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. Youti

    I'm at a similar place, Melodie. I grew up in an agsontic house. In my teens and twenties, I did believe in a God, but at some point, I admitted to myself that that belief was gone. I can't really put my finger on where I'm at. Some days I feel Pagan, other days atheist, sometimes Buddhist. I'm trying to find a belief system that incorporates all that not easy!At the core of it all, though, really I just want to leave this world a little better than I when entered it. That's more important to me than what I am.[] Reply:August 31st, 2010 at 1:27 amI totally agree.[]

    March 2, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  2. gblsaavy

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    January 30, 2012 at 11:31 am |
  3. qopuukafofx

    w0OJVm rcqseugxjbxp

    January 28, 2012 at 7:11 am |
  4. Servena

    You've got to be kidding me-it's so trasnpartelny clear now!

    January 27, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  5. Phil

    Yaa. It's about time.

    December 22, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Martin

      I'm ipesmsred with your strength and bravery for opening up such a strong topic. I see you've already lost one subscriber, and I'm sorry for that. As for me, I think you were a little answer to prayer to help me find my own bravery.I have quiet time every morning with the Lord and today it focused on finding the strength and balance to openly share my beliefs on my blog without turning people off. I often hesitate about boldly announcing that I'm a born-again Christian because of the worldly, prejudiced views that are often automatically assigned to me. Admittedly, most people come by these views the same way I base my views on them: TV, news reports, the loudest and proudest of the group.I, however, have a very quiet, very deep relationship with Christ. One based on the Bible and not necessarily on religion (though I'm active in my protestant, non-denominational church). Shannon is very right. You don't always find God in church; but you will find him in scripture. Jesus even warns (loudly!) about tradition and law. Ceremony is not the heart of God.Only one challenge to you look in scripture, not church if you'd like to know more about Christianity. That's unfortunate, but true. I personally like Paul's letters, while the gospels leave me a little dry, though you get a good look at how liberal and radical Jesus was. Your choice. I love that you've searched for spirituality and found it. I agree that there is magic in the world. And I wish that people would set their sights on those things, and not of worldly, man-made things.You've inspired me to softly address my beliefs in a more direct way on my blog. You've done a beautiful job of it yourself.Oh, and my husband is a recovering Catholic too!Amanda s last [type] ..[]Melodie Reply:August 30th, 2010 at 2:53 pmThank YOU Amanda for your thoughtful response. I have never spoken about religion or spirituality on m blog before today, except as a short reference to my belief system on my About Me page. I was actually inspired to write this after reading Chandelle's post, so it is neat that it has had a trickle down effect. I suppose there is always a risk we take when we write about who we are at the core. it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. At times I wasn't sure I would hit publish but I guess the longer I have been blogging the braver I get.The reason I like your response to this so much more than Shannon's is because you took the time to explain whey God is found in Scripture. See, in my experience of reading the Bible at intervals throughout my life and listening to preachers read it aloud, is that it either 1) didn't make sense to me and 2) didn't strike me as something I wanted to learn more about from hearing it spoken aloud.It's hard to actually have a conversation about everything with someone over a blog, but there are a number of other reasons I have for rejecting Christianity for myself. But one day I would love to sit with someone who could explain it all to me. I did meet someone who was my friends Minister's wife who was very helpful and I wanted to go over to her house and learn more but I was worried she would feel like she was expending all this energy teaching me things only to have me stick to what I believe in already. I don't want to waste anyone's time in feeling like they could turn me, so unless someone shows an interest in telling me more, I don't push or ask.[]

      March 2, 2012 at 4:06 am |
  6. becool

    The Scientific Advisor of Napoleon Bonapart once said to him that we don't need God anymore, just because they made a few discoveries at their time! Man feels he is everything! Was this Advisor right???

    December 12, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  7. My

    It will never happen. It only take one with the faith of a mustard seed.

    December 12, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  8. Bob in Denver

    The continued success of religion depends heavily on a couple of factors. The first of those factors is intense indoctrination at an early age. The vast majority of believers are raised in an environment that pretty much shuns if not ridicules any attempt to question the moral supremacy of XYZ religion. In fact, I wouldn't think it uncommon that children who dare to question the existence of God or Jesus are swiftly met with severe punishment either in physical form or some other form such as verbal ridicule, loss of privileges, etc. "Theocratic parenting" is the term I'm looking for.

