Late life conversions

There are a number of stereotypes about nonbelief embedded in pop culture that I’d like to know more about. Some may be true, and if not, it’s interesting to ask why.

For example, there’s this notion that a lot of nonbelievers will convert to a religion late in life. As death approaches, the stereotype goes, nonbelief becomes less sustainable.

I guess this has some surface plausibility. If you’re at a point in life where you’re less distracted by daily concerns, and if the closeness of death serves to concentrate the mind, promises to supernaturally transcend the impermanence of all we care for may well become more tempting. And I don’t mean just a desire for personal immortality. That can appear crass, or selfish. It’s more a sense of futility, of a meaninglessness that needs to be overcome by something beyond what we care about in our earthly lives.

I confess that this feeling that transience drains life of meaning does not resonate with me. But it seems to grab a lot of people. And if so, well, the expectation that atheism will wear thin at the end of life can make sense.

Still, what I’d be really interested in is how much of a real phenomenon this is, beyond any surface plausibility late life conversion stories might have. Is it frequent? More frequent than instances of late life falling away from faith? Is it just another cultural stereotype affirming the value of religion but having no connection to real social phenomena?

And how would I find out anyway? Writing this, I’m beginning to suspect that this is one of those questions that’s very difficult to provide a satisfactory answer for.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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