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. Megeido

    Human1, Jesus Christ is most definitely God. He created Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, in his image. He is the Creator of the universe. The Bible says, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3). This includes all the stars, all the original animals and plants, and even the angels (Colossians 1:15-17).

    Divine Messiah predicted in the Old Testament
    Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”1

    “Immanuel” literally means: “God with us.” See also Matthew 1:23; Jesus was “God with us.”

    March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • Stephen

      With all do respect to your faith, you have to accept that not everyone shares it. For many of us, when someone explains something in terms of "because the Bible says so", our eyes roll and we immediately and stop taking your point of view seriously. Is it not enough to simply have your faith or do you insist on making it seem silly?

      March 23, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  2. Ed

    What great news for a change! If only those in this country could be so enlightened.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  3. ZeeMan

    I feel like a big hug is coming on. All of us, Christians, Muslims, Jews ... our minds have been hijacked by our religions for so long ... but I for one (Muslim) say no more! We don't need religion to tell us we need to be good humans, and make a better world for our children. That's just common sense. The day I stopped believing in heaven and hell is the day I stopped having fear in my heart and started becoming comfortable in the true end that we all will eventually face.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  4. krow101

    Good. About time these mythologies died out. If parents didn't jam it into the heads of helpless children there wouldn't be any religion. Total fantasy...

    March 23, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
    • Jack

      Interesting you mock people for believing what they were taught. Weren't you taught evolution, the big bang, the universe being billions of years old, etc, in high school? But if a Christian wants to challenge these things he deserves mockery. Sounds like a double standard to me.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:58 pm |
    • highnoon

      @Jack There is a huge difference between science and fantasy, same difference as between facts and fiction... Now lets see, I wonder which one is based on facts... Maybe you could help me there Jack...

      March 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jack


      Okay, I'll play your game. I don't believe in evolution, but I also don't believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny. It sounds just as ridiculous when I say it, doesn't it? What facts do you have to prove anything?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • highnoon

      3 words: DNA, genes and bone records

      March 23, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Jack

      Really? is that it? You mean bone records like Lucy? Or bone records as in C-14/geologic column dating? Or some other form that has been debunked? Genes? As in two dwarfs producing a normal size child? Or black and white twins in England? I mean you've got to give me more than 3 words that show no proof of evolution. And please don't start with Chromosome 2a and 2b.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • Jeff Bertram

      @ jack
      Prove god exists. The basic tenants of logic and reason dictate that you disbelieve until proved not believe until disproved. That's called proving a negative. If you wish to ascribe to the young earth delusion then stay in church with all your other fundies. The fictional novel called the bible is so full of scientifically proven errors that it should be removed from print.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • Jack

      @ jack
      Prove god exists. The basic tenants of logic and reason dictate that you disbelieve until proved not believe until disproved. That's called proving a negative. If you wish to ascribe to the young earth delusion then stay in church with all your other fundies. The fictional novel called the bible is so full of scientifically proven errors that it should be removed from print.

      Jeff –

      Prove to me your thoughts. By your definition, you should be able to do that, and if you can't then I should believe you have none. Now, clearly you are thinking, evidenced by your posts here, but you can't prove what you're thinking. And while you're at it, can you show me the errors of the bible? It seems that everyone has this same argument, yet produces no evidence for their argument.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • highnoon

      Well, 3 concepts not words. On top of that I should add, you don't have to go any further than your very own grocery store to see evolution in effect, helped by humans. Most, if not all food products there, have been subject to selection over a very long period of time to create a superior product for human consumption, compared to the similar crop/livestock found in nature (if possible). Today with the help of gene manipulation, that time span have been rapidly reduced. Same thing has happened for livestock. For instance, over time farmers have kept selecting cows that produced the most milk and/or best/most meat for procreation, resulting in today's stock, which produce 3-4 times more than historic specimens. There is really not that much difference between what has happened with crop/livestock and evolution in nature, except it is controlled with a specific goal in mind, that not necessarily has anything to do with survival in the wild. but more to do with profit for the agricultural industry and it has only been going on for thousands of years, not millions or billions.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Jack

      Oh, if you're implying microevolution, sure, I wholeheartedly believe that. For instance, I believe that both thoroughbreds and clydesdales came from horses. I do not, however, believe they came from fish. To say the selection we have in our crops and livestock today is based on macroevolution is a little far fetched, in my opinion.

