (especially someone from a country with more "nones"). But for Ireland this suggests a major change.

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

    In Ireland? Aren't they like pretty serious about their religion over there?

    March 23, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  8. oh no

    …but what about all the intolerance, murder and hatred? This is our human tradition…enlightenment and reason? The Media is screwed….

    March 23, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  9. Realist

    about time.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  10. Michael

    As the financial experts always say: past performance is not a guarantee of future returns. Trends do not continue indefinitely. This study is flawed science – just a hasty generalization logical flaw. Fads come and go. Just like the global warming scare is based on assumptions from just recent data that the trend will continue. At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. That's a warning against these types of alarmist people predicting the end of the world when the Mayan calendar runs out.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Mike

      This is a joke......and continued lies by the Secular and Anti religious media (AKA the CNN=Communist News Network).

      Don't believe a word of it..........2000+ years to change sudden, not going to happen!!

      March 23, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Kafir

      Ok Michael,

      Lemme know when it comes time again to jump on the Norse religion bandwagon and give tribute to Almighty Thor.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • William

      You have a serious chip on your shoulder. Let's approach it this way. The Catholic church could not disprove science and science had a few good questions for the church. The dialogue was stonewalled by the Catholics saying it is heresy to question religion. I, as a religious person, questions the cohesion of science and religion everyday. Did you know that there is a way into space by going through the ocean? Look it up. This is also a reference to God saying "His throne is on the waters". Wow!

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

        I wasnt able to find any information about getting to space through the ocean, please elaborate.

        How sure are you that your knowledge is correct? A thousand years ago our understanding of the world around us was as different from today, and something tells me that in another thousand everything will be different as well. Yet, be it a thousand year ago or in the future, the will always be masses of people who think we know it all. You are limiting yourself if you think anything is "known", regardless of if its related to religion or science. How is enough to know that god made everything but never question where god came from. And, if god can be seen as timeless then why cant a world without god?

        December 4, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • Magic


      "His throne is on the waters"

      Sounds more like a prophecy of the modern flush toilet.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Kafir

      Before I respond to your drivel, let me ask, what chip do I have, William?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  11. Jeff Bertram

    It is indeed good news. Long live logic and reason!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Spearwielder

      Like the "logic and reason" we've seen from atheistic leaders and regimes like Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, Stalin, and of course Adolf himself? What's tens of millions of deaths between non-believing friends, huh?

      I think it takes more than religion or the lack of it to define logic and reason, and more to state it as something positive for humanity.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Kafir

      Logic and reason would necessarily lead you from any supernatural claims, because, logically, you can't test for supernatural claims. So religion doesn't even enter into it – it can't.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • GPC

      Wasn't Hitler the guy who hated Jews because they killed Jesus? Wasn't it the Nazis who tried to implement something called Positive Christianity in Germany that is still popular with Neo-Nazis today? Didn't Nazis soldiers have "God With Us" engraved on their belt buckles? Didn't Stalin train for the priesthood? Maybe that's what screwed him up. Wasn't part of Pol Pot's philosophy based on Theravada Buddhism?

      December 9, 2011 at 10:34 pm |
  12. Anthony

    Nazy Germany eliminated Christianity very well. Darwinian Evolution helped to fuel the slaughter the countless innocents in a search for the "supreme race." There is no such thing as "Progressive" countries. All of this has happened before, read your history. Even if countries have "religion," almost all of them have acted under a secular humanism.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Anthony


      March 23, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • derp

      "Nazy Germany eliminated Christianity very well"

      Tony, can you really be that stupid?

      Did Hitler gas christians, or was it jews?

      Hitler was a christian. He believe he was acting in devine providence.

      "Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator; by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."

      "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice... And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people."

      Adolf Hitler

      March 23, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • iowajoe56

      Evolution has nothing to do with Nazi Germany or the atrocities that occurred. Evolution is a natural process explaining why systems including life, change over time.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • conoclast

      Here's a helpful quote from Nietzsche: "Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by
      the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful". The US isn't on the list because despite all our achievements
      we're really intellectually backward and will remain so as long as religion continues to pollute our national discourse.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • nsinha1522

      And who caused the Crusades ... the Nazis? I don't think so. It's because of religion that MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS of people have died, it's what is fueling this debate on "Terrorism" and "Radical Islam". Not saying that eliminating religion would cause equality for all – Cause Antonio Gramsci would say another hegemonic system would arise, but at least I wouldn't have to deal with issues like radical Islam vs. Oh so nice Christianity, or "You two can't get married ... IT'S A SIN!"

