Do people become more religious with age? Or is religion aging with the population?

I have just read the article “Longer life expectancy ‘puts people off religion’” on the BBC Website, and had a few comments to make…

The first point I would make is about is ‘fear of death’ thing. According to Dr Elissaios Papyrakis, of the University of East Anglia:

“We show that higher life expectancy discounts expected benefits in the afterlife and is therefore likely to lead to postponement of religiosity, without necessarily jeopardising benefits in the afterlife.

I would direct readers particularly to the work of Phil Zuckerman in Scandinavia. It is a well documented fact that the ‘religious’ fear death more than the nonreligous (although I suppose for religious here one should read ‘Abrahamic faiths’). I guess it stems from the fact that a definite conception of an afterlife entails the possibility of eternal punishment, or at least some sort of judgement, and no matter how sure one is that one has led a good life (by whatever standard this is being judged) there is going to be a certain amount of fear there. So maybe this correlation is correct… but it might just mean that those who fear death because they already hold to some sort of ‘religious’ conception of an afterlife will be the ones who turn to religion as they become older…

The article continues:

Dr Papyrakis said religious organisations should be prepared to accept and attract a “greying church”, with membership skewed towards the older generation, particularly in countries like the UK where life expectancy is high.

To this I would add that according to Samuel Bagg and David Voas

“religious parents in Britain have an approximately 50 percent chance of transmitting their affiliation, belief, and practice on to their children, giving religion [Christianity] a “half-life” of one generation”

From Samuel Bagg and David Voas, “The Triumph of Indifference: Irreligion in British Society,” in Atheism and Secularity – Volume 2: Global Expressions, ed. Phil Zuckerman (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010), p. 101.

This is a well-documented fact, and were I to have more sources to hand in the office I would provide them. My point is that although we may be tempted to say that the reason churches appear to be ‘ageing’ is that the population is ageing, and although I do not deny that religion is vibrant amongst some of the ‘young’, the main reason that churches are seeing their congregations getting older is because that is just what they are doing…

The article then closes with the following passage:

However, a spokesman for the Church of England disputed the idea that people became part of an organised religion after assessing potential “benefits”.

“People go to church because they believe in something and wish to join in with a community of people who think they same way.”

He added: “The theory doesn’t fit with the US, which has the highest church-going figures in the world.

For this, look at any number of works on ‘existential security’ – particularly the work of Norris & Inglehart. Scholars of religion have been trying for many years to fir he ‘secularisation thesis’ – which works for the ‘rest’ of the Western world, with the fact that religion seems to be alive and well in the United States. Although Grace Davie would argue that Europe is ‘the exceptional case’, personally I am most convinced by the fact that in the United States the vast majority of the population live with next-to-no existential security. If you cannot afford health insurance, you literally cannot afford to get ill… parents face crippling debts and punishing hours to push their kids through college… and what about state care for the unemployed, the homeless, the elderly? Contrast this with the Scandinavian countries where levels of ‘nonreligiosity’ are amongst the highest in the world, and levels of existential security… government provision of vital services… are incredibly high. People may not join churches through ‘assessing benefits’ – as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke would suggest with their ‘Rational Choice Theory’ – but it certainly seems that the ‘need’ for religion is much greater where our ‘earthly’ needs are not being met…

These are just some thoughts off the top of my head… but I would be very interested in reading the actual text of the study.


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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

5 responses to “Do people become more religious with age? Or is religion aging with the population?”

  1. Michael Hampson says :

    I pretty-much laughed out loud at the line (in the BBC piece) “the Church of England is the prime example of the problem”. God bless ‘er, eh.

    One feature of the ageing of the population is the average age of the newly ordained. This has been rising at the rate of one year per year for decades now. They’re going to keep ordaining people born in 1956 until there are none left, then close down. I could write a small thesis on why 1956 is the year – the current CofE matches that generation perfectly. (It’s to do with the end of rationing, the heyday of the welfare state, the post-war era; and along the way, that generation paid the church’s entire historic assets to itself in improved stipends and grand projects and future pensions – so the entire operation will have to close down once they’re gone for financial reasons if not numerical and cultural ones…).

    “The theory doesn’t fit with the US, which has the highest church-going figures in the world.” I’ve been big on this fact since I spent a long sabbatical there in 2001. US religion is not all fanatical supernaturalist fundamentalism: in terms of the actual practice of the population it is dominated by a liberal catholicism and a whole range of liberal protestant denominations; if your theory about a sense of practical, temporal security holds, then it’s more to do with healthy human social interaction than supernaturalism.

    My stuff on the sad old CofE (and also the wonders of america) is in Last Rites (link)

    • religionandmore says :

      Last Rites looks very interesting, I really need to sit down and properly read some of your stuff sometime.

      And you know what the funny thing is… my father was recently (5 years) ordained as a non-stipendiary minister in the Church of Ireland… the CofE’s cousin across the water.

