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. Peep

    Well, I bet Islam is on the rise in those trending nations with east to west immigration and their hyperactive reproductive systems displace traditional religion and culture. Politcal correctness and fear of being slapped with a lawsuit for infringing on an immigrants right ... is scaring people away from being affiliated to anything ... I wonder how well I'd be respected if I said Merry Christmas in Iran, Iraq or Libya.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  2. LogicalAmerican

    No religion has ever revealed anything that was not already known at that time.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  3. joe

    What happens if religion goes extinct in these countries, and then comes back?

    March 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      I'm sure that they will be just as effective, populous and respected as today's Druids.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  4. The Jackdaw

    Finally, a prediction from science that has positive news.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • Jesus Incarnet

      I agree.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  5. Anthony

    Evolution is a humanist pipe dream that has no supporting evidence, only willing adherents to have an "intellectual" way out of submission to Christ. The humanists of Paul's day (Greeks) laughed at him for his beleif in only 1 all powerful God, because they beleived in many. Now the beleif of the day is a beleif that humanity can save itself and is evolving to a stronger future. Look around. Since the advent of evolution, there has been more death in the name of social engineering than Christianity has ever commited. Christians were burned at the stake alive in Rome way before it joined the religion to the state. This was done by non beleiving humanists.

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

      You kept making the mistake that "belief" should be spelled with a "lie".

      March 23, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Ex-believer

      Yes, and the Romans figured out that they could get away with even more heinous atrocities under the cover of religion.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      Anthony, you state " . . . there has been more death in the name of social engineering than Christianity has ever commited." Please cite some examples.

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

      Anthony said: "Evolution is a humanist pipe dream that has no supporting evidence, only willing adherents to have an "intellectual" way out of submission to Christ."

      This makes no sense. You are saying that atheists are looking for a way out of submitting to Christ, but if we don't believe then why do we need a way out? We don't need evolution in order to not believe (although it is a crushing blow to literal interpretations of the bible). We believe in evolution because it actually DOES have so incredibly much evidence.

      What you are attempting to do is paint atheists as skulkers looking for an easy way out, and the faithful as strong and virtuous. This is self-righteous nonsense, not to mention intellectually dishonest. I see this argument a lot. Atheists are not looking for a way out of anything, because we don't believe there's a supernatural world that would require any getting out of. I would recommend that you stop parroting ridiculous arguments and do some critical thinking of your own.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Kafir

      It is no accident that the people who reject evolution are the people who have no understanding of the process of evolution.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • ThinkRationally

      Anthony, the discovery of evolution, or the way knowledge of it (or anything else) is used by people has absolutely NO bearing on whether or not it is true. Nuclear weapons have a terrible capacity for destruction and death, and have been used for such. Does this have any bearing on whether atomic theory is correct or not? No, it clearly doesn't.

      You can blame whatever you want on evolution, but that has exactly ZERO impact when it comes to determining the validity of evolution. I will never understand how people come up with such silly arguments–I guess it comes down confirmation bias.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  6. Melissa

    You have a typo...

    "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 tends in religion.

    Tends should be trends.

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

      To your typo:

      1. to be disposed toward an idea, emotion, way of thinking, etc.: He tends to be overly optimistic. Her religious philosophy tends toward pantheism.
      2. to be inclined to or have a tendency toward a particular quality, state, or degree: This wine tends toward the sweet side.

      .......think tanks on tends (or tendencies) in religion

      *Just a thought that maybe he typed correctly.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      @Unaffiliated, tends is not an abbreviation of tendencies, so either it is a typographical error or a grammatical error.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Unaffiliated

      Yeah, I'm definitely no grammar expert. I was just playing devil's advocate for the author 🙂

      March 23, 2011 at 12:17 pm |

    You atheists better be careful for what you wish for, because when that day happens, I hope I'm not alive on this earth.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
    • TrueBlue42

      But if you are, chances are you'll have science to thank for it.

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

      no thanks, i'll prefer death and the afterlife

      March 23, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      We atheists hope so as well. Stop peeing in the community gene pool and get an education.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • ITEOTW

      your ignorance is laughable and yet sad. Would you be willing to die today to prove your point in the existence of no God?

      March 23, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      @ITEOTW: the only thing one can ever prove through death is that one is dead. No one ever comes back from that. It is not possible to either prove or disprove the existence of god. You either believe, or you don't. It is impolite to scold those who do not share your beliefs.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
    • derp

      "no thanks, i'll prefer death and the afterlife"

      Can you do us all a favor and speed up the process?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Craig

      I hope for your sake that you're worshiping the right God. Otherwise Odin the All-Father is going to be really really angry with you.

      March 23, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  8. Satyam

    There are some fundamental holes in this research, it's like saying that politics will die in USA as more people are registering as independents. When someone mentions that they are unaffiliated, it could mean that they are secular and ambivalent to structured religion, however it does not say that they do not have "Faith". Also everyone should factor in that events can totally change this result, like just after 9-11 everyone turned back to religion. My guess is that religion as we know will change...but "religion" will never die....that's part of being human 🙂

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

      Tell that to all the freethinkers of the world.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
  9. JC

    Religion is for sheep

    March 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  10. Martin Whitman

    'Unaffiliated' is not the same as atheist. What is this guy trying to pull?

    March 23, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      Did you read the article, or did you just read the headline and get excited and spout gibberish?

