Author Behind ‘Religion to Disappear By 2041′ Headlines: That’s Not What I Said

I swear, I saw this headline and story all over the Internet last week:

Author and noted biopsychologist Nigel Barber has completed a new study that shows Atheism is most prevalent in developed countries, and, according to his projections, religion will completely disappear by 2041. His findings are discussed in his new book “Why Atheism Will Replace Religion.” A new study that clarifies his earlier research will be published in August. His findings focus on studying trends within countries around the world and the fact that “Atheists are heavily concentrated in economically developed countries”-

Turns out the story’s not-at-all accurate. What Barber actually said is that, according to his calculations, religious people will be in the minority by 2041. The Nones will have come into the majority.

In other words, the headlines are only a few billion people off the mark.

Religion won’t go away. But its power will dissipate.

(In fact, Barber’s claim isn’t even news. He said it in 2011 and 2012, too. No word yet on how many copies of his book have sold as a result of the publicity…)

Here’s the better question: Is it a fair prediction?

Barber’s claim is based on the fact that countries that are economically strong are less religious — the U.S. being a major exception to that rule.

Clearly there is less of a market for religion in societies where ordinary people feel secure in their daily lives. In the most developed countries, such as Japan and Sweden, the quality of life is so good that the majority is already secular.

Using GDP, the human development index (HDI), and some math, Barber extrapolates the trend and hits upon 2041 as the year when the world tips over to the non-religious side.

As much as I’d like to believe it, Barber works off of a lot of assumptions (decreasing fertility rates, rising economies worldwide, no major catastrophes) and assumes that things will continue into the future just as they have been. That’s quite a big leap.

As much as I want him to be right, there’s no reason to think his claim, even if there’s some math to it, is anything more than wishful thinking.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Glasofruix

    U.S, economically strong, hahahahaha…

  • Jasper

    Gotta be careful about extrapolations

    • Jasper
    • TheBlackCat13

      In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

      -Mark Twain

    • Brian

      Problem is…they didnt even extrapolate…the headline completely misrepresented the data entirely, claiming one thing, when the study claimed something else.

      • 3lemenope

        Yeah, I think Jasper’s talking about the study, not the headline.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    Are people actually unaware that the person who writes the article almost never writes the headline? the headline therefore is not part of the official text of the article. It’s fine to criticize a publication for misrepresenting the article in a headline but getting information only from headlines is foolish and irresponsible.

    • UWIR

      1. Hemant never singled out the author of the article for criticism. Someone wrote the headline. And that someone can be criticized. Just because something’s a headline doesn’t mean it’s exempt from journalistic standards. That’s absurd.

      2. The article is actually worse than the headline, as it adds the word “completely”. So I really don’t understand what you’re going on about.

  • advancedatheist

    Firebrands with agendas argue that we should make drastic changes to our lives now because their models predict catastrophic global warming, “bankruptcy” for the U.S. and so forth. (Funny how no one ever worries about or predicts “bankruptcy” for the Pentagon.) Some of these people can get into power and try to use their statistical ghost stories as the basis for public policy.

    So I wonder if religious obsessives will take Nigel Barber’s forecast seriously enough to advocate policies to try to make the American population more religious again.

    • Artor

      Have you been reading the same news I’ve been reading? When have the religious obsessives ever stopped advocating policies to make America more religious?

  • Lee Miller

    The key, of course, is “developed countries”. What is one to make of countries like the U.S. which seem to be going backwards?

    • JA

      The U.S. is pretty much the sole exception to the rule. If it wasn’t for the Moral Majority movement in the ’80s, I doubt the anomaly would be as pronounced, or even noticeable.

      • ctcss

        One huge difference may be that the US, unlike many other countries, never had a state sponsored religion. Thus, people came here for reasons of personal freedom and choice. So, unlike other countries where there might be a historical bad taste left in the mouths of many because of enforced or sponsored religion, over here, people may have chosen their religious affiliation freely because it resonated with them to whatever degree. And when you have a choice, you generally hang on to what seems precious to you.

        • Ibis3

          I don’t know that that (very common) explanation is valid. None* of the developed Commonwealth countries had a state-sponsored religion, yet they are nowhere near as religious as the US. Also, it’s kinda mythical to think that people generally went to the US for “reasons of personal freedom and choice”. Most immigrants to the US went there for reasons of economic opportunity.

          *Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any, but I may be mistaken.

