Why Are the Unaffiliated Becoming Religious Later in Life?

Earlier this week, the Pew Forum released a survey on religious affiliation and found that a number of people raised without religion became religious later in life — in higher percentages than Protestants/Catholics who later became unaffiliated.

The main reason the non-religious said they later became religious was that “spiritual needs were not being met.”

In Saturday’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Charles Blow analyzes this study. He points out what so many of us have known for a while — unless we can offer certain benefits that religions provide, minus the supernatural aspects, atheism is going to remain a hard sell for many people:

While science, logic and reason are on the side of the nonreligious, the cold, hard facts are just so cold and hard. Yes, the evidence for evolution is irrefutable. Yes, there is a plethora of Biblical contradictions. Yes, there is mounting evidence from neuroscientists that suggests that God may be a product of the mind. Yes, yes, yes. But when is the choir going to sing? And when is the picnic? And is my child going to get a part in the holiday play?

As the nonreligious movement picks up steam, it needs do a better job of appealing to the ethereal part of our human exceptionalism — that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign. It’s the part that fears loneliness, craves companionship and needs affirmation and fellowship.

We’re getting better at that. Atheist Sunday schools are booming, local groups are thriving, and secular college groups are growing.

Blow even quotes my friend Dale McGowan:

Dale McGowan, the co-author and editor of the book “Parenting Beyond Belief” told me that he believes that most of these people “are not looking for a dogma or a doctrine, but for transcendence from the everyday.”

Churches, mosques and synagogues nurture and celebrate this. Being regularly surrounded by a community that shares your convictions and reinforces them through literature, art and ritual is incredibly powerful, and yes, spiritual.

The nonreligious could learn a few things from religion.

We’re hurting ourselves if we shun all the positive things churches provide just because we find their beliefs so irrational.

Community, family, traditions — those should not be confined to religion. We already can offer plenty of each, and if we took those more seriously, people wouldn’t be so quick to become religious and buy in to all the negatives that come with it.

  • http://blogikal.wordpress.com Drew

    “that wondrous, precious part where logic and reason hold little purchase, where love and compassion reign.”

    Why do people assume that logic and compassion are self contradictory? Do we have to be illogical to be compassionate?

  • Leanstrum

    What we need is a set of celebrations that commemorate real-life things that we can all appreciate. Christians celebrate the resurrection of their saviour in the Spring time, which happens to be a great time to celebrate the birth of new life anyway, what with Spring lambs and the giving of chocolate eggs. The changing of the seasons and the resulting changes in our food and our lifestyle is something we can all relate to. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Easter falls in the Spring, though it may be difficult to argue considering it really coincides with Passover. Anyone know anything about that?

    I think even the most change-hungry Liberal appreciates doing many of the same things every Christmas time. There’s a lot to be gained from tradition and ritual. We as humans have an affinity for the familiar in many ways, so yes, we need to find some way of keeping that. I’m not sure a weekly gathering is exactly called for, and it would be difficult to organise something like that without a religious motivation. I saw a documentary on the BBC involving something called a Burning Man gathering in the desert of (I think) Nevada. It’s a sort of pseudo-religious ritualistic gathering – one of the ‘events’ involves writing messages to deceased or lost loved-ones on a wooden structure and then burning it. I though it was a fantastic way to say goodbye in a spiritual but non-supernatural sense.

  • Shane

    Do we have to be illogical to be compassionate?

    Look at Spock’s haircut. No one with any compassion would give him that haircut.

    I don’t think the “nonreligious movement” has to do anything. It doesn’t really exist as a stand-alone entity–it only has meaning in opposition to religious thought. It’s like starting a baseball fan club for people who don’t watch baseball. Doing anything under the banner of “non-religion” is just a recipe for failure.

    Why can’t you get the community, affirmation, and companionship through volunteering or joining some hobby or sports team. There is enough real mystery in the world without having to make more up, but if you need that kind of thing there is tons of it in your local library. And it is hundreds of times more imaginative and powerful than the tripe you find in the Bible.

