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.