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. Anita

    Unaffiliated does not mean "not religious" , it means not affiliated with a certain Church.. I am a firm believer in GOD and His Son JESUS but Churches were made by men who think they are Gods.. Therfor have no meaning for me.

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

      So you're saying you'd select "unaffiliated" instead of "christian"?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  2. Kevin

    Hurry up and make this a reality, the gods of apes all need retirement.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:43 am |
  3. JohnM

    Would have been a much better article if it had some comments from actual leaders of certain religions. I'm sure Albert Mohler would have loved to weigh in on this issue from a Christian perspective. But, that would have put a damper on the whole article now wouldn't it?

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

      You'd have to justify the notion that a theologist has any expertise in mathematical modeling, which is what this article is based on. You don't call a janitor for advice on removing a brain tumor.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  4. Captain Kirk

    The study relies on mathematical modelling but forgets history, which shows that a small (minority) group of persecuted believers has risen up to establish one of the most professed religions in the world, namely Christinaity. This defies any equation that says that the majority rules and that social pressure makes everyone conform.

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

      Don't all religions start out small? I can't think of any that started out big... nope none come to mind. And look at all the religions that died out already. Can you even name all of them?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • RighterOfWrongs

      Very true Kafir, religions start out small, grow, fade or are replace, and collapse. This is because they're all wrong. There may or may not be a god, but if there is one it's very obvious that he/her/it is hands-off!

      April 11, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  5. Angie

    Sometimes I think how peaceful the world would be without religion. Imagine it..no more hatred, no more religious killings and violence. Maybe someday human beings will all be evolved enough to make that happen.

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

      There will always be a basis for man to be inhuman to his fellow man.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  6. steama

    Now this is a reason to celebrate!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  7. kahlest

    OK I am Canadian, last census I took, my religion was not listed so I selected the none category. This study it seems neglected to take that into account. Kelly got it right, there are no choices for pagans like myself other than to select unaffiliated. Now if they actually listed ALL the religions or at least included the umbrella of pagan or wicca then they might get more accurate numbers. Hey maybe they will find that paganism is the fastest growing religion on the planet now....

    March 23, 2011 at 11:41 am |
  8. PraiseTheLard

    I'm afraid that this article is too optimistic...

    There will always be ignorant people looking for simplistic answers... just as there have always been ready and willing victims of snake-oil salesmen who promise eternal joy/happiness/salvation in return for their obeisance and support in this lifetime.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  9. mttrailboss

    I would like to see more on this study.. In America.., there are religions or churches that are actually growing in size or membership. I know, this study did 'not' take in America in its research. However.., many missionary programs are growing in foreign countries. I would like to see more about this study or research, before making a conclusion on religion extinction around the world. Mike in Montana

    March 23, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  10. Anthony

    As a Christian you should naturally have a desire to be with the body of Christ (The Church). Organized Religion can be frustrating, but people are people and will always let you down in one way or another. Christ didn't command us only to go to church if everyone got along. The "Enlightened" thinkers of the past century talked about the extinction of religion and an end to wars. Then came along WWI, WWII, and so on. There is nothing new under the sun. Humans aren't getting better, we're getting worse and more vicious.

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

      Actually, the quality of life overall has increased. Life expectancies have gone up, infant mortality has gone down. Once the third world countries reach this state, it will be smoother sailing across the board.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  11. Chris

    Prediction? The Word of God says there will be a falling off. So this is no surprise. And ... there will be a time of extinction! You can bet on that! But what comes after that you will most likely not be so happy about!

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

      It's hard to be unhappy while being dead. A more accurate outlook would be...indifferent.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  12. Micheline

    It would be great if religion would no longer exist then maybe, Just maybe, the majority of hate and atrocities that is done in the name of religion would cease. religion has done more harm then good to the human race, it divide on so many level.

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

      The end of religion will end atrocities? Just like WWII, just lilke WWI, Just like the Korean War, Just like the starvation and slaughter of 10 million Ukrainians by Stalin, just like 3 million Cambodians killed in the 70's, just like Saddam Hussein killing 250,000 of his own people in the 90's. Don't go blaming religion for what men do. People use religion to further their own gain. They twist it. Far from it. Geghis Khan, Kubla Khan invading China had nothing to due with religion. You can go through out history and see the autrocities commited that had nothing to do with religion. We pick and chose to see what we want in order to justify our beliefs. You believe it is religion. I believe it is man. Religion has nothing to do with it.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • David Johnson


      You said: "I believe it is man. Religion has nothing to do with it."

      Religion certainly has a lot to do with suffering... Or isn't that god's fault?


