Is religion going extinct?

Both fans and foes of religion should take note. A study conducted by scholars from the University of Arizona and … Continued

Both fans and foes of religion should take note. A study conducted by scholars from the University of Arizona and Northwestern University, and presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society suggests that religion may be dying in nine countries. The study projects the extinction of religion in Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Linda Davidson


WASHINGTON – Alejandra Dove (L) and Ana Liza D. Gabest (R) pray during an Ash Wednesday mass led by Cardinal Donald Wuerl (NP) in Washington, DC on March 8, 2011. Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post) ( Photo by Linda Davidson/ The Washington Post)

This study, using complex mathematical models, confirms trends observed by social scientists for some time. While not studied, the trend line in the United States has been interpreted in similar ways by other scholars, most recently because of polling conducted for the American Religious Identification Survey in which the fastest growing religious group in America was the “nones” i.e. people indicating that none of the categories offered by the study fit how they would describe themselves when it came to religion.

Before religion foes begin celebrating however, it’s worth noting that these studies make a giant conceptual error – one which confuses the death of religion with the end of religion and religious affiliation as we know them. There is plenty of evidence for the latter two phenomena, but the fact that people are doing religion differently doesn’t mean that religion is going extinct.

These trends forecast the eventual extinction of the current array of religious options, but do not forecast the extinction of what might be termed a religious sensibility, which already exists for many people independent of typical religious categories, including God. The trend may upset those of us who are attached to particular traditions and institutions because those really might die out, but there is even reason for us to take heart.

None of our faiths has been here forever, and according to most of them, each is an improvement over what preceded them, so it’s likely that if these traditions should actually die out, they too will be replaced by potentially superior alternatives. I am not a supersessionist who believes that whatever comes last is best. In fact, that approach has proven to be quite deadly, at least for most of Western religious tradition, and actually for other parts of the world as well, though we tend to be less aware of their bloody pasts.

I am simply suggesting that if religion as we know it as a whole does go extinct, there is reason to believe that it will be replaced by religion as we do not know it yet, and that it may well be an improvement over the versions we currently have. But even if that process is unfolding, it will be, like most evolutionary processes, quite slow, so nobody reading this is likely to confront the actual death of the tradition to which they are currently attached.

In fact, while traditional religious affiliation and attachment is declining in some parts of the world, it is clearly on the rise in other parts of the world at the very same time. From China to Africa and many places in between, interest in, and formal affiliation with, religion as we know it, is on the rise.

Could these shifts be part of a much larger trend? It may be that in all of these places, people are insisting that the conceptual, spiritual, and religious offerings which have comprised their menu options are simply insufficient.



GAITHERSBURG, MD MARCH 09: Hedieh Mirahmadi prays with others at the International Cultural Center in Gaithersburg, MD on March 09, 2011. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The real story emerging here is not the potential extinction of religion, but the explosion of choice which people increasing feel is their right. This seems to be a trend which affirms human dignity – something which is supposed to be sacred for religionists and non-religionists alike —and therefore worthy of celebration.

As the study’s authors’ observe, “The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.” Isn’t that how it ought to be?

No faith can succeed if it does not work in the lives of the faithful. This study just reminds us, particularly those of us connected to organized faith traditions, that we must never lose sight of that fact, and if we do, we probably deserve to go extinct anyway.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • WmarkW


  • WmarkW

    Real comment doesn’t post.

  • Religulosity

    Faith is no virtue, skepticism no vice.

  • Sajanas

    While I doubt that discoveries in science will ever really kill off people’s belief in God, it certainly does undercut a lot of the claims that religious people make to power. This whole “earthquake as wrath of God” debate people have been having is quite useful, when you consider that 200 years ago, there would have *been* no debate. Of course it was some divine anger at something. Now there are alternative explanations for most of the major natural calamities, and for a good chunk of nature. Current religions aren’t really up to speed on this, and still present the world in a very punishment and reward manner, though they increasingly have to put off both of them till after death.
    Journalism is also pretty important. For so long we’ve taken the holy man’s word that he is holy, and that his miracles are real, and now we see how so many are parlor tricks, myths, bad reporting, and how many holy men embezzle, seduce, and defraud. As education gets better, as science improves, these old top down forms of religion grounded in ancient hatreds just don’t seem to cut it anymore. The religions today aren’t necessarily better in terms of being ‘good’, they are better at member retention and conversion than previous ones. Perhaps the people of the future don’t need to be converted, controlled, or bound within tradition to have fulfilling lives.


    Frequently a big elephant takes longer to die than a tiny bug.

    I fully agree with the author Hirschfield: religion is not dying jet. But I’ll add that it is in life support system to prolong its life for a while.

