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. Dexter Morgan


    If you are religious, it automatically means that you condone all the idiotic events that have their origins in disagreements between the several religious factions. For eg., the pastor burning the Quran followed by people killing 8 UN workers in Afghanistan who were working for the Afghanis. People need to take a stand and shun religion completely, because it doesn't seem like the fundamentalists are going away unless and until the moderates decide to switch sides. These are storybooks, people! Taking a man's life because he burnt a particular storybook? Absolutely ridiculous.

    April 1, 2011 at 7:12 pm |
  2. john q

    i can't wait to move to one of those countries.

    April 1, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
  3. BigRed

    I look forward to the day that people can look out and the stars and take in the majesty and contemplate the beauty of the cosmos without resulting to medieval expressions of godly provenance.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  4. Mary T

    God's true church will NEVER fail. Jesus promises that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His church. God will winnow out the wheat from the chaff. In the meantime, true, organized religion will never save you ONLY JESUS CHRIST and salvation thru HIM ALONE will save you. It is not by works, but by faith and grace thru Jesus Christ.. God's church will never fail.. God always has a people that will proclaim His name. God can use these fake preachers even for his glory.. for his sovereign will. And God loves his people, and will be with them for ever.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • BigRed

      No. Sorry. Science is our only salvation. It at least is real and not a work of fiction.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  5. Yaice

    That the universe came into being out of nothing. . . that order "just happened" to form out of chaos. . . that biodiversity, extreme anatomical specialization, finely tuned ecosystems, perfect astronomical and ecological balance, the complexity of the DNA code. . . and the fact that evidence in the fossil record does not support macroevolution - then YOU have more faith in your Godless randomness than I have in my Creator.

    April 1, 2011 at 7:06 am |
    • Cyriac

      If humans can launch spacecraft that look into the furthest depths of the universe, and create synthetic bacteria from scratch... mostly in the past 50 to 100 years, then why would an all knowing creator take 4.5 billion years to create Earth? The answer, of course is that "Godless randomness" works really slowly. I'll bet we can make Mars a habitable planet in just 300 to 400 years from now. What say everyone? WE CAN DO IT! 😀

      April 1, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  6. Tod Jones

    This is a "keeper". Save it and see what really happens in twenty years.. I'll wager that religion as we know it will decline, but belief will not. Religion has its cycles. We rarely are aware of what stage we are in.


    April 1, 2011 at 12:01 am |
  7. Muneef

    Thus, Islam bases people's relational conduct on kindness. Hence, it condemns intolerance, prejudice and bigotry, and rejects discrimination based on color, creed, national origin or religion.
    The Muslim acceptance applies to all elements of life and must reflect in all of the Muslim's affairs. The teaching of Islam towards proper behavior, anger control, patience, treatment of spouse, parent, neighbor, the young and the old, the friend, the enemy, the environment and specifically the People of the Book are evident in the Holy Qur'an and the life and example of the Prophet Muhammad (p).
    In calling people to the Islamic Faith, for example, a Muslim must be wise, sensitive, humble and considerate. The Qur'an teaches:
    "Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and discuss with them in ways that are best and most gracious." Qur'an, 16:25.


    March 31, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  8. Nelson Rose

    Religion is the creation of men. The Bible was written by men. I find it humorous when people wave the Bible around as if it is anymore inspired then any other book. It is nothing more than a Bronze Age attempt at explaining the unexplaiinable and the first roadmap for a theocracy. It shows a history of an unbelieveably brutal set of tribal cults and is filled with reason-defying dogma. When placed in the hands of the feeble minded and their only instruction is to read certain passages (instead of reading it from cover to cover) it can be twisted into the mid-controlling device that it is.

    The Bible contains some beautiful poetry and some moralistic precepts and truths but, its like a steak – you have to cut through the fat to get to the good stuff. The idea that the earth is controlled by some evil deity (or devil) is nothing more than a polytheistical cop-out. "The devil made me do it" and "Jesus saved me with his blood" is the basis of christian dogma. So the individual is neither responsible or accountable for their actions. Really?

    Come visit me on my blog – http://quest4light.wordpress.com

    March 31, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
    • Muneef

      Words inspired and Reviled to chosen men who recited it to be written into Scriptures that made the Holy Books known as Torah(Moses),Angeel(Jesus),Zaboor (David)and the Holy Quran(Muhammed)was the Furqan among them..

      All used to live under one roof in Medina at the Arabian peninsular read more here please;


      March 31, 2011 at 7:48 pm |
  9. MS

    Reason does not allow me to put confidence in something I have the least amount of doubt in.