          • ctcss

            Of course economics played a part. Many colonies were started as business ventures to exploit the resources of the new world. But freedom of choice was also a large reason. So much so that when religious oppression started here, people left those specific areas and went to another so they could practice what they desired without interference from the newly proud “powers that be”. For instance, Wikipedia notes “Maryland was notable for having been established with religious freedom for Catholics.” And Rhode Island was formed because of the need for religious freedom since Massachusetts was being so restrictive that Roger Williams had to flee it. (Doubly ironic since the pilgrims came to Plymouth to be able to practice their faith freely. Wikipedia notes “The Pilgrims’ story of seeking religious freedom has become a central theme of the history and culture of the United States.”

            Like it or not, religion has meant a lot to many people and they were often willing to go way out of their way to be able to practice it freely.

          • UWIR

            It depends on just what you mean by “state-sponsored”. For instance, Canada has religious schools paid for by the government.

    • Edward

      I’d put a lot of it down to uncertainty. In most developed countries, if you come down with a serious but treatable illness, the state will take care of your treatment, and you can move on with your life. In the USA, it seems that that kind of unfortunate event is likely to literally bankrupt you. From what I gather, a similar situation applies to unemployment.

      (Disclaimer: I have never been to the U.S.)

  • Ibis3

    As much as I want him to be right, there’s no reason to think his claim,
    even if there’s some math to it, is anything more than wishful
    thinking.

    Um. His claim is only that if trends continue, the result will be a non-religious majority by 2041. That’s not wishful thinking. Now, it may be wishful thinking to think that the trends we see will continue, but then there’s no reason to think they won’t. Sure, we could have some unexpected major natural or economic or political disasters or, on the other hand, he may have underestimated the effect of the Internet and his numbers may be too parsimonious, but if such events occur, then we can modify the model.

    It’s not much different from climate change models: if trends continue as we project, the global temp will rise by so much, the sea level will rise by so much, this or that ecosystem will be damaged or lost. If, on the other hand, we make a change by decreasing or increasing our fossil fuel consumption for example, the models will change.

  • ufo42

    “Clearly there is less of a market for religion in societies where ordinary people feel secure in their daily lives. In the most developed countries, such as Japan and Sweden, the quality of life is so good that the majority is already secular.”

    That’s why the GOP (God’s Own Party) in the USA is hell-bent on eliminating the last vestiges of a social safety net… so that the increasing numbers of desperate long term unemployed people will be driven into the unreliable arms of the various churches.

  • UWIR

    2041? Really? Not 2040 or 2042? That’s remarkably precise.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ TBJ

    California’s Prop 8 did not get initially passed due to 2000 years of christian love and tolerance. Theism’s tradition of intolerance is the root cause of it’s declining attractiveness and that amongst a few other horrible revelations will resonate in the minds of people for years to come, forever eroding their numbers. Modernization’s doctrines of freewill and diversity will continue to undermine and erase authoritative movements like theism. The theists are stepping up their game to win back mind’s and with mass media and readily available information it is highly likely some predominant theistic organization will make a mistake that will turn the minds of freethinking individuals across the world permanently against them.

  • Johnathan Fullman

    Treating religiosity like a Markov Process, I best fit the data for the USA and that model predicts religion in the minority by 2060-2100… I feel like 2041 is fairly optimistic.

    • epeeist

      Treating religiosity like a Markov Process, I best fit the data for the USA and that model predicts religion in the minority by 2060-2100… I feel like 2041 is fairly optimistic.

      But that is the US. In the UK the 2001 census had 77% of the population as Christian, the 2011 census gave a figure of 59.3%, and this was based on a loaded question (“What is your religion?”). In surveys that ask whether you regard yourself as religious as an initial question religion is already a minority interest.

      In fact the projection, by Christian Research no less, is that the Church of England will be down to 86,000 members by 2050. So not only a minority, but effectively disappearance.

  • Guest

    No major catastrophes? Global warming and Peak Oil, anyone?
    I’ll believe it when I see it, assuming I live that long.

  • Gus Snarp

    I have very little faith in the ability of statistics to make predictions about human behavior extending out to nearly thirty years. This in spite of the fact that a good portion of my job is about doing exactly that.

    In general we’ve got a bad track record with that kind of prediction. I think we’ve got better methods and better data now, but I still wouldn’t bet on the results. It’s an interesting way of looking at trends and where they might lead, but it’s not likely to be particularly accurate, at least in part for some of the reasons you mention.


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