  • Ron in Houston

    I think people become religious later in life because they hear the tick-tock of existential angst getting louder and louder as they get older.

    Can a non-religious movement solve that problem? I doubt it.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    I don’t agree at all. First, are these “unaffiliated” already religious, or are they real atheists or agnostics who don’t know they can be atheists or agnostics without being demonized?

    For the non-religious that want a church, community, or whatever, surely that’s what Unitarians are for?

    One of the big benefits of atheism is you don’t have to get out of bed early sunday morning, you don’t have to get involved in the petty politics of a local community. You don’t need to do silly rituals.

    As an atheist I don’t want a non-religious religion to follow, with it’s community and rituals and all that. I’m not looking for a secular replacement for religion. Actually it quite disturbed me in the parenting beyond belief book that unless USA atheists are generally very different from English atheists or Canadian atheists or the atheists from the USA that I’ve met, it was written for atheist parents very, very different from that which I’ve known, and that have very different needs and desires.

    It was bad enough when we had a god shaped hole in our hearts, and now we’re getting told we have a religious shaped hole in our minds. I suppose it’s better than a Jesus shaped hole in our brains, around the area where reason and morality used to live though.

  • http://www.parentingbeyondbelief.com Dale McGowan

    I think people become religious later in life because they hear the tick-tock of existential angst getting louder and louder as they get older.

    This doesn’t account for the group Charles is really talking about: people who join churches in their 20s and 30s. The pre-ticking years.

    Actually it quite disturbed me in the parenting beyond belief book that unless USA atheists are generally very different from English atheists or Canadian atheists or the atheists from the USA that I’ve met, it was written for atheist parents very, very different from that which I’ve known, and that have very different needs and desires.

    It sounds like you and I are quite similar. These things don’t appeal much to me either. When people wax poetic about the need for community, or the need for Something Greater Than Myself, my eyes glaze over. But the problem with our movement to date has been our stubborn refusal to see that this makes us different from most people, and that we better damn well wake up to that fact if we are to grow as a movement.

  • http://www.CoreyMondello.com Corey Mondello

    I believe people are drawn to religion or a more spiritual life as they get older for the same reasons mentioned before.

    Age I believe is the main reason. With age, if you have kids, they have moved on/out, maybe your significant other passes away or moves on, friends may do the same….life gets less busy, leaving people with more time to focus on themselves, even if they are working jobs, if your home is empty when you go home, you are infact, alone with yourself, eventually you will cross paths with your own eyes in the mirror and say; “What is this all for?”.

    What gives me freedom from a fear of this is that I have been through many periods in my life when I have been forced to look at myself. Many of my friends are married, have kids, (which I believe is another way of getting a dose of reality about yourself and life) and have less time to actually sit with themselves. I can step outside into the city and walk down the street and talk to many of my neighbors, story clerks, people I see on a daily basis, but I always have a choice to come home and sit with myself, with my pets or converse on the web.

    I read somewhere that, people that live alone for most of their lives are less apt to have these mid-life-like crisis’ where you open your eyes and realize no one deepens on you or needs you and no one really seeks you out to care for you.

    Being human, I am hard-wired to socialize, as we all are, but I doubt I will be the type to “seek-out” religion or any sort as I age, I have already done that.

    However, I am aware that I am not a closed book and life can change at any moment, this is why I would never get the following tattooed on my body; “Vegetarian”, “Atheist” or anyones name, other than a pets… :)

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I think its simply fear of dying and looking for a “get out of death free” card.

    A more mature mind-set knows that death is eventually necessary to “clear the stage” for others to exist.

    All of the “wanting to belong, etc” would only be a motivation earlier in life.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com Donna

    Hemant, I agree with your thoughts on this completely. I’ve thought about this a lot…. I know that some atheists have no understanding of “spiritual needs” and no desire to understand what people mean by that (no it’s not just awe & wonder or appreciation of beauty nor is it simply a desire for community), but that doesn’t mean that we have to put down those who do sense these needs and who look for ways to fulfill those needs without gods and superstitions. We should embrace people who are taking this path.

