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. Mark John

    Psalm 14:1 "The fool says in his heart there is no God"

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

      This silly verbatim quaoting will not be missed.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Ex-believer

      Why do you put so much stock in a phrase from a book that was written by mortals to control you? Looks like its working.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • SarahP

      Is that from the same book where the guy hears voices telling him to kill his son?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • jk8369

      Fallacious argument. You are dismissed.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  2. Dave

    Without the flood of illegals Catholicism and Mormanism would be on the verge of zero political clout. There is strength in numbers and that is why these two religions have done everything in their power to encourage illegal immigration.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  3. Colin

    Great to hear. I never thought I would hear it. I am elated that the steady march of science and freethought has doomed this nonsense to the dustbin of history and good ridence to it. Now maybe we can start accepting responsibility for our own actions without pretending we are being watched and rewarded or punished by some hokey sky-fairy.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  4. OnanismO

    "god"speed the loss of religion! At last!

    March 23, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  5. Cricket

    I read this on another blog earlier today:

    Religion is for those afraid to go to hell.
    God is for those who are not.

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

      And atheism is for those who have better things to do.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  6. no thanks

    how dare you guys attack God like this. Shame on all of you, enjoy fire for an eternitiy

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

      This is the very sort of nonsense I will not miss.

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

      At least I won't be cold in the winter.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • SarahP

      Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  7. Believer

    Actually, the more one studies the sciences the more one realizes that there is NO WAY all this around us happened by pure chance. Amino acid to this. Come on!

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

      Point me to a scientist who says that chance alone causes the things we see (including ourselves) to arise.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  8. Steve

    " 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." "

    How appropriately named. When you take away God, you really are left with nothing.

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

      Ok, Einstien, exactly what does god give you that I don't already have?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • Steve

      He gave all of us His life.

      He gives you the answers that science never will. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Why was all this created for?

      He gives you his Word glorified for us all on HIs cross.

      He gives you inifinite mercy and justice.

      He gives you his Sacred Heart.

      He gives you something to worship that doesn't ultimately consume you, but instead makes you complete. Makes you one with Him. Makes you truely free.

      He gives you salvation.

      I think all of those things are things God gives you and that's just the tip of the iceburg. Take all of that away, and you're back to nothing.

      March 23, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      And you're basing all of this on... stories that were made up a couple of millenia ago?? You've been living in fantasy-land for too long.

      In DOG we trust...

      March 23, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  9. Nonimus

    I don't know if someone brought this up already or not, but the articles assumptions seem incorrect on their face. Those assumptions being that majority groups are more attractive than minority groups and that unaffiliated has more utility in a majority unaffiliated nation.
    As a counter-example I would ask, if that were the case then how did unaffiliated ever become a majority?

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

      Think "Spanish Inquisition" as one example.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Kafir

      Now, for an example where religion is not forced upon, you'd have to ask what renders more freedom to the individual, all the duties and worship required with religion? or the freedom to live one's life as one pleases? That freedom in a western style democracy can breed a large unaffiliated group.

      March 23, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  10. Chad

    The main benefit religion has provided to the human species is population control.

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

      You mean controlling behavior, not controlling population growth, right?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  11. CT

    No one is judged for their religious orientation in their last testament. Only how they lived will be measured, rememebered briefly and forgotten or rewritten over time.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  12. C Wood

    EXCELLENT....9 down and a many more to go.... Maybe we can eventually live by common sense instead of a rules published in a fictional book.

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

      Amen brother!

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

      Ramen brother.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  13. Johnny

    Religion has always been a cult. A cult with a huge following, but a silly cult nontheless.

    It'll be good to see it reduced to what it was a few hundred years ago: a group of zealous (violent), non-thinking, fairy-tale believing loonies.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  14. Rick

    Can't happen a moment too soon. Maybe churches can start paying taxes soon too?

    March 23, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      Ha! That's my favorite solution to our current deficit problem. Fat chance, though.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  15. derp

    "I wonder how well I'd be respected if I said Merry Christmas in Iran, Iraq or Libya"

    If you don't like religious freedom and tolerance of different religious practices, feel free to move to one of the theocracies you mention above.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  16. T.J.

    im an atheist because there are so many signs pointing away from religion. what about the dinosaurs? come on people, believing in religion is like an insane person talking to sumone who isnt there.

    and i laugh at all the "Christians" who say the lord is coming soon. everyone knows that in revelation god says he wont return until his temple is rebuilt, which is the exact spot of the largest Muslim mos, so good luck on tearing that down.lol

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

      Not true...try again...temple was already rebuilt way back in the 1960's.....there is not a biblical thing that needs to happen before the rapture takes place...many things will happen afterwards that are explained. There is not one thing that needs to happen yet before Jesus returns in the clouds (except for God to say it's time) As He has said, "their eyes will always be perceiving, but never understanding." He knows He will be rejected...heck, his own people rejected Him. Anything that is being said on these comments are NOT a surprise to Him. There is no doubt this world is in some major birthing pains at this very moment.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • goingtoheavenforsure

      13For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

      14How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?

