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. preacherpimp

    without religion, how am I supposed to get fools to part with their money in exchange for nothing? –preacherpimp

    March 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  2. Joe M.

    A Soviet Russian military officer found faith in a foxhole during the fiercest battles of World War II. If faith can spring up in such infertile ground, then it can THRIVE anywhere and at any time.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  3. Dgrat

    eh, trying to predict trends like this 40 years into the future is like trying to predict lottery numbers based on the numbers for the past year.

    There are simply too many factors and outside conditions, a wave of natural disasters could occur turning people to faith, or space aliens could land with a detailed video record of the last 10,000 years of human history dis-proving the Bible and other religious works.

    that and a million other factors can change things too radically to predict.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  4. Bill

    Regardless of your position on religion, you can not deny the contributions that faith based organizations have made in areas of need or tragedy. There is no way this will be accomplished at this level with "it's all about me" mentality that is taking over the world. Religious extremists worldwide fuel the decrease of religious affiliiation, but faith will always be.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  5. fundies

    I think blind faith is dumb, but I like the band.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  6. The Jackdaw

    This article predicts that the human sheep heard will simply flock in a new direction. This should be encouraging, but it doesn't tell me that people will start to think for themselves.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  7. alain

    that`s anybody really believe in religion today seriously?
    we are in 2011 , when you die , you die , you don`t go to heaven , you just disappear, you just don`t fly like a plane or something into the sky, you want to know what`s killing religion? easy , technology , knowledge ,

    March 23, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  8. Observer

    Neither the atheists nor the believers can prove their point. Perhaps both are wrong. Maybe there is a God, but he is much more like Jesus in the Bible than God, who is often portrayed as vain, arrogant, vengeful, and a mass murderer.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Key word in your post: MAYBE...

      March 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • everyman

      atheists can proove their point because they rely on proof, or the lack thereof. believers cannot proove their point because they rely on falsifiable propositions. Example: "green dragon spirits are flying all around us." Answer: no they are not, because there is no proof that is true. Example: "Jesus was the son of God." Answer: no he wasn't because there is no proof that is true, and nor is there even a legitimate hypothesis in that regard. "But I don't need proof, I have faith." sayeth the faithful. Which is why religion is so dangerous. There are a lot of suicide bombers out there with a whole lot of faith.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm |

    An idea I've had for a long time: Did Jesus NOT die on the cross? It's my understanding that Jesus spent about 6 hours on the cross. During this time he certainly suffered. But...6 hours is not a long time..in terms of "life and death" on the cross. Prisoners were known to survive for days on the cross before expiring. Death comes not from the nails placed in the wrist. Death comes from asphixiation after the victim finally wears out and cannot support himself enough to breath. Could it be he as intentionally brought down and secreted away to a private tomb where he became conscious and eventually recovered?
    Some questions: Why was the "body" of Jesus allowed to be buried in a tomb? Most of the time, crucified victims were either allowed to rot on the cross or the bodies were dumped in a pit for a quick burial. Why did Pilot place two guards on the tomb? The religious theory is that the Roman governor did not want the Jews to steal the body and claim Christ had "risen from the dead"? But, my question, what interest did Pilot have in proving or disproving Jesus' claim to be God? He had "done his duty" to preserve order in a potentially riotous Jewish environment by executing a man THEY proclaimed was an enemy of the state. But, HE never considered Jesus an enemy of the state. Could it be he "pulled a fast one" on the Jewish leaders that wanted Christ killed? When he "washed his hands of the matter" , could it be he did not? Could it be that Pilot had Jesus taken down, after he passed out and appeared dead, and had him placed "away from prying eyes" so he could be healed and brought back to health? Of course, if anyone found out, Pilot would be in REAL trouble. As if the threat of a Jewish Civil War against Rome was not bad enough, Pilot would have been found out to be a liar as well as a promoter of heresy against the Jewish State. NOT a good thing to happen! Hence the added security at the tomb. After several days, Christ would have been in pretty good shape since the two wrist wounds would probably have already begun to heal. He would then be free to leave and present himself to his followers. Somehow I feel the explanation above is more believeable than the claim that "Jesus rose from the dead".

    March 23, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Jimbo

      Go going way to far into the story of Jesus, first there is the part of a "virgin" mother....yeah right. That is were the story stops for me.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • everyman

      interesting. first, jesus probably did not exist. second, if he did exist, he was just a man. third, if he was crucified for 6 hours, you may be right, he lived, creating the false impression that he had been raised from the dead. who knows where he went from there. probably to marriage & work, or maybe to slavery. whatever the case, he is dead now, and if he had children, his descedants are just people too, and mathematically, about 10% of all humans might have a lineage to the man. the idea of Jesus, in its most benign form (be good to others) is a fine idea, and a rational one as well. "christians" aren't so good at following the idea.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  10. Imagine

    Canadians always seem more reasonable than us Americans. Canada, here I come! We need freedom FROM religions.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  11. fundies

    So let it be written. So let it be done.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  12. Joe M.

    Defying the model of Europe, the USA is becoming MORE religious, from my observation. Just turn on your radio and sample whats on. Religious rock music is fighting it out with heavy metal and heavy metal is losing.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  13. Jimbo

    Goes to show that we are evolving and become more intelligent, you have to be pretty narrow minded to think that your religion is the correct one and all the other thousands of religions are wrong. I would like to think that mass communication like the internet has helped us evolve and realize that people from all over the world can be good no matter what their beliefs. This is making it easier for us to say we don't need to go to some monstrosity of a church to show that I care about my fellow humans. Now I don't see the evangelicals changing their tiny minds but maybe we can convince their children.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
  14. Colin

    And what do all these countrie have in common – they (i) are wealthy and well developed; (ii)are tolerant societies; (iii) have functioning, stable governments; (iv) are very high on the list of the most honest countries to do business in – Finalnd, Australia and New Zealand virtually always figure in the top 5 of the least corrupt; (v) look after their own people very well.