    In any case, if religion retrenches into an individual practice instead of a militant organized one, that will be much much better for the world.

  • jojoz1

    “Sir James Frazer was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death by carefully and methodically sailing all around his dangerous subject, as if charting the coastline of a forbidden island without actually committing himself to a declaration that it existed. What he was saying-not-saying was that Christian legend, dogma and ritual are the refinement of a great body of primitive and even barbarous beliefs, and that almost the only original element in Christianity is the personality of Jesus.” (Robert Graves).

    Having done extensive research myself I can confidently conclude that Robert Graves above statement is 100% correct.

  • eezmamata

    You can add the Balkan countries to that list as well. Here religion is seen as ‘quaint’, when they are trying to be nice, but mostly it’s seen as a juvenile practice, meant to help immature cultures maintain control of their peasants.

    And Brad, really, these countries don’t believe in your gods either. That’s why religion is going extinct, not because they don’t see these modern religions as providing good access to your gods, but because they don’t see any of your gods actually exist.

    You know what else is curious? They don’t even know they’re atheist. Without religion in your face all the time, you never think about it. You don’t realize you don’t believe in a god until you encounter someone who claims they do.


    typo: yet, sorry…

  • YEAL9

    What is happening?

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

  • artsy01

    This is one extinction that I would favor.

  • joe_allen_doty

    It seems that the churches which “have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof” are the ones who seem to be going extinct. But, here in the USA, there are more and more Charismatic and/or Pentecostal churches being started.

  • joe_allen_doty

    Many of those countries have had the politicized religion of Christianity as their official state religion and had dictators or kings as the rulers of the country, too. The political religion of Christianity was started by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine in 325 AD in Nicea. It was his idea to put all of the churches under one leadership. Constantine even presided over the 1st of the Seven Church Councils. The Nicean Creed was his idea, too. He used his version of “Christianity” as a part of his reason for going to war, too.

  • Rongoklunk

    Yep. What made Christianity so popular in the old daze was the fact that it was compulsory. A guy could get burnt alive back then – for NOT believing in the invisible – eternally silent – skygod. Yes millions are dumping absurd ancient ideas because there’s no evidence that any god ever existed. The thousands of gods that we know about – were all made-up – every last one of them, and it’s very encouraging to thinking people everywhere that finally we are thinking for ourselves – without fear of being burnt alive or tortured to death. Let’s face it. Without childhood religious indoctrination nobody would believe such nonsense.

  • globalone

    “that finally we are thinking for ourselves”

    Curious. How, exactly, do Christians not think for themselves?

    “Without childhood religious indoctrination nobody would believe such nonsense”

    Interesting. So, despite a daily barrage of secular media (literature, video, music, etc.) and education (public elementary, high school, college, and university), most Christians aren’t able to break free from the bonds of childhood?

  • globalone

    “Without religion in your face all the time”

    Odd. I just replayed an average day in my life and did not SEE an encroachment of religion at any point. Drive to work? Check. Working at work? Puh-leeze. Check. Drive home from work? Check. Other than my house and my individual time, anything have to do with Christianity was non-existent.

    Maybe you could share how Christianity intrudes, or is “in your face”, so frequently?

  • twmatthews

    So Globalone, you think that 90% of the children who wind up adopting the religion (maybe not the specific denomination) of their parents has nothing to do with the perpetuation of religion?

    Most of the secular media you point out do not have the objective of discouraging religious practices. But most religious practices from Sunday school to youth group are primarily focused on indoctrinating children into a specific belief system.

  • globalone

    “spending tax money for endless war”

    – – So I can assume you’re angry at President Obama (who is a “Christian”) about the bombing of Libya as well? A soveriegn country that poses no imminent threat to the U.S.?

    “subsidizing big oil”

    – – Are you upset with subsidies in general? Or are subsidies for farming, biofuels, energy, and agriculture okay but not just for oil? And, again, is your anger also directed at President Obama – who voted “For” the 2005 Energy Policy Act?

    “destruction of the environment for corporate gain”

    – – I dare you to find a single sermon on the web where a Christian leader, of any denomination, espouses the intentional destruction of the environment for corporate gain. I dare you. Really.

    “crying health care and education are “socialism”

    – – The fact that you don’t question a law, that for the FIRST time in the HISTORY of the U.S., forces consumers to purchase a product or service is truly amazing. This, on top of the blatent misdirection by President Obama who intentionally used the term “fee” when selling it to the American public but then turned around and claimed it was a “tax” in Federal court.

  • globalone


    Yes, it has something to do with it because the child has been exposed to it and given the opportunity to learn from it. When they become adults, these same kids will choose their own path to follow. They’re not brainwashed, as Rongo would like you to believe.

