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. Thinking7

    Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, Have ercy on us and on the whole world. It is obvious why we are in the state that we are at the moment. Look around. This world is in utter chaos. I say pray and ask for forgiveness not just for ourselves but for all of humanity.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • HW

      Please be kind and kiss my derraire.

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

      Yes please have ercy on all us erks.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  2. Nick

    Good, hopefully the rest of the world follows suit.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  3. Colin

    "Just a few connections to people who are (religiously) unaffiliated is enough to drive the effect," he said.

    OK, my fellow godless heathens. Time to get out there and raise our voices. Make those connections and let's drive the stake throught he belly of these primitive supersti-tions.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
  4. HW

    Finally some positive news. Religion is the blight of humanity. It is used to frighten children and turns adults into children.
    I can't wait when I hear "The world has no religion." That would be a day of celebration.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Ex-believer

      John Lennon "Imagined" a world without religion as utopia.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • HW

      UTOPIA great word. Let go for it.-

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

      I find that although religion has the potential to help many, in the process it almost always divides people. True peace, and equality among the human race will never happen until we learn to celebrate and "worship" the things that bring us together, not what divides us.

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

      Okay I am all for this, but "Utopia" comes from the Greek word for "no place" so can we find a different term?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  5. DD

    I welcome the death of formal "ORGANIZED" religion. My belief looks like this. ME GOD.

    March 23, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  6. JC


    March 23, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  7. Pokydoke

    I'm glad to see that the business model that organized religion has followed for so many centuries is starting to fail.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  8. JC

    Access to information is killing religion.

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


      March 23, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  9. Eric G.

    I think a variable that the study does not account for is the accelerated rate at which humanity is gaining a greater understanding of our world through scientific discovery. Our scientific understanding of the universe keeps increasing, while the stories in religious texts remain the same. These religious stories are being proven as myth at a more rapid rate. Religions have become socially irrelevant because we no longer have a need for them to explain our existence. I do not think science is out to eliminate religous belief, or any gods. Science gathers more and more evidence to support it's case. All of the evidence is on the side of science.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  10. Susan

    In the future, you will see a destruction of organized religion, it is the will of God–the destruction of all religion that is not living according to his Word, and is not submitting to the loving Creator's will. Only his true followers will survive, and they will live on the earth under the rulership of his Son, the Christ. THEN there will be no wars, no killing, no sickness, no death, and nothing evil and no ONE evil to bring harm or discord.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Ex-believer

      Beautiful - "Kill everyone that doesn't share my beliefs." You prove why religion is vanishing.

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

      Good luck with that Susan. Might not pan out as you expect though:)

      March 23, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Denizen Kate

      Killing everyone who doesn't share your beliefs is the very definition of evil.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Greg

      And everyone will pee rainbows and poop cupcakes!

      March 23, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  11. Colin

    I am sooo happy. this has made my day. 9 down- 150 odd to go.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  12. Munroe-1

    "Religions are likely to survive in small enclaves & pockets" That is just how Christianity started. You really would not want to know what or how secret societies view religion at "Ivy league" colleges. Nevertheless, it strikes me interesting that, such a religion as "Muslim" shall become trendy interests for a period of time, while "spirituality" realigns its self. Personally, I find the collection plate a tad step in so far as some country clubs go, in the United States. Many churches are losing their humanity towards the true call of Christ, so as to protect their wealthy & exlusive members.

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

      theres no religion called 'muslim.' It's called 'Islam.' Some peoples kids...

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

      Why are you "quoting" everything? Learn how to use punctuation.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  13. JC

    Most people stay religious in fear of being outcasted by their social groups even though they no longer believe.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:57 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      Most people stay religious due to fear that this life is the only one they get.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  14. Rob

    "People are more likely to switch to groups with more members," he said.

    "They've gone from 0.04% unaffiliated in 1961 to 4.2% in 2006, our most recent data point," Abrams says.

    4.2%; does that really sound like the group with more members. This article and study has so many flaws in it it ridiculous.

    For all the athiests who like to call religous people "simple minded". May I remind you that you're the ones who think you're an animal, and that the evolution of your body is what defines you as a human. As opposed to the capabilities of the mind, spirit and soul. Even if you don't believe in God; I suggest you read some of the in depth philosophies of some of histories great religous thinkers. You could go historic and read something from St. Aquinas, or go more modern and read Theology of the Body; by Pope John Paul the II.

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

      Atheists, in general, know more about religion than those that follow it.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • Alyssa

      4.2% was specifically referencing Ireland, a historically religious country. Your argument is still fairly ridiculous. Just because something is wildly accepted doesn't make it true. 88% of all 4 year olds believe in Santa Clause. That doesn't make them right either.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Blaqb0x

      The fact that you use two straw man arguments against atheists to attempt to prove a point makes YOU simple-minded.

      March 23, 2011 at 1:53 pm |
    • Steve

      I would not want to read either Aquinas or Augustine for that matter since they were both highly immoral in my eyes. They either believed non-believers or supposed heretics should be tortured or executed...and these are the two most highly regarded philosophers of the Catholic Church. Thankfully is recognize evil when i see it.

