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. Sal

    Religion is a crutch which is not necessarily a bad thing.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  2. Steve

    WooHoo...Canada made the list. I think it makes sense that religion will eventually fade away. Outspoken atheists are more prevalent now among people in my age group than were in my parents day and the youth of today even more so. My friend and his wife while attending some church function(unwillingly) at the behest of his mother noticed the sea of white hair filling the pews. His kids have no interest at all in religion and groups similar to Student Secular Alliance are turning the tide against theist timewasting.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  3. Joe

    I remember hearing as a child how the earth would be so overpopulated by the year 2000 we wouldn't be able to move. I also remember hearing about "nuclear winter" conditions on earth if Saddam lit the Kuwait oilfields on fire. And of course I remember the weather prediction of last week. All of which were so wrong it's laughable.

    This is just silly people making things up because they have nothing real to work on.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  4. Cindy

    This is the best news I've heard all year. Religion is for people too frightened to think and face reality. It does WAY more harm than good in society, too.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
  5. Neil

    People could be saying "unaffiliated" to avoid persecution. If a religious regime stepped in, they'd probably use that census data to decide who to purge first. I know if I were in Europe, I wouldn't want the government profiling me.
    Europe has a history of attempted religious genocide (by Nazis, Serbians and Catholics). Why on earth would anyone want to add themselves to such a list and make it easy?

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

      Nope. Atheists are the least trusted and most disliked "religious" group. Nobody's putting that down to avoid being profiled.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:56 pm |
  6. Megeido

    Human1, I like this one.
    John 10:30-33: “‘I and the Father are one.’ Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’ ‘We are not stoning you for any of these,’ replied the Jews, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’”

    March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  7. Edward J. Killboy

    Belief in deities is a mental illness and we should work to eradicate it.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  8. Anti this

    I bet this makes the gays happy

    March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  9. Megeido

    John 8:58-59: "‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am!’ At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”

    March 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Blaqb0x


      I think it's funny picturing you sitting behind your computer Googling bible verses and copy and pasting them here over and over. This must be your poor attempt at conveying your view of "Wisdom". Clearly you can't conjure some of your own or find anything better to do.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  10. Pink Salamander


    1. All who work on the Sabbath shall be put to death.
    2. Children who not honor their parents shall be put to death.
    3. Women who are non-virgins when they marry shall be put to death.

    Oh wait, Yaweh already said that. Nevvverrr mind.

    The Pink Salamander has spoken.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  11. Sal

    That's the best news I've heard all year. I despise religion because look at what it has done to the world even today. Killings for God and islamic religious freaks are the cause of the worlds problems today. Extinction of religion can't come any too soon for me! The world woud be a much better and peaceful place if everyone was an atheist.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • Lynn

      Wow.....you are truly ignorant!

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


      Completely agree. I was heavily involved in the church about a decade ago, but as I got older I realized that no matter how many times I tell myself to just "have faith," I'd never believe it. I have to say, I'm a lot happier now that I'm not involved with church. I don't have to question what I think is right and wrong, nor do I have to feel bad for saying "oh god" or watching a video with cursing and drug use.

      I don't know if god exists or not, and nobody else does either, but if one does exist - I'd like to think he's the "loving" god he's hyped up to be and wouldn't punish me to an eternity in hell simply for using the free will he "gave" me to have alternate beliefs, or because I've sinned due to being an imperfect person (created by him). A loving god, in my opinion, would judge a person based on how they lived their life and not what they believed... Not that I think there is a god, but who knows?

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

      Lynn, he's not the ignorant one. Remember the crusades? The extremists in the mid-east (and elsewhere)? How do you feel about the Bible stating that a man is allowed to own slaves, sell his daughters, and kill his adulterous wife? Oh, that's right, it's been decided that those things are wrong - but since when should man be deciding when to follow God's word and when not to? Organized religion IS responsible for a lot of death throughout history. If you cannot see this, then I'm sorry to inform you that you are the ignorant one.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  12. Megeido

    Matthew 2:11: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”

    March 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
    • janiemac

      Ohhhhh, thank you for all your bible passages. I was an atheist before I read your posts, really. By the way do you have a thought of your own?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  13. Bazoing

    Religion vanished from the present commonwealth starting at the time of Henry VIII. Even if they were sick of the Roman Catholic church, no truly honest priest would change to the Church of England, even under threat, to allow a wife murdering king have a divorce. The English and their minions have been subjected to godless meaningless 'religion' ever sense. They even sent out missionaries to teach folks how to be and accept the English as part of their empire's conquests. In New Zealand the Maoris read the bible and started a Christian church. Britain used that as an excuse for a war to steal their land.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  14. cdoo

    Really interesting! I think the last bit of the article really brings it home. Mathematics can only predict things if they are constant. If something happens..plague, nuclear war, mass famine...you better believe people are going to look to organized religion again. I think i's in our nature to try to find order in times of chaos, and organized religion is just that.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  15. Megeido

    Daniel 7:13-14: “There before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven . . . He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”

    March 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  16. ajninnyc

    So evolution was right! A dying and irrelevant species will cease to exist.

    March 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  17. Megeido

    This Messiah would be born a human son, but have a higher nature
    Isaiah 9:6: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

    March 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
  18. Jim

    Interested in what this story had to say – then I saw Ireland was the first one listed.... what? Without reading any further – I can tell these "experts" don't know what they are talking about...

    March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  19. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria! Frankly, I am more concerned about fundamentalist Christians shoving their "end-of-days" rant down our throats forcing us into abandoning the precedents set by the Founding Fathers by making America into a Theocracy than I am about people in other countries "abandoning" religion.

    Based on the scandals associated with the Roman Catholic Church, the self-destruction going on within the Anglican Communion (Episcopal vs. Anglo-Catholic, Episcopal vs. "Missionary" Anglican, etc.), the in-fighting between the other Protestant Churches, and the scandals associated with the "Prosperity Churches" I am not really surprised that people are turning away from the faiths of their grandparents and declaring themselves as "unaffiliated". All of these Church bodies need to clean house of those "leaders" who seem Hell-bent on destroying their own Churches from within, and have a more open approach not only to their members, but to the communities at large.

    One of the biggest problems with Dis-Organized Religion in America is the disconnect between the Church Body and the surrounding community. When I moved from the place where I used to live to where my wife and I first lived after we got married, I was visited by pastors or members from at least 5 different Churches welcoming me to the neighborhood and inviting me to attend their services. Every one of these Churches was within walking distance of my house And this was out of 10 different churches! A couple of years ago, we moved to a different neighborhood, and not one of the 5 or 6 local Churches (again, I am only counting those in "walking" distance) sent a representative to welcome us to the neighborhood. If I had not been an established member of one of the original 5, and had moved here from a different town, I would be under the impression that none of these Churches either want or need my participation. That is why there are so many unaffiliated people today – the "Churches" are not welcoming them in!

    March 23, 2011 at 1:49 pm |
  20. Lynn


    March 23, 2011 at 1:49 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.