      He was born in 1956…

  2. Carole Cusack says :

    One of the difficulties with trying to get any kind of causal link going between aging and becoming more religious is that, just possibly, becoming religious (or rather, participation in religion, going to church etc) is part of a general drift towards conservatism (social and political) that often comes with aging. It isn’t always so, of course, but my partner Don’s 81-year-old aunt, a highly educated, fiercely left-wing atheist, constantly bewails the fact that her friends of forty years’ standing are so conservative and right-wing that she literally doesn’t know what to say to them most of the time. The implication is that had they met in 2011 she would not have formed friendships with them. But in 1970 when she was newly married and just returned from her decade-long residence in London, they were all very much on the same page.

    One problem is that broad attitudes, and the stories that countries and people tell about themselves, change. Australia in 1970 was a very buoyant, hopeful place. That year the Family Law Act introduced no-fault divorce, the Marital Properties Act followed hard on it, and the 1970s saw a positive story being told about Australia and Australians. We could make peace with our indigenous people, accommodate immigrants – Gough Whitlam, Prime Minister from 1972-1975, opened the doors to refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam and many other places. This made Australia more vibrant and more interesting, my students don’t believe me when I explain that before the mid-1970s no-one went out to dinner, there was simply nowhere to go, apart from sports and community clubs that served sausages and mash and a roast on Sunday.

    Australia also could participate in the sexual revolution – tonight on television there is a fictionalised account of the 1972 founding of Cleo, a magazine with discussions of female orgasms and nude male centrefolds, called ‘Paper Giants,’ which I am looking forward to – there were plenty of drugs around, and students rioted and protested with vigour, indifferent to the police records they all got. In 1979 the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, one of the largest, and most iconic GLBTI events in the world, first was held (partly as a protest against a visit by Mary Whitehouse, the UK ‘family values’ campaigner). It was a fabulous time to be young. I was 17 in 1979, and while all teenagers feel ‘bullet-proof’ some of the time, I think it’s more likely when a positive story is going on all around you. I felt bullet-proof, as the Americans say, period (AIDS wasn’t discovered ’til 1982, that contributed somewhat).

    Chris is right to draw attention to existential security (Norris and Inglehart’s stuff is great). Yet in the Australian case, there’s a further twist. Australians are massively better off now than they were in 1970 (in real terms), and Australia survived the global financial crisis with barely a blink. Yet the story now is that we have to police our borders and not let ‘illegal immigrants’ (that many of these people are legitimate refugees is almost never mentioned), we have to crack down on ‘welfare cheats’ (though there are hardly any, and this generally is about trying to force the disabled to work when they are medically unfit to), markers of difference are frowned upon (the Australian Muslim community, a mere 1.5 per cent of the population, receives disproportionate and undeserved negative coverage), and although privately most people (I think) subscribe to the notion that they should be allowed to take whatever drugs and have sex with whosoever they like, the public discourse is very much focused on ‘Christian values’ (in a country where 7% attend church regularly, where regularly is defined as every fortnight or every month) and talk of ‘working families’ (very heteronormative, too, though we have the marvellous Penny Wong, Asian-Australian Christian lesbian minister of parliament, whose partner Sophie Allaouche accompanies her publicly).

    In short, we have a less generous, more negative and paranoid story that is being told about Australia and Australians in 2011. In the ‘Religion and the Body’ Masters class I teach on Thursday night, the case of Bettina Arndt was raised. In the early 1970s she was a radical feminist and sexologist (her PhD was on the female orgasm), with a huge media profile (she was editor of Forum, a sex magazine). In 2011, aged 62, she is best-known to Australian young people for her espousal of the thesis that the crisis of male identity is the fault of demanding modern women. In 2009 she published a book, The Sex Diaries, which contained this immortal passage: ‘But built into that was also this assumption that you had to have desire in order to feel aroused, and therefore if you don’t have desire, you can’t proceed. And I’m arguing if the put the canoe in the water and start paddling, everything will be alright, provided the woman is receptive to that, provided the woman can get her head into the right place and be willing to put the canoe in the water.’ In other words, girls, give the men sex whenever they want it. You really will like it in the end (but the implication is that if you don’t, tough).

    So there’s one individual who has become extraordinarily conservative in the course of her lifetime and now wants the young to buy her conservative picture (without ever having had the fun, liberation and excitement of her youth). What I really want to know is why the American habit of politicians talking endlessly about God and Christian values has infected Australia; Gough Whitlam was an open atheist and Bob Hawke, Prime Minister in the early 1980s, was an agnostic who committed adultery often and had a heroin-addicted daughter, about whom he spoke in a celebrated television interview. Australian society seems to me to be rolling back freedoms and turning back time, which I find very disturbing.

    Apologies. This has drifted all over the place, and I’m not sure if I made a point. My excuse? I don’t want to complete the three referee reports on journal articles that are due tonight. Chris, you are very diverting … well, to me, when I want to avoid working :-)

  3. religionandmore says :

    What an interesting comment, cheers Carole. I am in work just now, so I shall endeavour to get an email out to you.

    Fascinating stuff :)

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