    Not all Christians go to church regularly or participate in the rituals others have mentioned in their comments, and not all atheists will be the same either. But we shouldn’t be so quick to put down people who have a spiritual need just because we don’t sense that same need in ourselves or because we don’t understand what they mean by “spiritual.”

    Personally I do not care if people believe in God or not. I am more concerned about the details of how they treat others and how they vote.

  • http://themousesnest.blogspot.com Mouse

    My wife and I have belonged to a Humanist “Sunday School” (for lack of a better term). It was focused on gently introducing kids to the ideas of myth and religion, from an even and rational viewpoint, and science’s wonder. It also gave the parents a chance to chat and talk about raising kids in a predominantly religious society. The main reason we haven’t been going is that we live further out from the meeting place than anybody else.

    This sort of thing does not have to be as rigid and structured as a regular church, certainly nothing approaching the usual church time commitment, but it still provides a sense of community.

  • cathy

    Donna, in every context I know of “spirtual” intails believing in magical crap. Deep emotional enjoyment, on the other hand, can come from something like a good book, spiritual is more hocus pocus.

  • Brooks

    I don’t agree at all. First, are these “unaffiliated” already religious, or are they real atheists or agnostics who don’t know they can be atheists or agnostics without being demonized?

    I think this is a good point to bring up as the survey doesn’t really seem to specify what they mean by “unaffiliated.” Do they simply mean people who already believe in Jesus and the inerrancy of the bible but didn’t really think about it much or go to church any until they had a mid life crisis or is it people who actually don’t believe in any gods? Also, does the survey show which churches and religions are the unafilliated joining? Is it the liberal churches like the Unitarians or more fundamentalist churches? I don’t think we can say what needs to be done until we know more about who’s actually joining the churches and which ones because that would give us more of an idea as to why. The article seems to be jumping to conclusions that the people joining must be the hardcore materialist Dawkins-types and blames atheism’s inability to be something it’s not as being responsible for what other people do yet doesn’t offer any evidence for how they came to these conclusions. I also second the suggestion that we need more Unitarian churches.

  • Nick

    I know that some atheists have no understanding of “spiritual needs”

    That study needs to better explain what “spiritual needs” indicates. It’s such an ambiguous term that it’s difficult to conclude what those in the study mean. Do they mean connection to a higher power? Do they mean connection to something greater than themselves? Does that mean something as simple as a greater feeling of community? Or is it a fear of death and the need to have an answer (even if it’s incomplete) provided to them of what lies beyond? It doesn’t do any good to speculate and, perhaps, copy aspects of mainstream religion unless it is known that is what people want.

    Ironically, I believe I have a better understanding of myself and my place in the world since I’ve let reason step in and quell the belief I had in a personal God.

  • MAZZ

    I think this explains it all:

    The main reason the non-religious said they later became religious was that “spiritual needs were not being met.”

    The people referenced above are not atheists or agnostics but are people that would define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (see Greta Christina’s blog about this nonsense).

    I believe people like this are not raised strictly religious, as in not going to church every week, celebrating dead and risen Jesus on Easter, blah blah blah, but more likely taught that Jesus was a real person (who was possibly divine), there is a creator God and there is an afterlife. Taken this way it makes perfect sense for people to “become religious” later in life because becoming religious to them means doing the exact same thing they have already been doing but now adding in a little church.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    What does “spiritual” mean outside a religious context anyway? I don’t see how any atheist has “spiritual needs”. Sorry. Just don’t get it at all. Maybe it’s because back when I was young I was CofE, which is about the least religious religion going….

    Oh, and in one way I guess I am spiritual – I enjoy the holy spirit of single malt scotch. I fully endorse that kind of spirituality.

  • Tim Stroud

    Atheism, as it stands by itself, brings no added value to people.

    Proper reasoning brings value.(And may lead towards atheism) Inclusionary attitudes bring value, Tolerance brings value (and may lead away from religion).