    So, remind me. why do we need religion?

    March 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Jimbo

      The same reason the democrats want illegal immigrants to have amnesty, VOTES.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  15. everyman

    People of Faith, thru their chosen religions, have historically done great harm to people, animals, and the earth. Faith blinds them to science, medical science, and rational and ethical behavior. This remains true today among many "fundamentalist" or "evangelical" Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Their faith can be invoked to justify immorality and violence. The exceptions are people of faith who have generalized their views, such as follow the example of Christ and Do Unto Others as you would have them Do Unto You, which is a rational, ethical precept. As it turns out, non-religious people are better, more ethical people than religious people - they create better societies with less violence and injustice. We can only hope that religions die out, be it Muslim or Christian, but this is a mater for the evolution of humankind. It is a slow moving process. The Netherlands are a bit advanced. To review: science, medical science, and rational and ethical conduct. That's all we need. Not ancient myths that lead "people of faith" to act contrary to science, medical science, and rational and ethical conduct. Quoting from the Bible, the Koran, or whatever "sacred" text is not an authority.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • wonderwoman

      wow everyman, well said, yes, I totally agree

      March 23, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Bill

      "Non-religious people are better and more ethical", what fantasy world do you live in?

      March 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  16. Doomguy

    I have the biggest grin reading all the butthurt religious folks on here. What started with the Enlightenment will be finished by the internet. Time to put down the fairy tails and start learning science kids.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • Colin

      Agreed. We need to capitalize on it.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Ernesto Haibi

      I have said similar about religion for years. It may even move into being more of a social group than a belief system. For many in this world it already is that.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  17. Carolyn

    Nope, the experts are wrong. Religion and the concept known as God is separate. Believers will always prevail.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
  18. Dolphin Walcott

    If god is the omnipotent one, if he knows everything, how is it that he gives birth to kids only to have them wiped out in a tsunami or some other terrible ordeal when they have done nothing wrong? Religion is a lie that was perpetuated by idiots, for generations, to fool the masses and keep them in line. There is no god, no devil and no heaven. There is so much hatred, both racial and religious, yet most of us humans run to church every so often and pray to this god who can't stop any bad thing from happening. Love thy neighbour. Not GOD for he does not exist

    March 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Anne Chovey

      they've all become lil angels. They are with jesus.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Carolyn

      Welcome to the classroom called earth, Dolphin Walcott. How else would you learn? Suffering sucks, but it serves a purpose.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Cambric

      There is a God, he allows terrible things to happen because A:Adam and Eve sinned causing suffering to come into the world and B: too many people no longer love him the way they should. You are bad for saying he doesn't exist, but those who believe he exists and don't love Him and their neighbor are far worse.

      Besides, those little babies will be in heaven for all eternity with Him where if they had grown up and turned into a non-believer, they might end up in hell.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • slowbrow

      You might try reading some Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov has a wonderful explanation on free will and suffering.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Megeido

      Dolphin Walcott
      Do you have a brain? Can we see your brain? Can we touch your brain? dolphin you have no brain.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Magic

      "Besides, those little babies will be in heaven for all eternity with Him where if they had grown up and turned into a non-believer, they might end up in hell."

      So, you ascribe to this theory?:

      "In some instances, God ordered the killing of entire populations, presumably including the killing of babies and children. Isn't God unrighteous in killing these innocent little ones?

      First of all, the Bible indicates that all people are sinners,8 including babies,9 and worthy of judgment.10 However, the Bible also indicates that children are incapable of making moral choices, so that they are automatically rewarded with heaven.11

      So, in having babies killed, God is actually doing them a favor, since, if they had grown up opposed to God, they would have gone to hell. If God were to have spared some of the children, it would have been difficult to determine the cutoff age. A one-year old is probably still relatively uncorrupted by his parents, but what about a two-year old? I have personally seen a number of spoiled two-year olds who had already been corrupted by their parents. In a society where moral corruption abounds, the corruption of the children would be early and severe." –Richard Deem

      Get out of here!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
  19. Mark

    Perhaps a better headline would have been Organized Business, as that's what organized religion really is.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Josh

      You nailed it Mark, Thank you

      March 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  20. Anne Chovey

    If organized religion goes away...who will predict "the end of the world"...??

    March 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Stephen

      Conspiracy theorists and lovers of pseudo science.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • fundies

      I would be happy to fill this void. I am sure I can be as accurate as any of the other predictors.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Josh

      All the idiots who believe the computer will crash in 2000, and all the movies goers who get theor news in the movies about the Mayan calendar and 2012 ending, though it ends in 4047. That is who.

      YHWH will not be mocked – this is only persecution, that was predicted, but really Scripture say "My little Flock" which does not include Corporation Religion, but just True Faith in whom you Follow. I have chosen whom I will follow

      March 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • SoundGuy

      You don't find the Absolute Truth through organized religion. For that you have to look inside yourself. How does one do that? I don't know, but you can start by learning how to meditate. Here's a free guided meditation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LD8D3_0Vk9o

      March 23, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Gerald

      Anne: Actually, to be technically "religious", predicting the end of the world is blasphemous. I mean really: How the hell are we suppose to know that?

      March 23, 2011 at 2:34 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.