    March 31, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  10. Steve

    There are only TWO religions. I'll name them . TRUTH and ERROR. Theres only one truth. The Bible is for real folks.

    The rest of the religions are FALSE. Satan a real being, has got this planet hoodwinked. There are zillions of invisble angels down here pulling our strings. I hope that someone who reads this will stay open to the truth. Jesus is the real deal. There is a war of hate against Christ on this planet. It will be coming to a close soon.

    We are on the edge of time. God has had enough of sin. It will all end in this generation.

    March 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  11. Aaron

    The only difference between religion and myth is how many people still believe in them. The day will come when we talk of the mythical tales of Jesus and the trinity alongside Zeus and Jupiter

    March 31, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Peter

      Now THERE's a trinity for you. But then ... what would Brian Boitano do?

      March 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Brian in TX

      Zeus and Jupiter are the same

      March 31, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Brian in TX wrote: "Zeus and Jupiter are the same"

      That's the same as saying that God and Allah are the same... you'll get arguments around here...

      March 31, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  12. Good Atheist

    All religious people are doing is fighting over who has the better imaginary friend. Let them continue to kill each other off "in god's/allah's/santa's name".

    March 30, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
  13. Rachael

    Being a former theologists, I love how so many who claim to be Christians don't know a thing about their religion, and those who claim to be other religions, know so much more. Christians should be the ones who know every point to every religion, and should be accepting of all religions, since that is how Christ was. Christ new more about pagan beliefs, and cared more about those who did not believe in his god, then he did of the heretics that claimed to know it all.

    March 30, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  14. Rob

    Good riddance! Religion has served its purpose, but with 7 billion people on the planet, severely constrained resources, extensive environmental damage, etc. to deal with, we can no longer rely on the sky wizard to save us. It's time to embrace logic and reason before it's too late. We need to live sustainably, value science, and stop producing hoards of children. Reports like this give me hope.

    March 30, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Kevin

      And so why would a religious person not use logic, reason, common sense, and even science? Why would a religious person not use their own talents? Your logic is flawed.

      March 30, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Bryson

      They are obviously not using logic/reason/science when they think about god, why should we assume they would use these things at any other time?

      March 31, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
  15. Matt

    To the bible-is-fiction, mean-Jesus-won't-make-me-bow-down, it's-all-nonsense folks, spend time researching the evidence for the validity of the Bible and consider the possibility that when we love someone, we aren't forced to do something, we *choose* just as you choose to express your opinions - and we do believe that a difficult day is coming when folks will lose the option to choose but we still have the present to decide. Conclusion I take from the posts is the sad truth, "the fool has said in his heart, 'there is no God'" (Psalm 14:1). It will be a sad day for the "enlightened" who in their relativistic "tolerance" reject Christianity when they finish this life and find out if they are right and there's just nothing or attempt the palate-pleasing tolerance view: everybody-gets-to-go-since-it's-all-the-same theology. It is their choice to decide and express but it is still something to mourn and not celebrate. I used to join them in logical fallacy debates like, "If God can't make a rock so big that He can't lift it up, how can He be God, since God can do anything?" but am now ashamed to have been that way. For all the corruption-in-the-church, crusades, abuse of power, that's well evidenced that people committed atrocity, abused power and hurt others but it is weak as rationale to reject God and Christianity and determine your ultimate destiny. On the flip side, what has the secular track record of the century produced? Abortion by the millions (~40 Million in U.S. alone since Roe vs. Wade according to CDC), WW I, II, Korea, Viet Nam, Uganda, Rwanda (400,000 hacked to death with machetes), Darfur (1.3 Million), treatment of the Dalit people (300 Million), Genocides of various kinds (including Jewish, Armenian and others resulting in more millions of lives). Without a doubt, even the blemished record of Christianity holds a much better consideration for people than the secular world. When the secular claim education is the real answer to all (peace, harmony, tolerance), my thought is that well educated people were behind every secular abuse situation. Follow the trail of the greatest evils of this century (surprise! they were organized by non-religious) and the organizers were well educated intelligent people. Post all the flames you want, the Christian readers of this stuff will continue to pray for those who curse us and God, will love and reach out in love and will not forget that we aren't darned right people, just redeemed and looking to help others as they figure out eternity as well as being salt and light in this age. Another fun thought: who first created hospitals, the Red Cross, etc.? Who does the greatest majority of help in inner cities to provide food and shelter to the homeless? Having built homes for the homeless, and served in soup kitchens, I haven't met too many of the religion attackers there. I'll leave it up to the reader to decide why.