      March 23, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  5. DIane

    My take on religion: Believers either are 1. very afraid of death or 2. need a daddy (God) or mommy (the blessed virgin).

    March 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • 3N1Amen

      ....and I take it you are not afraid of fire???

      Sad that you think like you do...if I'm sad, I can only imagine how sad God is.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  6. fototherapist

    All organized religion is a cancer on this planet. The sooner it's gone, the better. It hinders scientific exploration and progress (the real and only truth in the universe).

    March 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  7. Rev´d Chris OD


    Brethren don´t give up your faith...be strengthened and encouraged with what our Lord said that " THE GATES OF HELL WILL NOT PREVAIL AGAINST THE CHURCH "Until we see our Lord coming in His glory to judge the dead and the living, The Church will forever truimph. THE RELIGION WILL DIE

    March 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Colin

      And the dinosour let out a mighty growl toward the descending meteor......

      March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • highnoon

      Now that's funny!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
  8. highnoon

    Religious clergy, whether they call themselves imams, priests or shamans etc, thrive in times of human sufferings. They very well know that in times of need people come to them, and in times of bounty people retract. That is why there is a very direct link between islamic terrorism and imams desire to keep people in their sphere of influence from enjoying the benefits of a stable society and civilization, since they know their power will wane, same thing can be seen throughout western history. Most wars have root in some kind of religious strife. The more civilized and peaceful a country becomes the less religious its people becomes. A likely reason for that is that, civilized countries are more educated, and educated people are less religious. Not to be forgotten should be, that many countries on the list are egalitarian wellfare states as well, where many of the functions the church previously had have been ingrained in the fabric of the state instead. Explanation of how the world is supposed to work and was created, which the church traditionally had monopoly on, is being replaced by science in a civilized country, moral and codex is being replaced by law. Not that most laws are not founded in some kind of moral, that probably was passed down through history from generation to generation, it's just in a more stringent form, that is subject to change through peoples elective representatives, not just something written in a book a thousands of years ago, that cannot be changed. In a civilized country you get your morals from more than one source and is subject to change. A civilized society can handle debate of morale and needs it to thrive and sustain. In a civilized society there are more than one truth all the time.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  9. Michael, Chapel Hill

    The author does not tell about growing Islam in these countries.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  10. 3N1Amen

    Please look to Jesus for your Truth...it will set you free! Stop following what others in the crowd believe...you'll end up spending your eternity in Hell like them!

    Wouldn't you want to make sure any of what Jesus spoke about is true? Be a leader and study yourself...your soul will thank you!!

    Choose Jesus!

    Heaven or Hell??? Turn or burn. It's your choice.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
    • JWTeacher

      The same fear tactics that religion has been using to oppress and and spread their tyranny for thousands of years. I am an agnostic and I have trouble believing that what ever higher power is out there (if any) is as big of a ego-maniacal SOB as you people paint it to be... and christianity, buddhism, islam and all the others are interchangeable. if you found christ in a time of need its because of proximity. if you had been around an imam instead of a priest or pastor you would be proclaiming allah and his vengeful virtues. but since you are born and raised into a somewhat christian nation when you went looking for a crutch christianity was there waiting to take you money and your time with the promise of redemption from a God that is supposed to be forgiving anyway. Find God on your own... or not at all. live a good life, love those around you and you have nothing to worry about... Unless he/it really is that big of an SOB!

      March 23, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • ScottK

      Please look to Strawberry Shortcake for your Truth...it will set you free! Stop following what others in the crowd believe...you'll end up spending your eternity in Jellybean Swamp like them!

      Wouldn't you want to make sure any of what Strawberry Shortcake spoke about is true? Be a leader and study yourself...your soul will thank you!!

      Choose Strawberry Shortcake!

      Candy Mountain or Jellybean Swamp??? Eat or sleep. It's your choice.

