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. Joe M.

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

    March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Joe M.

      Colonel Penkovsky was so motivated by his religious faith that he began to secretly undermine the atheistic Soviet system from within, with no help. He was years later discovered, after having inflicted grievous damage on the Soviet state, and was executed for his faith.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • NL

      Penkovsky was tried and convicted of treason and espionage in 1963 for his role in tipping the US off to the missiles being installed in Cuba. I've never read that he had any religious motivations. Where did you hear it?

      March 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  2. Q

    GOOD!! Religion...root of all evil.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  3. Ram

    Not to criticize anybody, it is nothing but growing tolerance, among human being, evolution itself is by design the intention of the supreme power, you may call this power God, Allah or Bhagvan or whatever. Otherwise, how can you explain when so many died of tsunami one baby survived unhurt without food water.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • jens

      Ram, if you give god credit for saving one human in a disaster, you have to logically blame him/her also for allowing 10,000 others to die.

      If you really look at the events objectively, you will find that the god you believe in would be completely indifferent to human suffering – if he/she indeed existed.

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

      Ever watch "1000 Ways to Die"? Sometimes the odds line up against you just as dramatically as they do in so-called 'miracles'. That's just the nature of statistics; the bulk of traumas are routine, but there will always be cases on either end of the spectrum. Religious folks always seem to forget that every miracle save is balanced by a stupid death.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  4. Derek

    So Atheism based on "scientific thought" is a better ideal to move humanity towards perfection? Who thought along these lines?... Oh wait... Hitler. The extermination of another race to perfect human kind based on the philosophies of Neitzche and Darwinism. Anybody that claims Hitler acted according to a "religious purification" is ignorant. It was simply humans moving along the evolutionary process.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • NL

      "I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator."
      Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 2

      So, for the billionth time, Hitler was a Catholic, not an atheist.

      I see that you are a fan of his though. He also liked to repeat lies until they became accepted as truth by the unthinking masses.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  5. truth

    "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind"
    -Albert Einstein

    March 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • NL

      "The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. Buddhism answers this description. If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs it would be Buddhism." Albert Einstein

      March 23, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  6. Harry Tick

    The sooner the better! Let's start with ending the tax exempt status of "The Church" too.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  7. fundies

    I am the Walrus.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  8. julie

    God is bigger than mathematical models.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  9. truth

    "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind"
    Albert Einstein

    March 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Ed

      pinted that out yesterday, was told he didn't mean it

      March 23, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  10. WeirdMN

    Oh, to be able to emagrate to Australia! Beautiful place, and no religious zelots shoving their 'truth' down my throat.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  11. Gerald

    God has more patience than I do. Think about it. Man is one of the lowest life forms on Earth. Man has the capacity to assist, love, create, and reason. And they gave that all up for the NBA and mediocrity.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Frad

      Man is one of the lowest life forms on earth? justify that.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Gerald

      Frad: For the most part, we have learned, after thousands and thousands and thousands of years, how to really screw with each other to the point of murder and suffering. If the planet doesn't explode, what future do you actually see? God created this Universe through a long and tedious miracle. When "Man" wants something, he wants it immediately (and mostly at any cost).

      March 23, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  12. joe

    Best news I've heard all day. Die... you stupid, ancient belief system!!!

    March 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  13. Johnnymac

    I don't understand you people. What is it that makes you believe in all of these hypocritical blind-faith believe-out-of-fear based religions? And why do you argue and kill each other over multiple versions of the same religion? Is it because the main characters in your books go by different names? I see very similar aspects in all of them (trinities of creator, preserver, destructor; promises of eternal bliss or torture based on how you live your life in this reality; divine main characters who suffer to cleanse the 'sins' of mankind). As human beings you should be above this. Don't get me wrong; I respect your beliefs I just don't understand the 'why.' Free your mind and live your life to the fullest. Don't live your lives in constant fear of Allah or Jesus or Brahman or Santa Claus or whatever, and stop mistaking this fear for 'love.' You're better than that. Look inward and you'll know this to be true.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
    • Gerald

      You bring up great points but you have to remember that "Man" has essentially turned to garbage. Just look around you and ponder it for a while.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
  14. fundies

    The only thing I follow is my wifes little tail when I am feeling frisky.

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

      I feel the same way, ... about my own wife's tail. No offense! 🙂

      March 23, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  15. ArchaeanDragon

    I think the problem is that what is, more or less, "orthodox" organized religion, the goals of which is to promote "dogma" over true spirituality and truth (like Christianity, Islam, etc), really does need to go away.

    In general, I am not opposed to organized religion, but specific organized religions. Basically, any religion that claims that its dogma is the "only correct one" needs to go the way of the dodo, as do ones which value dogma over truth, and most especially ones which advocate violence to support their worldview.