      March 23, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • nsinha1522

      @ Jeff:

      WW II had nothing to do with religion? Really? Last time I checked Hitler was all about eradicating the Jews (btw ... Judaism is a religion not race just to clear that up)! Have you forgotten about the Inquisitions, Crusades, the Ireland conflicts, Tibet, Kashmir, Israel vs. Palestine, etc.? But I'm sorry, when religion is used to justify certain actions it no longer becomes a debate of "Human Nature" or about "Man". That's like saying 2 + 2 somehow remains and equals 2. If it looks like poo, and smells like poo ... it ain't an ice-cream sundae!

      April 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • RighterOfWrongs

      He never said religion had never caused wars or atrocities, simply that many have occured without religion. The absence of religion will not cause an end to violence, only force people to get a new excuse. The problem is and always has been human nature.

      April 11, 2011 at 10:59 pm |
  13. CW

    It will never happen....just some mathmeticians...Ho-'c-'us po-'c-'us...bo-'gus..theory yet again.

    The Bible...and the world for that matter has been around for 6,000 years....guess its stood the test of time wouldn't you say?

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

      News flash: the world has been around for many millions of years. Spend time on education.

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

      It stood the test of time by prosecuting those that disagreed despite many of them being correct... Sun around Earth to be a very prime example. Goldman and Sachs did pretty well a little ways back; guess they must have had the "best practices" model.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:49 am |
    • David Johnson


      You said: "The Bible...and the world for that matter has been around for 6,000 years....guess its stood the test of time wouldn't you say?"

      No, Sparky. As usual you are wrong. Jesus doesn't help you much, does He? LOL

      Hinduism has the older texts (approx. 3,500
      years old compared to Hebrew/Judiac texts at approx. 3,000 years old)
      but the religion with the oldest religious texts is neither of those:
      The oldest religious texts are Egyptian (from approx. 4,600 to 5,100
      years ago).

      "The Pyramid Texts were a collection of Egyptian mortuary prayers,
      hymns, and spells intended to protect a dead king or queen and ensure
      life and sustenance in the hereafter. The texts, inscribed on the
      walls of the inner chambers of the pyramids [from c. 2686-c. 2160
      BC]., are found at Saqqarah in several 5th- and 6th-dynasty pyramids,
      of which that of Unas, last king of the 5th dynasty, is the earliest
      known. The texts const_itute the oldest surviving body of Egyptian
      religious and funerary writings available to modern scholars."

      -Encyclopedia Britannia-

      Found at http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptreligion.html

      March 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  14. Mike

    Imagine there's no Heaven. It's easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today.
    Imagine there's no countries , it isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace . You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us and the world will be as one.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  15. Collins

    Go ahead, make my day. Heard this one before. It was wrong then, it is wrong now. And the reason it is wrong is that it does not count for God's ability to come back. Science and reason try to take over from God, but we all know, they can not.

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

      Unfortunately, what you are saying seems to be true. Reality will never overcome ignorance, at least not in the US. Too many Americans are proud of their stupidity. Religion is the way the powerful control the masses.

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

      Knowing will always defeat imagining. Imagining is all you got.

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

      Science and reason are bad.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Kafir

      Makes you wonder if ignorance is a boy scout badge in the US.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  16. bennie

    God exists and one day every knee shall bow and every mouth will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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

      They've been saying that for two thousand years, and they'll keep saying that for another fifty... according to the article.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  17. WIlliam H. Kleist

    It's about time !!! whk

    March 23, 2011 at 11:39 am |
  18. bbebetter

    "his co-author Richard Wiener suggested we try to apply a similar technique to religious affiliation, Abrams said"

    Richard Wiener... ha ha ha. Dick Wiener.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Richard Wiener

      I'm so sick of people belittling my name. Sometimes I think I should just use my mother's maiden name, Johnson.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Smite Me

      Johnson Wiener? 🙂

      March 23, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  19. joe

    Yet Islam is increasing it's membership.

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

      Everyone is increasing their membership, as the world's population constantly grows. Some are growing faster than average and others less so. Islam may be on the growth track as you suggest, which means they should soon pass Christianity as the most popular on the planet (30% vs. 32% currently AFAIK).

      March 23, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • RationalThinker

      Islam is the "fastest growing religion" by simple virtue of the high birth rate in those countries. I'd say no child on this Earth since the beginning of time has ever been born religious, they only follow a certain faith after growing up and being indoctrinated by adults.

      If religion in general were real then it wouldn't take the implantation of dangerous ideas by people to "discover" god because god (if he/she/it exists) should be able to prove that to each and every person alone .

      March 24, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  20. bIX

    Come soon Lord Jesus, we need you more then ever.....

    March 23, 2011 at 11:38 am |
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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.