  • twmatthews


    But if you’ve grown up being taught by the people you trust the most that this is the truth and if the surrounding culture reinforces the same messages — like you derive your morals from God, Jesus was the son of God, Jesus died for your sins — then I contend you never stop to objectively evaluate the source of your beliefs.

    My journey away from faith only started after I actually read about other religions and beliefs and started reading articles and books questioning what I was taught.

    You’re right that as adults you have free will to inquire and choose which faith or no faith. But I think you are underestimating the power of youth indoctrination. Most Americans, by the time they reach adulthood, never bother to think about those things that they were taught as children. It has already become second nature. And when asked how is it possible for Jesus, having died 2,000 years ago, to die for the sins of people not yet born and was that the only way God could think of to reconcile with humanity — you will get a blank stare.

    If it wasn’t that most people of faith adopt their parent’s religion, we would find that the religion with the best evidential basis, that had the clearest, most compelling message would dominate. But we don’t find that. We find that the historical centers of each religion around the world are maintained.

  • Sara121

    “Religion in your face all the time”

    It’s the Westboro Baptist folks.
    The people who think a courtroom is an appropriate place for the Ten Commandments
    The people who think a public school science classroom is an appropriate place to teach monotheistic creationism
    It’s the National Prayer Breakfast
    The people who presume to tell women, especially those outside of their religious sect, how they ought to make sure they only have the number of children they want
    The people who throw a hissy fit every time someone says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas
    The Evangelical organizations that think an Army base is an appropriate place to have a proselytizing concert, and the base leaders who let them
    It’s the people who throw the “I’m so victimized” card in a country where they are they 85% majority when others try to make sure that that religion has no more undue influence on government than other religious beliefs

    It is always difficult to see when your belief system encroaches upon the lives of others, because you think it is normal.

  • Sara121

    The power of children to adopt and internalize the world around them is powerful. That’s what it means to socialize children into specific societies or groups. It’s not just religion, it’s all aspects of culture. That children listen unquestioningly to their parents and other adults of authority, especially those who their parents seem to trust, is actually an evolutionarily valuable trait. The children who unquestioningly obeys when the parent says Don’t play in the crocodile infested waters, is likely going to live a lot longer to pass on those genes than the child ignores the order. We can’t let small children experiment for evidence when we warm them of something dangerous. We also watch them closely.

    Religion is something of a misfiring of that, where children grow up in a certain culture, seeing the iconography, the symbols, the rituals, hearing the words of a religion, and so grow up thinking of it as normal and believing what parents and other adults of authority say about it.

    Religion is different from other aspects of our lives in two ways. First, religion doesn’t protect a child from something the way telling a child nor to play in crocodile infested waters does. Second, as children grow up and become adults, we actively teach them that in other aspects of their lives – law, finance, politics, education, etc – to ask questions and demand evidence of claims, whether those claims are that someone committed a crime, that a financial transaction is a good idea, that going to war is prudent thing to do, or that a particular college is better than another. There are tons of examples. In all aspects of our lives we demand evidence of claims.

    Religion is the only aspect of our lives where people are not so encouraged, even as adults, to ask questions and demand quality evidence; where such a demand is looked down upon and even scorned. To think for oneself means to learn to seek and evaluate evidence in all aspects of our lives, including religion.

  • eezmamata

    “Maybe you could share how Christianity intrudes, or is “in your face”, so frequently?”

    Since you’ve never been any place where it isn’t, you wouldn’t recognize it when you experienced it … in fact I can’t see you being willing to admit it or to experience it, so why should anybody waste time trying to explain it to you.

    You live in a place where your primitive superstitions are widely supported, you can safely assume that most of the people around you at least believe in variant of the ridiculous nonsense you believe, and it gives you support – you don’t have to feel like the fool you are for believing in this stuff.

    Really, you can’t possibly understand how refreshing it is to be free of people like you.

  • Secular

    All religions are nothing but rackets invented by the priest class for their exclusive benefit. The Kings and chiefs had found them useful so they mandated it on the rest of the bullies. It was the priests that pretended to be the interlocutors to the skydaddies and parted the people from their earnings. All said and done they were bunch wimps, who could only make the people part with their money by selling the con. Then the bullies (kings) came into the picture who could scarethe begeeses of the people and get the loot for themselves. Its hard to say who was there first. But both had found it mutually beneficial to cooperate. So we have what we have, today for the most parts of the world. Some western countries and a few Asian countries the bullies have been banished, but the priests have outlasted the bullies. Soon even that will change. Hip, Hip Hooray for that.