      See how silly you sound to those who don't believe the way you do?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  11. chuckd88

    Good for these countries. The sooner mankind gets over the scam that is religion, the better. There may or may not be a god, but one thing is sure to me. Religion is a hoax by the power greedy. If it wasn't designed to be a power grab(and I believe it was), then its become a power grab.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • 3N1Amen

      You may be able to seek Jesus easier if you only take your eyes off of 'man'. They are human and will fall. Keep your eyes off them and on Who truly matters in your life. Man will let you down over and over again...and will lead you to Hell. Man will continue to mess things up...including churches, etc.

      Seek Him...you'll be glad you did. And if your friends and family think you are weak-minded because you finally 'found' God,
      then so be it. Your soul will thank you! 🙂

      March 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  12. Ronnie G

    I hope in my lifetime I ge to see it. Organized religion is a cancer on society.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • JWTeacher

      so if religion is abolished then man may actually get to flourish! a world without organized religion IS a world without war and bigotry... I hope I get to see it too

      March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  13. Drew

    Pretty easy to have relations with children in those same countries.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Recovering Republican

      Sounds you know from experience.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • joe

      You're confusing civilization with the middle east.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
  14. mdnc

    Damn, just when I was going to supplement my income by starting a new religion

    March 23, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
  15. Michael England

    Excellent news! Organized religion is the greatest crime ever perpetrated on humankind.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Eugene

      I believe you did not know much about history. Look at the regimes of Stalin, Mao Tze Tong, Hitler, and many others. How many millions were killed under these regimes. If a person without God in his/her heart, he/she can do anything even the most wicked thing a person can ever imagine. What you have seen today is nothing until all Christians disappear during rapture and at that time there is no restrainting force of the Holy Spirit so any leaders could do whatever they like. You will have a taste of what is really lawlessness or Godlessness.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
  16. macj121

    What this study does not take into consideration is historical trends ... pendulum shifts.

    Also, relligion will never die because wherever there are two or three people gathered who share similiar beliefs ... that is religion.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • ScottK

      "wherever there are two or three people gathered who share similiar beliefs ... that is religion."

      That statement would be true if you added "in imaginary beings" where the ... is.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  17. Joe

    Right its wrong to believe in inteligent design, and a Loving God who would sacrafice himself in our place for Salvation, but hey when Science cant explain something like existence, they just say everything went BOOM, and there you have life.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • Stephen

      You're confusing organized religion and faith. For instance, I have faith in God, but the hypocrisy of organized religion keeps me out of churches. As for science, it's based on physical evidence and is a constant working theory. It's not supposed to replace religion. It's supposed to give explanations based on evidence.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
    • ScottK

      "when" religion "cant explain something like" gods "existence, they just say everything went" POP ", and there you have life."

      March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
    • Rainier

      Well, religion can't explain life either, can it?... you just say that MAGICALLY, there was a person that was some sort of God, and BOOM there was life

      March 23, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
    • joe

      You sound like a stubborn child.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • Anie

      Sacrifice? What sacrifice? Allowing the earthly body to be destroyed so he could return to heaven? That's like removing a cancerous growth to be healthy. The biggest lie is that Jesus sacrificed himself for us. He knew who and what he was and where he was going. I'll bet he was relieved.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • janiemac

      Joe, you are so right. It is much easier to believe a big invisible guy just thinks something and it happens. That makes much more sense. He so loves the world that he does nothing at all for us. Children get molested, people starve and get abused and what does this every loving god of yours do? Nothing. Oh wait, he acts after you die.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Jeff Bertram

      A loving god? The same one that commited mass murder because we p**sed him off? What fool would worship such a being? Oh and he allows mass murder to be committed in his name continuously. He can't very well be perfect if he created imperfect beings that he felt compelled to distroy. EVOLVE!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  18. Burbank

    I don't think it has anything at all to do with being part of the majority. It has everything to do with people finally waking up to the fact that they are being lied to, manipulated and controlled by "religious" that don't exactly have their bests interests at heart, least of all their spiritual growth. Pedophile priests and others are going to have to get real jobs like the rest of us! Hallelujah!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  19. Ronnie G

    I hope I live long enough to realize my secret dream...

    March 23, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
  20. chris

    that's ok, the Bible actually predicts this...

    Matt 24:11-14:
    Then many false prophets will rise up and decieve many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
    • 3N1Amen


      March 23, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • DIane

      Hate to break it to you, but that's been happening since people lived in caves.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:27 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.