Old Age and Religion


This month, 73 years ago,  I was sent 1200 kilometers away from cheerful idleness to a boarding school run by Roman Catholic Nuns. Religion became as central to my life as for any madrassa student. Now that I am old I no longer go to church twice daily and pray before and after all meals. No colour print of Purgatory on the wall of a communal bathroom shows that, as surely as I shiver naked,  I must inevitably die and then thrash and scream for at least a few centuries in a customised, mini-tornado of bright orange fire. Unless I can jackpot an Act of Perfect Contrition so fast before I go that I have no time for another sin. Even for an unenterprising seven year old this might be a close thing because just a few milliseconds of apostasy is enough to earn a new Purgatorial tariff. Truly heartfelt denial will plunge my soul, illustrated in my Catechism as a white oval speckled with blackheads of veniality, into total Mortal Darkness. A direct ticket to Hell where, as we infants were told, though enough time may pass for a sparrow to brush the earth with its wing once every century, until it sops up the air and oceans and erodes the whole vast planet, our eternities of suffering will not yet have begun. Muslim acquaintances tell me that they were given the same news with the bonus that between death and judgement they will be conscious of the sights, sounds and smells of their future torments.

Dante's inferno

I do not believe that my infant education only reflected an aberrant obsolete version of True Catholicism or of True Christianity any more than I think that the beliefs that have brought three unsuccessful, French, petty criminals to murder and world-wide publicity have nothing  to do with True Islam. These are  inchoate belief-systems, the sums of  parts, many of which are extremely repellent. Believers make up their own “faiths” from what fragments they please and then, like Sunnis and Shias or Prods and Catholic take licence to kill each other for discrepant selections. Like the New French Martyrs I was instructed by formidable authority-figures in black robes. While Sister Scholastica did not have a neck-beard or a scary paunch, or glisten with good living, she was so intimidating that if she had told me to strap on a bomb and blow up the nearest Anglican Church, Hindu Temple, Islamic Mosque, Lamasery or even a religiously-dodgy fast-parata outlet I would have snivelled piteously, put on the gear and trotted to oblivion like the little Nigerian girls Boku Haram abuses in the name of God and his Messenger.

J with child

Now, at last, old age has relieved me from speculation about which of the witty tortures described in Dante’s Guide Book I am most likely to suffer. Is this part of a change that we all experience or is it only personal?  Starter questions are whether the incidence of religious belief is declining and whether it differs between age groups.

McAndrew and Voas  ( 1 and in their many other reports) give a fine introduction to how religiosity can, and should not be quantified. One lesson is that we need to discover what people actually do, rather than what they say that they believe. In 1980 Religious Trends No 7  reported that 5,201,300 people, 11.1% of the UK population, had attended Church on a given Sunday. By 2005 this number was 6.3% and is predicted to drop to 5% in 2015.  This seems to reflect both falling uptake of belief among the young and progressive deaths of the more religious old.

A  UK Ipsos MORI poll in January 2007 found that 36%, (about 17 million adults) were humanist in basic outlook and, including these, 41% agreed that ‘This life is the only life we have and death is the end of our personal existence’ and 62% said that ‘Human nature, by itself, gives us an understanding of what is right and wrong.’ Only 27% agreed that ‘People need religious teachings in order to understand what is right and wrong’. The 2013 YouGov poll found that only 25% of 16-24 year olds believed in any God and 38% neither believed in any God nor in any “greater spiritual power”. Only 12% were influenced by religious leaders. In the next, 2014, YouGov poll 77% of UK respondents said they were not religious.

World trends are consistent with those in the UK. A 2012, WIN/Gallup poll found that 36% of the world’s population said they were not religious and 13% of these were atheists. A significant increase on previous years. A  2014 Pew Global Attitudes Survey, found that most adults in all of the 9 European countries as well as in Canada, Israel, Japan, Australia, Argentina and Chile did not think that a belief in God necessary to being moral. In France this majority reached 85% and in Spain 80%. A 2014 WIN/Gallup poll found that scepticism of the benefits of religion is greater in Britain than in most other countries. Only 33% of British respondents saw religion as a force for good and over a quarter believed that it has a negative impact. In Denmark, Belgium, France and Spain, the overall perception of religion is negative, particularly among the young and better-educated.  The jihadist term “boku haram” (Western Education is religiously impermissible) does  describe reality. Before and after the Galileo Trial Christian burnings and contemporary Muslim floggings and beheadings and  illustrate the tradition of brutally silencing dissident voices.