    March 30, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Balls McGhee

      Matt, you are a typical cafeteria Christian. the most peaceful places on earth are very secular. In fact, of your listings, most of those countires are crazy religious or at least feel they are of higher ranking in society than others, something atheists do not believe. you need to understand atheists before you make completely retarded statements like the ones you have made. you sound really dumb.

      April 1, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
  16. Jonathan

    The longer we go without the coming of the Messiah – which is a concept believed by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – the more people will start to falter in their faith. I can see that there could come a time when the so called "nones" will be the majority.

    March 30, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Falter? I think not...

      As P.T. Barnum (or, more likely, his compet-itor David Hannum) said: "There's a suc-ker born every minute."

      March 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  17. Devin

    Good article. I am always happy to hear that people are using common sense as opposed to blind religion. Honestly, religion is for weak-minded people.

    March 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  18. Stacey

    I agree with Ishmai and AnotherVoicel:

    "Not soon enough!" and "My sentiments exactly! Well spoken! It's long past the time to leave all of this ancient mythology in the history museums in which it belongs, and move on..."

    March 30, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  19. urbantide

    It's amazing that when someone gets in trouble or needs help, you all and I mean ALL, cry out to God for help. Joke all you want but in the end you know who you will be calling out to him. When the fear of death is upon you youu will call. All call sooner or later deny all you want joke all you want, be bitter and angry at God but yes soon you will be crying for his help and mercy.

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

      Who says we "all" cal out to god? I know for sure I don't. I do not believe in a supernatural being. I believe in Goodness, and wrong, but those are things inside of ourselves. When I have gone through situations in life where I felt weak and scared I turned to friends and family, and in some cases even strangers. I would call upon wisdom and words of men who have lived before me, I would call upon memory and overcome my feelings of helplessness through endurance and courage. I would not put my faith in something that is not solid and does not exist.

      March 30, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • davem

      There is a difference between being a member of an organized religion and being a spiritual person who believes in God. While it's possible to be both, I don't choose to be one of the former. There are simply too many intolerant people who will do virtually anything in the name of their religion. But am proud to be one of the latter.

      March 31, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Terre

      When I was little I asked for Odin's help but now I know better since there are no gods.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Balls McGhee

      Crying out to God only in times of needs proves exactly that it is all a bunch of hoopla to begin with. Nothing happens when we cry out to God. Nothing. You get the same odds crying out to a piece of dog poo. People only do that out of instinct because they were raised to believe that and they see other people do the same. it doesnt prove anything only that your statement of fact is nothing but fiction!

      April 1, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
    • Minos

      @ Urbantide - well said. There's an interesting pop song lyric that says, "I just prayed to a God I don't believe in" - it's a song about a romantic relationship break up. How much more do you think this dude would be praying to God given a life threatening situation for himself or immediate family? All end up on their knees sooner or later. It's just a matter of time.
      @Rachael - give it time sweetheart. Life will humble you soon enough. BTW - from whence did this "goodness" inside you come from to begin with? If humans went extinct tomorrow, would "goodness" in the Universe go with us? I don't think so.
      @Davem - I hear you, but don't be so quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Soup kitchens and food outreach programs are a direct result, in many, many cases, of "organized" religion. Not a whole lot of community outreach happens when you're cozy at home reading the "Power of Now" by the light of your favorite scented candle. There is a place and time for personal spiritual reflection and growth and a time for coming together as a community to sacrifice your time and talent in the service of others. The latter is much more effective when accomplished in a organized group setting for obvious force multiplier reasons.

      April 1, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  20. Ishmail

    Not soon enough! 🙂

    March 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • tomjones

      Of course we will get away from religion. Its a fairy tale from a long time ago to help people of that time understand what they could not understand. People used to think god was angry when lightning struck. If there is a higher porwer or force in the universe, then the bible sells it short, giving it human emotions. The bible is contradictory in many regards and people use it and twist it to do evil. Look at all the wars in the name of god or allah, if god is all powerful and wants someone dead, he doesnt need a man to do it for him.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Minos

      @Tom Jones– You have a ignorant and shallow worldview. I have little issue with atheists who actually understand something about that which they attack, but you're S.C.A.T. (Spiritually Challenged Atheist Troll) who doesn't have the slightest clue what you're talking about– so you resort to gross generalizations and intellectually lazy reductionism to make yourself feel clever. Worse, you lift your weak material directly from the likes of Dawkins / Hitchens, whose pulp fiction logic and revisionism wouldn't fool a thoughtful first semester philosophy student. That's the truth, no "fairytale".

      April 1, 2011 at 7:54 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.