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

      That is precisely the point I would like to make to all religious people – YOU DO NOT NEED TO BELONG TO ANY RELIGION TO HAVE FAITH! Stop being sheep and start thinking for yourselves. Develope your own relationship with God based on YOUR terms and beliefs. And if you don't have any of your own beliefs – get some!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  11. kritterkat

    This is the best news I have heard in years. Religion only becomes extinct if it no longer serves any purpose. Time to shed our archaic skin and start heading into the future.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • kitmao1017

      I was going to post something but between you and another person on here, my point has already been made. Thanks!

      March 23, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  12. Malibu1369

    Lee – religion isn't something a god created, it was created by man to opress and supress, cover up or justify greed and keep the masses from thinking for themselves. Merciful god? Seems religion's goal worked on you!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  13. Dustin

    I'm doubtful you will see any significant change in the U.S. for at least the next couple of decades. I'm drawing on observation... Exclusively Christian radio networks are expanding, and networks that feature Conservative Christian talk shows are also expanding from AM to FM. An example of that is 95.7 WHIO out of Dayton, Ohio. It spilled over into FM recently, one of a few AM radio networks broadcasting on both now. Also, sales of Christian music continues to see an upward trend in growth. All of this tells me that Christianity will grow to some degree, or at least level off, in the U.S. While major denominations, such as the Presbyterian and Lutheran, are losing members, non-denominational churches are actually growing rather rapidly as well. In my four years of college, the church I attended grew to the point that had to add additional services.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • derp

      People still actually listen to the radio? Are they too stupid to figure out how to work an ipod.?

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

      Couldn't those facts also tell us that those in control of Christian media are getting a bit worried and have stepped up publicity efforts to try and gain back some lost ground?

      March 23, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  14. Ex-believer

    Education and enlightenment are causing the inevitable downfall of organized religion. The Taliban know this which is why they are burning schools - but they are in a losing battle just like all other religions. (Even the "Pole Dancing for Jesus" worshipers.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  15. christopher

    It just proves that people in 9 countries are smarter than people in all the rest. RIP religion. You have brought nothing but anger, hate, pain, death and destruction to the human race. The rest of the world can continue to believe in the Boogyman. At least in Canada we know a stupid fairy tale when we hear it.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • TrueBlue42

      Very well said, christopher!

      March 23, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Matt

      While it is true, and often sited, that religions the world over have brought a great deal of pain to people in general. However, there is another side to that coin if you are willing to look. For instance, Christian organizations have established more hospitals, schools, and charities than all other non-religious affiliated organizations the world over. Unfortunately, the bad deeds are the ones that many folks fixate on.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  16. Elphaba

    This survey is misleading. Unaffiliated merely means you don't belong to an organized religion. Personally, I have what I would call a Christian faith, but I prefer to consider myself unaffiliated rather than be affiliated with most Protestant Churches, who, like the Christian Right in politics, try to shove their religion down our throats. There is a very big difference in being religious and having faith. I am very definately not religious, and in so being, a lot of religious people try to "save" me.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:44 am |
  17. JC

    Canadian here. Glad to see we made the list. The silent majority is growing.

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

      Canada is awesome.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • Windrays

      Hear hear!

      March 23, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • Vulpes

      I blame Canada ...

      March 23, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  18. Corvus1

    Organized religion needs to go the way of the dodo. It's no longer about God or our relationship with Him, it's only about power.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • kitmao1017

      Well said.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • PhooBar

      Organized religion is, and always has been, a system of control.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Templar1

      Poorly said. One statistical study does not a universal truth make. There have always been people of faith just have there have always been doubters and athiests. Only one way to tell for certain, and by then there is no way to share the answer.
      When you find out maybe you could send a letter, if it's not too singed to read. HA!

      March 23, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  19. keith

    Oh boy...here we go with the Nietzsche...claims again. Just as all the time periods there is non-religious times and revival....just before the American revolution only 18% of all people in America went to church...we've been here before, and the church will grow again.

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

      Unfortunately, times are not what they once were. Before, people of faith kept their faith to themselves, even though they went to their church to practice their faith. Now, hard core Christians make it their mission to "save" non-believers and those of us who may have a Christian faith, as I do, but choose not to belong to an organized church. This actually pushes more people away from faith than does "save" any body. This tactic may very well spell the doom of organized religion.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      Interesting. I never heard that. Please cite your source.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Frankie

      Elphaba may have a valid point. I used to have a more outward showing of my Christian faith, but now, thanks to the people who shove God down our throats, I have back away. My inner faith is just as strong, but I don't want anybody to confuse me with the obnoxious zealots who think it is their mission in life to get more converts. One does not need to go to church to be faithful, and going to church does not a Christian make.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Vulpes

      Perhaps, but the longer view suggest quite the opposite. I suppose what ones definition of religion is. In early America there was a long period of time where the #1 "religion" was spirtualism. However, it would seem to me that radical views of religion would be the first to die off.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  20. VitruviannMan

    Am I the only one here who finds it weird that people leave online messages addressed to dead people?

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

      Or people that don't exist?

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

      I would find it weird if dead people were leaving messages for living people.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Elphaba

      To Windrays I say this. You may not personally believe, but it is wrong for you to say God doesn't exist. There is that old saying that says I may not be able to prove God exists, but neither can you prove he doesn't exist. If you don't believe, thats fine for you, but don't belittle those of us who have faith.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Kafir

      Some gods can be disproven. Depends on how you define god. Suppose you say that god is love, and would never let a child perish, and then a child perishes. God would be disproven. Suppose you say that god is both omnipotent and omniscient. This one too would be disproven because an omnipotent god would be incapable of being more "potent" than the final outcome that his omniscience can foresee (ie, he can't change his destiny, so he is not omnipotent)

      It all depends on how you define god.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:45 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.