      15And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  17. Dean

    Great news, religion is evil that must be erradicated if menkind is to have a future...

    Such are the heights of wickedness to which men are driven by religion.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  18. The Truth

    Hmmm, not believing in a religion is itself a religion. I guess I will just have to rest in the fact if God does not exist in the end we all end up the same. But in the event God does exist I get a shot to go to Heaven and all the nonbelievers do not. Its win win for me. Life on Earth is less than a 100 years, eternity is eternity, feel lucky place your bets. I bet all those who are posting remarks against religion would be crying and begging God for forgivness when they die and they find He does exist. And for me if I am proven wrong and I just die I would not know it and just cease to exist, again win win for me.

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

      ...and if there were a God, as you posit, and if he were omniscient, as is widely believed, he would see right through Pascal's Gambit and you'd be damned anyway.

      Nice try though.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Patiat

      You can't possibly be serious. Really. How on earth did you reckon something like this? NOT believing something is a religion? Insane. Religious people are the ones who believe in unscientifically demonstrable forces at work in the universe, in unseen guiding hands that simply cannot be tested, which is why the burden of proof in religion—any religion—is on THEM, not on the unbelievers. And how on earth are you still raising that hackneyed old tale of Pascual's Wager to "bet" on the existence of god? Which god? There are literally thousands that people believe in! And when you reduce it to a bet as you have, is that really BELIEF? Of course it isn't! There is simply nothing sensible or believable in what you've written, and none of it even indicates you actually BELIEVE in a god, let alone have faith in one.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Rick

      I am pretty sure if there is a God that he knows you are wishy washy about your belief in him and playing the system so to speak and I imagine that would be a surer way to hell than not believing at all.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Realist

      Just because somebody isn't religious doesn't mean they don't believe in God or believe in the possibility of God's existence... People get that confused too often. And just because you're religious doesn't mean you'll make it to this place you call heaven... because after all, who's to say you're religion is a religion God even recognizes? In my opinion, if God exists, it doesn't matter if you believe or not or if you're religious or not. If you're a good person you'll be treated as such.

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

      perfect example of a smug american "christian"....and your first statement is false although I agree some atheist make a religion out of it

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

      Not believing in religion is not a religion. That is one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. When I die, I have a clean slate because I did not take sides. You do not have a clean slate. You took sides, claiming your belief as correct and condeming others as wrong.

      While I do not believe in heaven or hell, I recognize that over 500 religons have existed on earth. If there is a god, your odds of being right with him are 499 to 1. That's a bad bet. I will simply explain to god that I was unsure what to believe, and thank him for now revealing himself to me. I will explain to him how I have led a decent life, been a god husband and father, and treated my fellow man with respect and dignity. Straight through the pearly gates.

      You on the other hand, are going to have to explain why you voluntarily chose the wrong path. Are you absolutely sure you have picked the 1 out of 500 religions that are the right one? I think that is a long shot. More than likely you are wrong and therefore you are going to hell, and I am going to heaven. Eternity will be awesome for me, but it will suck for you.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • nepawoods

      "in the event God does exist I get a shot to go to Heaven and all the nonbelievers do not" ... That's assuming God condemns people to eternal damnation for using their God-given intelligence to come to the conclusion there's no evidence for him. But what if, instead, he condemns people for making such ridiculous assumptions, rather than use the brain he gave them? Then you're screwed.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • SarahP

      You should change you name from the "The Truth" to "I think so"

      March 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
    • someguyfromSaskatchewan

      Your thinking of Pascal's wager correct? I thought that way for a long time until something Homer Simpson said that made me think. I can't remember the exact quote but to paraphrase: what if we are going to the wrong church and every Sunday we are getting God madder and madder at us? Well at least we'll all find out – after we die. Too bad it's just too late to change! Oh the choices: Heaven, Hell or sleeping in till noon on Sundays.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • brian

