God and Old People

Belief in God increases with age.

That is the finding of a longitudinal study by researchers at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. The Center conducted three surveys on religious faith, questioning people of different age groups in 30 different countries. The surveys—conducted in 1991, 1998, and again in 2008—explored the range of faith experiences in these countries:

Australia, Austria, Chile, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

The research showed a statistically significant difference:  Some 43% of people in the over-68 age group were convinced that God exists. In contrast, among people aged 27 and younger, only 23% were firm believers in God.

But here is where the researchers make an interpretive leap:  They conclude that belief in God grows as mortality nears.

Researcher Tom Smith interprets the findings.  “This suggests,” Smith says, “that belief in God is essentially likely to increase among the oldest groups, perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality.”

The causative relationship, in Smith’s paradigm, is:

Increased Age = Fear of Death = Increased Faith

But wait a minute! Isn’t it possible that there are other factors influencing one’s faith? How about, for example, experience and wisdom?

Isn’t it possible that as people pass through the years of their lives, they see more and more evidence of a loving Creator, as they gaze on God’s handiwork—in the birth of a child, an answered prayer, a spouse’s unyielding love, a new opportunity?  What of God’s grandeur as displayed in vacation wonderlands, in crimson sunsets and storms subsiding, in starry nights and wooly caterpillars and litters of puppies?  Isn’t faith enriched and nurtured by great art, music, architecture?  By the steadfast witness of a mother’s love?

What I’m proposing, then, is a new paradigm that looks more like this:

Increased Age = Experience = Wisdom = Increased Faith

In my own lived experience, I faced college years when God seemed like an intellectual construct. As life hit me in the face, He became a larger and larger figure, until now, it seems absurd to consider the cosmos, or even a microcosm like my weedy old backyard, existing except by the will of an infinitely creative Mind.

Being afraid to die—sensing impending mortality—has nothing to do with it.

But tell me: What do YOU think?

  • http://fromthepulpitofmylife.blogspot.com/ Ruth Ann Pilney

    I can’t think of a time when I didn’t firmly believe in God. I knew I did when my little friend Lois asked a small group of friends, including me, if we believed in God. I didn’t know much about God. But I thought about it and decided I did. It was later when I was formally introduced to catechism lessons. What I find surprising are the numbers of those who don’t believe in God’s existence.

  • http://www.woodeene.blogspot.com Woodeene

    I think that the realization of mortality is a major factor in increased faith. Perhaps it comes from the wisdom to realize one doesn’t live forever. :)

  • Holly in Nebraska

    “Teach us to number our days aright,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Ps. 90

    It’s probably both.

  • Kristen indallas

    I haven’t lived long enough to know much about the role fear of death has… but I have “lived” enough to know that you aren’t wrong either. I haven’t seen a formal study, but the way to test it and it’s true enough in my experience of people: in the 30-50 age brackets, people who have lived life from one crazy expeience to the next, or who have faced extreme situations, tend to have more faith than those that shelter themselves. And even in the 70+ bracket, those that have somehow managed to sneak through life without having done much of anything tend to be more pessimistic about God and life after death. That would seem to indicate experience = faith.
    Of course my own take is a little nuanced… instead of asking why older people believe in God, asking why younger people don’t: Less expirienced = less understanding of self = greater fear of God. Because, truthfully the God part seems pretty obvious once we let go of our own hangups. Is belief in God something we “grow” into, or is it more of an “oh, duh!” moment when we finally stop looking at our own feet? :)

    • Kristen indallas

      and when I say younger I mean teens and twenty-somethings. Little kids can also be surprisingly aware (of themselves and of God). Curious… did this study include 5 year olds? :)

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