    Right now many people believe that faith brings value. Salvation, and fellowship with believers and the sense of connection with a greater being, etc. are all added “extras” they believe that the “religious product” brings. And certainly if people are innately social beings then church fellowship fulfills that particular need quite easily.

    Atheism needs soaring art and architecture and literature and song and humor, products that attract people. And especially it needs good, happy, secure, tolerant, well reasoning people with outstretched hands to welcome other people.

    I raise my glass to all of you good people. Cheers!

  • MH

    I disagree that the 20′s and 30′s are the pre-ticking years for an existential crisis. I think that can happen at any age when you develop a real awareness of mortality and the finality of death. This is particularly likely to happen if you loose a loved one at a young age.

    I also think that Humanism/Religion mashup promoted by people like Greg Epstein won’t really work as a mass alternative either. But if it works for some people then I’m happy for them.

    So I can understand why some people raised without religion become religious as adults and have sympathy for their predicament.

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    But the problem with our movement to date has been our stubborn refusal to see that this makes us different from most people, and that we better damn well wake up to that fact if we are to grow as a movement.

    Thank you!

    Every single time we have a discussion about this, someone says “well, I don’t feel this way, so this is rubbish”, and then five or six other people chime in and say “I agree, I’ve never felt this, so this must be superfluous”, and it never occurs to some people that maybe that makes you different and not everybody is exactly like you??

    It’s frustrating sometimes. It reminds of a conversation I had with Dan Barker. He told me that sometimes, if he tries hard enough, he still can recall a “spiritual” sensation, and he believes that there is something like a bell curve of individuals who feel these sensations strongly or not at all, and various points in between.

    What I suspect is that many of the people here are at one end of the bell curve, and do not understand why other people would have a need that they don’t have. If Barker is right, then we need to seriously acknowledge this and stop telling ourselves, “well, I find no value in this, so this must be rubbish”.

  • penguinsaur

    Notice how no one can actually agree WTF ‘spiritual’ means. the two most common definitions seem to be:
    A. Freaking out about death and latching onto anything that saves you from that.
    B.needing a community, which doesnt explain why they dont just join a sports team or one of the other thousands of group activities that dont shun and demonize you for not following their every whim.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Why can’t you get the community, affirmation, and companionship through volunteering or joining some hobby or sports team.

    In the long run, Shane, I agree. But in the shorter term: A lot of hobby or volunteer or political groups that aren’t specifically oriented towards non-believers may not be so welcoming towards us. We need places we can go where we can be out about who we are without fear of shunning or reprisal.. or even just without fear of making a scene and getting into an argument.

    One of the big benefits of atheism is you don’t have to get out of bed early sunday morning, you don’t have to get involved in the petty politics of a local community. You don’t need to do silly rituals.

    “Have to” being the operative words, PrimeNumbers.

    Many people want that stuff, or stuff like it. Many people want and enjoy ritual: it seems to be a pretty basic human need. You may not need it, but lots of people do. Very few people want petty politics… but a lot of people do want to be involved with their community in a direct, non- virtual, in- person way. And some people don’t hate getting out of bed early on Sunday morning. (Besides, since we’re atheists, we can have our gatherings whenever and wherever we want. We can have them on Saturday night at a bar or an orgy if we want.) If we’re going to continue to thrive, we need to provide the genuinely valuable things that people get from their religious communities.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    To be perfectly honest, while I applaud the growing movement of atheist communities, I don’t personally have a need for such a group.

    I was raised a default atheist; religion was never talked about in our home and was not mentioned by my parents. I never went to religious services as a child and in fact didn’t even see the inside of a church until I was 12 years old.

    But I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. My childhood was very “full,” full of family and friends and school and extra-curricular clubs and lessons and classes and camps. I guess we could have squeezed one more thing (church) in there, but I certainly don’t feel like I was lacking any sense of community.

    The idea of getting together weekly (or monthly) with other atheists strikes me as, well, a bit unnecessary. Atheism has never been an issue in my life and I live in a relatively liberal and secular area. I’m certainly not the only person I know who doesn’t attend a church, and I have family and friends with a wide range of beliefs.