      I agree with Truth Religion is everything that is void of God and Jesus Christ. As for me and my house (John 8:32 and John 3:16 is our eternal hope) we will serve the Lord.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Win win? Really? Well, what if Islam is right? What if Judaism is right? Where's your win then? You don't use your brain much, do you?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • mightyfudge

      Pascal's Wager is a complete fallacy. Argumentum ad Ignoramus. Please stop insulting us with that childish nonsense.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Dias

      Well, not believing in a religion is only a religion if not playing football is a sport. All religions make a claim that is generally backed only by forcefully asserting their viewpoint and faith. For some people, this isn't enough. They require a more tangible reason to believe in something, and can't believe in something that they find unreasonable. That's me. I consider myself an Atheist, and I wouldn't call it a religion because I am not asserting any unreasonable claim. Throughout my life I'm yet to encounter any evidence supporting a God or afterlife, so I don't believe in either. It's as simple as that. There is nothing aggressive or immoral about this, although your may find this viewpoint offensive because you were raised to believe something fundamentally different.

      Your notion that believing in God gets you a chance in heaven if God exists, while non-believers are screwed either way, is an argument called Pascal's Wager, and it does sound like a win-win scenario for you when you phrase it that way. There are a plethora of logical fallacies within the Wager, but I'll only discuss my favorite. It doesn't take into account the possible existence of all the other Gods and afterlives that were believed to exist throughout history. You have been raised to believe in a God which has just as much evidence backing it as any of the hundreds of God that you don't believe in. So, while you suggest the afterlife holds either the Christian God or Nothing, it is just as reasonable to assume that it holds Zeus or Krishna or Yahweh or Ra or Bumba or Nothing. And if this is the case, an Atheist has a far better chance for a joyful afterlife than a Christian. If you and I were placed before any God besides the one you believe in, you would have no way of reasonably defending yourself for not believing in them while believing in your own God. You are an Atheist towards all Gods except one, and because you allow yourself that indulgence you sacrifice the integrity of reason, and would be wordlessly sentenced to whatever punishment they deemed acceptable for non-believers. While the same may be true for myself, as an atheist towards all Gods equally, I can be placed in front of any God and explain to them why there wasn't enough evidence for me to believe in their existence. And if they are merciful, as the Christian God claims to be, they might allow me to partake in the joyful afterlife instead of the miserable one.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  19. Frank Sellers

    I hope it dies out in the U.S., too. It could survive only if right-wing bigots didn't try to use religion as a divisive tool to make their followers feel superior to anyone who doesn't adhere to their beliefs, but that will never happen. Although religion and a belief in a god or gods has brought comfort to millions over the millennia, it has also been the force behind untold horrors throughout history. Most Arabs didn't voluntarily convert to Islam and most Europeans didn't voluntarily convert to Christianity. The ancestors of today's Muslim Turks are those who agreed to convert instead of having their heads chopped off, unlike those who don't have any descendants today.

    Personally, I'm not an atheist, but more of a skeptical wannabeliever. Agnostic, perhaps, but that also insinuates "religion" which I truly abhore. I don't follow any one religion's concocted nonsense about heaven and hell and "God" and sin. I don't believe it's ever been possible for any person on Earth – or any other planet – at any time in history to know what – if anything – comes after a corporeal life. If there is a Creator I'm sure that He or She or It is quite disappionted by the actions of so-called men and women "Of God" who claim to know what "God" might or might now believe. All religious books were written by mortal men (or oppressed women using masculine pseudonyms), many of whom were of questionable sanity.

    So I say good-bye, religion. And good riddence.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:49 am |
  20. Treespeak

    I notice the total lack of differing between organized and spiritual religion, seems to me that more folks seem to be taking a vested interest in thier own spirituality. As well folks seem to be understanding that following people that dont live by thier words is stupid. Church based on money in any form directly goes against every religion I am aware of...free indeed

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

      This hit the nail on the head about people not living up to their beliefs. Look at the tea bags and republicans. They preach constantly that they are Christian. But look at how they all push to cut any type of service to the poor and middle class BUT THEY MESS THEIR DRAWERS to give the rich and the biggest corportations tax breaks so they don't have to pay any thing, nothing at all in taxes. Look how they push to de-regulate any law or action that prevents polution and protecting our food. Just because it might cost the corporations a little of the money they scammed from taxpayers. Oh heck yes. These tea bags and republicans make you positively ill with saying they are Christian and then doing the exact opposite.

      March 23, 2011 at 11:54 am |
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.