      March 23, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • CK

      Actually, Hitler's private memoirs, taken by his secretary, show him to equate Christianity with syphilis. He was very likely an atheist in private, and pushed the "divine providence" angle because he knew it would win support from his people. Not to equate atheism with Hitler, I just like correctness.

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

      You obviously don't understand Darwinian evolution.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • derp

      "Actually, Hitler's private memoirs, taken by his secretary, show him to equate Christianity with syphilis. He was very likely an atheist in private, and pushed the "divine providence" angle because he knew it would win support from his people. Not to equate atheism with Hitler, I just like correctness."

      Again, in the interest of correctness, Hitler became disillusioned with religion as his attempts to unite the protestant church of germany and the catholic church of Italy (how he was raised) failed. Hitler became less religious as he was unable to control the churches and unite them under the Nazi banner, and as his war effort began to fail. His early writings, both public and private, are very religion based, and openly speak to his duties as a christian.

      His personal diaries of the late 30's and early 40's show a growing contempt for the church. However, his wrintings of the 20's and early to late 30's are absolutely christian influenced. He blamed the jews for Germany's problems. His writings could not be more clear than in Mein Kampf. He persecuted the Jews because he was christian, not because he was atheist.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  13. Matt

    My day has just gotten better after reading this.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Mike

      I will pray for you Matt...........you were probably named after one of the great books of the bible, Matthew!!! Don't you wish that you could love God as much as he loves you.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • derp

      "you were probably named after one of the great books of the bible"

      Typical arrogant christian. My name is Paul. I was named after a friend of my father. Your mythical series of cobbled together boogeyman stories had nothing to do with what my creators (mom and dad) named me.

      Nice try

      March 23, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Patrick

      @Mike: I have seen people who love one or more gods that much. I don't think it is mentally healthy. Sometimes they seem like they are disconnected from reality.

      Out of curiosity, do you think the Christian Yahweh Elojim loves you more than any of the other gods could? Have you verified this for yourself, or are you guessing?

      March 23, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  14. SamIam

    And so will go those countries.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • derp

      into prosperity and equality.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Wadec


      March 24, 2011 at 5:40 am |
  15. T A

    Can I get a hell yes?

    March 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Rebecca

      HELL YES!!!!!

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

      What is your description of that word "Hell"?

      Maybe thats a place we dont want to discus if you just saw it on the Discovery Channel?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  16. Lee

    They should do a similar study on an increase in rudeness

    March 23, 2011 at 11:30 am |
  17. Thinking7

    Even as the media pushes for Christianity to die out, we must stand strong. God will never cease to exist, and thanks to God He has been so merciful to all of us. Have mercy on us and on the whole world.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Religious

      You are a moron....

      March 23, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • conoclast

      Did you get your pat on the head from your preacher, boyscout? Do you feel better now that you've done your daily proselytizing (and bored us silly)?

      March 23, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Rick

      Thinking: Mercy from what., his own temper tantrum?

      March 23, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • ryanalec

      Like the mercy He showed to Shasta Groene and her family?

      March 23, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • William

      How about we approach this debate with reason and intellect? Not with hurtful words and outright disrespect?

      I am here...
      I am a believer....
      Bring it on...

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

      Thinking7: What makes you believe that any religious dogma represents what "god" thinks?

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

      Sorry, that last question was intended for William

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

      OK, William. Same question: Where was god's mercy for Shasta Groene and her family? Why is there still cancer? Why is there still war? Seems to me that an "All loving" god would offer some proof of himself, not just a bunch of stories in an old book.

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

      Hi Ryan,
      Finally, a sensible question.
      The answer is not love at all. But god is the Giver of Life AND the Causer of Death. If we study more and apply objective reasoning. We will find that death is not the end. Somewhere, somehow in time. We as human being have gotten off track with our purpose. With that loss we began to grasp what is most important to us. What we hold dear. Our life, physical qualities that we cherish. But with that comes consequence. The physical body is what it is, physical. Getting away from the essence of human potential (such as what distinguish us from other creatures is Faith). Something happened and we have to fix it.

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

      Religion is a men creation and will die with the last men on earth.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  18. Scott

    It can't happen soon enough. Too bad the U.S. isn't on the list.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • T A


      March 23, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • emc729

      It's a good thing it isn't... and shouldn't be! May God fill people and return this country to what it once was...

      March 23, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • Wadec

      @emc729: You mean giving the country back to its original inhabitants, the NATIVE Americans?

      March 24, 2011 at 5:33 am |
  19. Mel B

    I can tell you right now, that as an American, religion won't die any time soon. Religion, namely Christianity, is driving our politics right now, even though it shouldn't be.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • ross

      No, money is.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  20. Oluap

    Glad to hear that!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:29 am |
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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.