    The second is the belief that our nation was founded on Christian values and basically nothing else. Such a belief draws an erroneous and misleading connection between the success of the United States as a functioning society and Christian doctrine. In reality, there is no connection. If Christian values had held the potential for creating what we currently know as the United States of America, then our way of life would have existed long before 1776.

    In fact, democracy and theism of any kind are in direct contradiction with one another. This is because the success of democracy is made possible by the empowerment of individuals to take responsibility for their role in society. That is, people are expected to make decisions not only for themselves, but for the benefit of society as a whole. This of course, requires an intuitive sense of wisdom that is a reflection of independent decision-making.

    Religion, on the other hand, does not observe, acknowledge, or promote intuitive wisdom as a guide for societal harmony. Instead, the guide is a supreme deity, and the commands of that deity are laid down through an inflexible text, the existence of which makes the implication that human beings are utterly and totally incapable of governing themselves to the betterment of the general good.

    Therefore, from the perspective of someone who is truly religious, governance and religion are one in the same - and a true separation between church and state is an impossibility if people are to lead "moral" lives and live in a "moral society. That is, a government without religion is an immoral government regardless of how transparent and responsive to the general public that government may be.

    So, by process of deductive reasoning, I don't find it entirely unreasonable to suggest that the founding fathers were in fact "Godless." This is because if they had believed in a God, then the separation between church and state would never have happened in the first place, as its existence flies in the face of the very basis of religious ideologies of all types.

    And of course you'll hear people say, "Well, the founding fathers were Protestants." And to that I say of course they were. Would it have been possible for them to ascend within a deeply religious society in the first place without feigning allegiance dominant theology? Obviously if they had suddenly proclaimed themselves as atheists they would've quickly become victims of a populist backlash and found themselves hanging from the gallows.

    Nevermind the mathematics of the eventual disappearance of religion from western society. The concept is as simple as this: A true democracy existing under a truly secular government will be the end-all to any religion as time progress. And the two main reasons for this is 1.) Choice as described at the beginning of the post 2.) the acceptance of the notion that morals are a reflection of the common good as defined by empowered individuals, not a set of instructions found in a handbook drafted by the divine.

    December 12, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • Allan

      A brilliant discussion.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
  9. Dan

    Sweet! New missions fields! ! !

    December 12, 2011 at 12:34 am |
  10. Steve


    December 12, 2011 at 12:27 am |
  11. Good Riddance Fairytales

    Good riddance to these thousands of year old fairytales! I can't wait until these "modern day" religions go the way of Roman, Greek, and Astec "Gods".

    December 11, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
  12. bao

    Praise the lord this is awesome news. Religions are the number one cause of all suffering in the world, closely followed by politicians then corporations.

    December 11, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  13. Ned

    I don't think that is true. In terms of highly organized religion, people might move away from that, but a belief in a higher power will always be there. Also population growth on Earth in the coming years will be driven by places in Asia and Africa, places which are highly religious, ie India etc..

    Further in the United States atheism is more common among White people, however among Hispanic people and other minorities it is rare.

    The countries mentioned in this article are thinly populated irrelevant countries, religion will live on.

    December 11, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • bao

      Irrelevant countries? You really are American.

      December 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm |
    • Isaiah Tolbert

      WOW>..thinly populated and irrelevant. Seriously? Yeah, Americans really need to get out of the country for a while..and I am here.

      December 12, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  14. Arran Webb

    CNN if you want to get the blogs arguing on faith, which you seem to like to do every week or so, roll with headlines like this – "Darwin Proves No God" or "Evolution There is No Doubt" or "Fossil of Angel Found In Scandinavian Cemetery." Or if you had a writer on staff you could try "Darwin, God and the Logic of Empirical Knowledge."

    December 11, 2011 at 12:13 am |
    • Armi

      It's funny how many rrocveeing Catholics there are. My husband is Catholic (and Italian, which makes it even more intense), and we've been talking a lot recently about how he was never interested in religion when he was young because he always understood it as a this is the way it has to be kind of thing instead of something deeply personal that can be different for everyone. Right now he's got me reading about Buddhism St. Louis Smart Mama s last [type] ..[]Melodie Reply:August 30th, 2010 at 2:43 pmMy husband really likes Buddhism too. I love it myself. It's lessons have something that speak to me on a deep level as well.[]

      March 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm |
  15. Arran Webb

    And also God just told me that Joaquim, the soon to be born younger brother of Jesus Christ, will set the record straight. Which will give rise to the Holy Quatro. Father, Son, Brother and Holy Ghost.