      March 23, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  15. Guitar

    The reason behind it is people are finally starting to open their minds to rationality and 'other possibilities', instead of blindly following tales of folklore created by nomads running around in the desert thousands of years ago. (these people also sacrificed children, etc). When people finally dissolve unprovable religious fanaticisms, then we finally will all come together in the concept of peace and harmony, and for the betterment of mankind and our planet. Many think Islam is a radical religion, again – blindly following a fanatical tenant, yeah well – just read some of the posts by hypocritical christians on this thread. Their hatred, bigotry, and scorn is quite evident. If the man Jesus did exist, and did profess to loving all, why aren't the religious zealots following his lead and loving everyone with compassion and tolerance?

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

    A lot of variables play into the results of this model, and may not be contained within the model itself. The countries showing religious decline have gotten collectively more wealthy through the course of the study. Wealth makes people think they don't need religion to succeed. They may be right, who knows based on empirical evidence? The point is that if economic straits become less favorable, religion will become more popular again. Sociology (not math or physics) determines this, and the results will prove the point over time, again.

    March 23, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Denizen Kate

      Poverty and hardship are the very stuff from which religion is forged. How better to control a poor, downtrodden, unhappy populace than the promise that if they behave, the "next life" will be ever so much better?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  17. joe

    The assertion of a universal negative is not logical.

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

      Thank you MR. Spock

      March 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  18. Ryan Richardson

    What's wrong with you people? I do admit that just because your religious doesin't mean you will go to Heaven. You have to be Saved by the Blood of the Lamb to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But we all need Jesus and the Holy Spirit of GOD more than ever right now. Look at what our Kids and Teenagers are going through, we need Jesus in there hearts.
    Heavenly Father,
    Lord I pray that you send the Holy Spirt from Heaven Father and touch our Hearts. I pray that you teach us how to love and to be patient with others. LORD please forgive me a sinner and please just lead me in Rightousness. Please help the non-believers and allow them to see there mistakes and if your not saved by the Blood of the Lamb then you will Burn for ALL Eternity in Hell. I pray that the people see that and try to get you into their Hearts, Amen.

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


      March 23, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • Heywood Jablome

      I "pray" that one day you learn how to spell and create grammatically correct sentences.

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

      Wow, you pray that a loving God won't send them to burn in Hell for violation of rules he new they couldn't keep and so he sends a human sacrifice to die, and if for any reason that message doesn't register he burns them in Hell. Sorry there goes the dogma again!

      March 23, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
    • Howard

      Well, that's one point of view. Obviously, many people have begun to subscribe to a different one. They are people who have questioned the religion they were affiliated with ... and found it wanting for any number of reasons.

      March 23, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
    • sfsocla

      What "loving father" would condemn his child to an eternity in hell without hope of forgiveness? Why would anyone want to worship a being of such hatred?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  19. debbie

    I can understand how people become disillusioned by religion. So many religions have leaders who are corrupt and use their people to further their agendas – whether it be power, money, or other such things. I think people who are genuinely searching for a religion for them and/or their families have a hard time finding what they are looking for. I have read many studies over the years which support the fact that being part of a religion give kids an anchor (of course in addition to their families) in this harsh world. Those kids tend to do better overall in school and other areas of life. When I was young I was introduced to a religion with an amazing youth program and I felt so at home there. It really saved my life – and not just from a spiritual point of view. I grew up in a family with so many problems and it gave me the biggest anchor to hold onto. Now, I see how this same religion (I am Mormon) has blessed my children (they are teenagers now). I would not have done things any other way. I know some people see religion and even God as a crutch. I don't. The Lord has been my anchor when all else is crashing down around me. Having this group of people – this church family has made such a huge difference for me and my family. Kids and adults need that stability. There is so much in life that doesn't make sense. And even though religion doesn't give all the answers it helps me to have the faith that I need to withstand whatever comes my direction. And, my faith helps me to feel that someday, after this life is over, I will have all my questions answered about this life. Also, I love science and see no reason why God and science should be at odds with each other. Science and the pursuit of truth are gifts from Him. I hope my comments can be of some value to you.

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

      Very well spoken and I agree. One can take the positive from a religion and use it for moral guidance , social interaction, support, in short all the good and take the dogma at little value. Concentrate on how we should treat each other instead of how others are going to hell. Atheists don't know what they are missing, but I can't blame them for how they feel when Christians take the dogma more seriously than they should. Then religion becomes an ugly tool of hatred.

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

      One can also argue that religion is the last vestige of humanity's ego-centrism. Humans were once convinced they were the center of the universe and that everything revolved around the Earth. Then they learned this wasn't so. Then they were convinced that the Earth was flat, until they learned this wasn't true, either. Now most humans are convinced that the supreme creator of this vast universe is intimately aware of the details of all our daily lives.

      Thinking people are asking why would any being of such incomprehensible power and breadth of perspective take the time to be concerned with our infinitesimal existences? We live in an eminently logical universe, bound by laws we humans are gradually uncovering and learning. Is it reasonable to imagine that such a logical universe would be created by a creator any less logical? If not, then why doesn't that supremely logical creator show himself to every human in a way that would make it impossible for any single one of us to deny his existence? After all, if he really wanted our adoration or fealty, what better or more logical way to get it?

      March 23, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  20. Chris

    Kids are born atheist until told otherwise:

    March 23, 2011 at 11:55 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.