    Maybe if I lived in the Bible Belt I’d have a different opinion and feel more of a need for an atheist community?

  • Aj

    Have we got a few working definitions of spirituality or are people all talking about different things? It’s not good enough to say what it’s not, and it’s not good enough to pull out psychological explanations for these desires. There’s a lot of talking about nothing, as the religious do. Lets actually get some working definitions.

    I’m not convinced “spirituality” is a need, as I am not convinced that superstitions or faith are needed. Lots of people say its needed, but then lots of people say a lot of things to protect religion, they say its needed for morality too. Oh, perhaps us atheists don’t need to believe in a divine punisher for morality, but theists would rape and pillage without their beliefs. Swap out morality for comfort, hope, or enjoyment.

    Further, wants are not needs, benefits are not necessities. Would people benefit in a particular activity associated with religion? Yes, therefore its only sensible for us to see if there’s a secular alternative. A good example would be meditation. There are plenty of activities most people don’t do, or don’t do enough, that would be beneficial.

    Also, community, art, and ritual might be associated with religion, but clearly they’re not inherently religious, and there are already secular alternatives where there are secular people. If you call them “spiritual” you might as well give up on a useful definition.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    If we’re going to continue to thrive, we need to provide the genuinely valuable things that people get from their religious communities.

    Well, if I suddenly see a massive uptake in Unitarianism, I’d agree with you, that there’s such a need for a non-religious community type thing.

    I can also see how people raised religiously may want to replace the “good bits” of religion with something secular.

    But for the most part, I don’t get it at all… I have no idea what “spirituality” really is, and the only definitions that make sense to me, being the awesome wonder of the universe itself, the beauty of mathematics, art, literature and so on, are all very available in a secular form and have communities that support them or allow interaction with that aspect.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe if I lived in the Bible Belt I’d have a different opinion and feel more of a need for an atheist community?

    There is a certain subset of atheists that feels a prime directive to push for atheist identity, just like certain hispanic groups feel a need to press recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. These groups have their own agenda, but we don’t have to play along just because they want us to.

    The rest of us are happy to live our lives as normal human beings without pretending to be special because of accidents of birth or belief. Just because you don’t buy into the whole God thing doesn’t mean that you have to create an atheist little league.

    Instead, you could just do what a normal human being does: send your kids to a regular little league without ghettoizing yourself in the way that orthodox Jews do. I’ll take assimilation with everyone around me over unnecessarily creating enemies anyday. When it comes to religion, you just do the same that you’d do with politics, sports teams, or any other controversial topic: don’t talk about it. Talking about something else really is no big deal.

  • http://www.sheeptoshawl.com writerdd

    It’s frustrating sometimes. It reminds of a conversation I had with Dan Barker. He told me that sometimes, if he tries hard enough, he still can recall a “spiritual” sensation, and he believes that there is something like a bell curve of individuals who feel these sensations strongly or not at all, and various points in between.

    What I suspect is that many of the people here are at one end of the bell curve, and do not understand why other people would have a need that they don’t have. If Barker is right, then we need to seriously acknowledge this and stop telling ourselves, “well, I find no value in this, so this must be rubbish”.

    Bingo!

    Barker is definitely right.

    Even though I have been an atheist for over a decade, I don’t have to try very hard at all to bring up spiritual sensations. I can still pretty much do it at will. I just realize now that they are not caused by the supernatural but they are real sensations and experiences that are not worthless or trivial. It’s part of my life and part of who I am. I would not want to give up these sensations and feelings because I realize they are psychological or emotional.

    These things can be experienced through various types of meditation and community rituals and many other ways by those who feel a need to have these experiences without religion or belief in gods or anything supernatural.

    I guess those who say they have no idea what we are talking about when we use the word “spiritual” outside of a supernatural scenario have just never had these types of experiences.

  • Brian

    G’day
    As suggested by others, I don’t think we can read too much into the conclusions of this survey when we don’t know how they classified “unaffiliated”. There is a history of surveys on religion drawing pro-religious conclusions from ambiguous categorisation of the non-affiliated.