    In large part, to those such religions I say "good riddance".

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

      well said

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

    Belief in the supernatural is a symptom of mental illness.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • wildermanorbeast

      So is calling yourself "Lumpy"

      March 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
  17. EMERSE

    People only believe in god because they are taught to believe in god. That is why people belong to certain denominations. If you are raised Catholic, you will raise your children Catholic. Denominations are are foolish examples of how we as humans do not use our own brains. In my opinion, if there is a god, why can we not have proof? Why is proof such a hard thing to bring to us from a god who wants you to believe and love him? You can ask questions all day long and the only response you will get from people of faith is " You just have to believe" Well, I am from MO " the show me state" So, show me! What if we actually found life on another planet? We some how get past the language wall and find out they don't believe in ANY god. What for them? Are we right or are they right? I am sure we will be right beacuse they don't "believe" It is in our nature as humans to dream. Dream dream dream.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Frank

      Ever look at a sunrise or marvel at the beauty of a sunset or wondered at the stars in th sky? Have you ever noticed the number and varieties of birds, heard the laughter of a child, or enjoyed a warm, sunny day. There's your proof. God reveals Himself through his creation and through His son Jesus Christ.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  18. Lovin'Life

    I am "unaffiliated" but I still have beliefs in God...I read the bible almost daily and no where have I read does it say that belonging to a particular religion will get you to heaven or make you better than the next person. Religion is man made and legalistic to say the least. Religion is dividing humanity, not uniting. Religion gives people a sense of right when it comes to judging others. I follow Jesus, not a man from a pulpit or a religion. I was raised in a judgemental, legalistic, unloving Baptist church and bc of that I will never align myself with any "religion". God focus' on a person's heart not on a person's outward appearance or "good" actions. Being a good, nice person is great, don't get me wrong, but even the most evil person can come across in that way. Religion takes your outward actions and fools the masses. Bottom line for me is: Jesus loves everyone, died for everyone, and I believe that means everyone. Yes, He loves gays, illegal immigrants, atheists, muslims, etc.. And thus, so do I. Say what you will about me and my beliefs, but in the end, all you will get out of me is that I send a message of love and tolerance and goodwill with out "religion". 🙂

    March 23, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Frad

      Yeah that's a good point. I know a lot of people who believe in some God or gods or whatever and would still call themselves un-affiliated. It's important to realize that this article is talking about organized religion, not religion itself. The crazy religious people usually don't belong to an ordered religion anyways, so the danger is still real

      March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  19. Enlightened

    The sooner organized religion goes extinct, the better. It's a shame it won't happen sooner in the United States, which has been held back from truly progressing due to the stranglehold religion has had on policy, especially recently.

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

      I wish you would explain how religion has had a stranglehold on US policy.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • CalgarySandy


      A nation that allows religious wing nuts to determine what can be taught in schools is already behind other countries in all areas of international testing. You are ridiculed around the world for how easily you cave to those who are fringe lunatics. However can you compete in science when you let marginal fundamentalist Christians dictate to you? You remove internationally recognized books from schools for accurately depicting the society in which they were written. You are allowing these hate mongers the right to decide whether kids are taught to think for themselves or be just a bunch of lack-wits who need someone else to think for them.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
  20. Jeff Bolin

    As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Our sins nailed Jesus Christ to an old rugged tree... I am forever grateful that he died for me. Thank you Jesus.

    March 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Swoopy009

      Me too – Praise the Lord!!!

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

      Amen! He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Forever I will sing of His praise and through His grace receive my inheritance daily!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • rt

      Praise be to the Invisible Pink Unicorn! Hallowed be her Holy Hooves!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Frank

      Jesus is Lord!

      March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • CalgarySandy

      Perhaps his know-it-all father should take some of the blame. He set up a situation of entrapment in the Garden of Eden then punished all of humanity for what Adam and Eve did. God the Father created everything and, thus, sin and sinners. As he knows everything he knew that the fruit would be eaten. He knew his son would be crucified. Then we are presumed to be doing well by eating his body and drinking his blood, I.e. an ancient blood sacrifice and ritual cannibalism.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • David

      Well I say to that...Praise Microsoft for allowing people to realize freedom is found in with a textbook and Facebook for connecting minds to allow so many realize they can unshackle themselves from religion. All part of the process of intelligent life.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • Steve

      Yeah, like that makes a lot sense. If the Christian God wanted to forgive us our sins, why didn't he not simply do it? If the Christian God wants us to believe in him, why does he no make his existence clear to everyone of us. Seems to me the Christian God is a big delusion.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • weak sauce


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

      I take it that you are speaking for your spouse and children as well. Not a fond believer in free will, are you?

      By the way, I use to believe that I'd be Christian forever too, so never say never.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64
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.