    December 11, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  16. Arran Webb

    "If you look at the data, 'unaffiliated' is the fastest-growing group" in those countries, he said. Unaffiliated does not mean "atheist." And other research shows that people who believe in a "higher power" but do not associate with a particular religion are actually a faster growing group.

    December 11, 2011 at 12:01 am |
    • mac

      Nice straw man argument smart guy... the study addresses organized religion dying out not the rise of atheism.

      Also let me just say anecdotally, where I grew up (rural northern california), religion is already dead among my generation so I have a very easy time believing this study. My estimate is that no more than 20% of people in their twenties in my town believe in god and I am being generous.

      December 11, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  17. Elijah34

    The Roman empire thought about this very idea two thousand years ago. It is sad to say that that empire lays in the dust of Italy this very day. The written Word of God has been around for almost 3500 years, and let us not talk about the oral part of the Word. The only thing I see dissappearing is you and the rest of those that do not believe. The bible is the number one selling book of all time. It out sells any book every day. You and the experts need to check your facts again. Remember when you are dead and gone, the Word of God will steal be here preaching. Does a car or house just pop out of thin air, or does some one makes it? I agree with you, somebody some where made that house along with that car.

    December 10, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
    • Taz

      Elijah, your response makes no sense.

      December 11, 2011 at 1:37 am |
    • Allan

      Elijah, there are 1.6 billion Muslims that most certainly would disagree with you.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
    • Shelina

      I sppsoue people have the right to subscribe or unsubscribe from blogs as they wish, but how immature to include a jerky comment proclaiming it! Silly person. Anyway, like you I enjoy reading a variety of perspectives. I disagree with you on pretty much all your conclusions other than that you are nice!I was a Methodist but became Catholic, and mostly love it. The thing I dislike is that, like the Protestant churches I previously attended, the churches are full of people who don't believe what their own church teaches. If you are really interested in Christianity, you might learn more by reading works by theologians & church leaders than by just checking some out. Especially on the intellectual level you seem to be craving! I can recommend some specific books if you like!One thing I liked in Methodist churches was a frequent reference to a faith journey meaning you are constantly growing and changing in your understanding of and relationship to God (ideally growing wiser & closer to him as you age!). I'll say a prayer for you to find truth on your faith journey!!Maman A Droit s last [type] ..[]Melodie Reply:August 30th, 2010 at 2:59 pmI knew you would make a comment and I am glad you did. Are you speaking of the Jesuits? I don't know too much about them but find them fascinating from what I do know. Thanks for speaking up. I really appreciate your comment.[]

      March 2, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  18. Erisian

    If only we could do the same thing with our political parties.

    December 10, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  19. Frank

    Non Believers have been predicting the downfall of religions for a very long time. It will never happem, we are wired to believe in a higher power.

    December 10, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • Jim


      It depends on how you define 'downfall'. The prediction made by this model is based on trends that have been happening over a long time.

      December 10, 2011 at 9:37 am |
    • TC

      Agreed. As the article says – "it waxes and wanes" and at the end of one's rope, it is always amazing how everyone is searching for a savior.

      December 10, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Allan

      Frank, we're not talking about the belief in a higher power here, but the decline of organized religion.

      February 17, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  20. HArold CAmpAss

    From the article, ""religions are likely to survive in small enclaves and pockets" in the United States.

    He made those predictions in February 1968."

    Whatta prediction!

    Maybe it's the reason why we have a Christian President. And politicians clinging to religion for a sure seat in the government office.

    I think the article is just for laughs.

    December 9, 2011 at 10:56 pm |
    • ....

      I believe that religion will always be important to some extent...but we tend to forget that several of our 'Founding Fathers' weren't terribly religious from the beginning.

      Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison are just examples of early prominent figures in the United States who were no more than 'Deists' at best.

      Separation of church and state should be our basis when referring to politics, but I believe that voters place FAR TOO MUCH emphasis on a politician's religious beliefs/affiliation.

      December 10, 2011 at 7:25 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.