Religious Age, Period and Cohort Effects

I wish I had had this to hand when I wrote my post on: Do people become more religious with age? Or is religion aging with the population?

An excellent summary of the various potential explanations, by David Voas:

“Imagine that a prophet comes to town and persuades a significant number of people, young and old, to convert to a new faith. The change is rapid and potentially enduring. Such a shift is an example of a ‘period’ effect, because it is specific to one particular point in history.

            Imagine next that as children emerge into adulthood they adopt distinctive creeds and forms of religious behaviour, much as they do with music and slang. Society would alter even if no individual changed once he or she reached maturity because older people would gradually be replaced by younger people who did things differently. Here we have a ‘cohort’ effect: people who were born around the same time (or were at school together, or fought in the same war) share certain characteristics by virtue of their common formative experience.

            Finally, imagine that people tend to have little interest in religion in youth but gradually become more religious with age. This pattern would be an ‘age’ effect. Perhaps the change occurs on reaching key stages in life, such as marrying and having children, or maybe it results from an awareness of personal mortality or an evolution in priorities. In this instance every single individual might change without society changing at all, because at any point one would always find the same mix of old and young, more or less involved with religion.”


Voas, David. 2010. Explaining Change over Time in Religious Involvement. In Religion and Youth, ed. Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 25-32. Surrey: Ashgate, p. 25.


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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.

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