    It may be instructive to look at Europe (especially Scandinavia), where secularism has a much longer history, to see how non-religious societies fair without the spiritual or community opportunities that religion currently provides in the US. Though currently in the US there may be specific issues related to a transitional phase in the movement towards a secular society that are not at play in such countries. I’m in Australia, a much more secular country than the US, and I don’t see these issues as being particularly significant for non-religious Australians – I could be wrong about that though.
    Cheers

  • Brooks

    Whenever people bring up the concept of church like atheist communities, I’m always reminded of this genius video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziIwuhWLNtA

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    Brooks, that video was funny.

  • K

    Ya know, some people NEEEEED fake-friends and a false sense of security. To me, Atheist Sunday school sounds awful. First, I’d have to make time to take my kid. Second, what are you teaching my kid? I homeschool and I’m not so quick to just hand over his brain to just anyone. I don’t need someone else to teach him morals. He already has plenty of friends, real friends, not Sunday only friends. I don’t require a Sunday babysitter, as it is, I’d be having to work my schedule around this thing…it’s all just too binding to me. See, we dropped the christian chains years ago and we’re not in any hurry to put on new ones. You people who NEEEEED all this in your life, have at it.

  • Allison

    What I would like to see is a group that’s a reminder of and spur towards humanist ideals. UU churches don’t fit very well for me — they’re too accepting of “all paths lead to the same place” woo. However, that kick in the butt or nudge in the right direction on a regular basis can be useful.

    I’ve given up on every straight-out “humanist” or “atheist” group I’ve encountered other than online gathering spots for atheists who have something else in common. Why? SOOOOOO much time is devoted to what we’re not rather than to what we are. I hear a lot of bitterness. I understand that people have been wounded by religion, but frankly I have kids and wouldn’t want them around some of the stuff I’ve heard in such groups.

    I suspect that if there were an Ethical Culture group around here, I would be involved in it. There isn’t one around here, though. The American Atheists vein is strong where I live, and I’m not comfortable with it.

    I’m not going to abandon my atheist ways because of the shortcomings of the group, but I do understand to a certain extent.

  • Pingback: Wherein atheists BAWW at ‘unaffilateds’ who become ‘religious’ « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  • Mike M.

    Very interesting and some great points are brought up. My wife attends Willow Creek, one of the mega-churches in the suburbs of Chicago and I went with her on Easter and my overwhelming thought was “All of this stuff would be so cool and fantastic if it weren’t for the religious part”. They are helping thousands of people around the world, doing very positive things in the community and generally helping a ton of people that need a hand. Get them to stop linking it to the super-natural and you have a winner.

  • http://william-sharp.blogspot.com/ William Sharp

    Hemant, first time reader here who digs your take on the Pew survey results. I have read analysis on other sites from a Christian perspective, which focused on the outflows of people from religious affiliations into having no religious affiliations, so it is cool to read a breakdown from the atheist perspective where you are flipping that around.

    Your conclusion that atheists are “hurting ourselves if we shun all the positive things churches provide just because we find their beliefs so irrational” is right on, in my opinion. As someone about to finish college, I’ve often thought about the opportunities for working for religious institutions and how those opportunities are not exactly available in the secular world. Sure, there are spiritual counselors and charity or social workers, but the job of a pastor, for example, is so clear cut and well-defined: teach from scripture, relate your spiritual counseling to the outside world, help the needy, and so on. In thinking about this, I’ve wished for a “church” that offers a position like that, only without the scripture behind it. Does Unitarianism provide the answer?

    The concluding sentence of your post is key: I’m not sure if they Pew results back this up, but surely there is a large group of people who become regular attendees of a religious institution because they feel they need to raise their kids in “that kind of environment,” one that provides the teaching of morals from some power that is not the childrens’ parents as well as a sense of community. So I agree: there exist options other than buying into attending church, which should be the most serious of commitments, to raising your kids. Don’t say you’re religious when you’re only at church for familial, perhaps non-spiritual reasons.


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