Declines in religiosity have recently accelerated but they are the latest stages of a long ebb noted by Matthew Arnold in 1859 2:


The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Religiosity is diluted by secular education and also by assimilation into a different culture. The large European Social Survey (ESS) found that while 60.5% of Muslim immigrants who have lived for less than a year in Europe regularly go to mosque, attendance declines, after a year, to 48.8%. Over half of immigrants rarely or never go to a mosque to pray. Despite extraordinarily efforts, by energetic and intimidating fundamentalist movements, mosque attendance is falling in many Arab countries, particularly among the young and most especially in Iran 3. Functionaries of all religions unsurprisingly do their best simultaneously to avoid bringing the declines of their beliefs directly to attention and to counter them.  So protecting their influence, considerable privileges, political clout and relatively easy lives.

Declines in religious beliefs are paralleled by the desire to separate religion and government. In a 2012 UK YouGov poll 67% of people did not think that religion should play any role in public life. In the 2010 British Social Attitudes Survey 75% believed that their religious leaders should not try to influence their voting behaviour; 67% believed religious leaders should stay out of government decision making. 45% believed that the involvement of religious leaders in government would damage policy; 25% believe religious involvement would produce better policy; 82% of those who classed themselves as non-religious and 63% of those who consider themselves religious believe that “people with very strong religious beliefs are often too intolerant of others”.

None of this tells me whether my personal loss of religion as I have aged is typical of my generation. For this we would need longitudinal surveys of individual lifetimes and I can only find cross-sectional data. Representative of these are summary data from the combined 1973-98 General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. These US trends also appear for most countries and religions.

1900-09 1910-19 1920-29 1930-39 1940-49 1950-59 1960 ON
18-29 27 29 28
30-39 37 36 34 32
40-49 39 40 37 38
50-59 46 44 45 40
60-69 53 46 48 45
70-79 54 57 52 50
80+ 61 55 52
59% 56% 49% 46% 43% 36% 33% 29%

The bottom row shows that more old than younger people say that they are religious.  The columns show similar trends but cells represent different groups so neither rows nor columns tell us whether individuals become more or less religious as they age.

A different possibility is that there is something about religion that is especially nurturing and comforting for the elderly.  Apart from the great promise of eternal life beyond the reach of pollsters there do seem to be earthly and temporal benefits.

Americans aged 65+ % “very happy” by health status and Religiosity

STRONG 63% 58% 51% 45% 30% 28%
SOMEWHAT 61 59 32 32 30 20
NOT VERY 54 60 38 32 25 18
NO AFFILIATION 45 67 29 39 18 10
TOTAL 58% 59% 41% 40% 27% 24%

Strong religiosity seems to be associated with better health. Interestingly, more so for old men than old women. These numbers are consistent with data from other studies that also suggest that the faithful live longer. I cannot find analyses in which differences in affluence and lifestyle, possibly associated with religiosity, have also been considered. Also, belonging to particular religious groups may give elderly people many kinds of useful support. So I can favour no single explanation.

If, having religion prolongs life, for whatever reason, it might be good for me to take it up again as soon as I can. This is difficult because lifelong encounters with the weird Middle-East Trinity of ultra-punitive religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism make me consider their premises equally ridiculous, and their belligerence, (whether in Republican USA, in Saudi-Arabia or in Jerusalem) equally disgusting. An added bonus is that I try to base my interpretations of the world on logic and on generally agreed data with none of the legal protection from contradiction or mockery enjoyed by “Beliefs”. For comfort, longevity and legal protection there is nothing  to do but what countless charlatans have done, and invent a new religion. I shall base it on the Holy and Refulgent Gerbil, whose true name I can never reveal to you lest unbelievers profane it with their filthy heretical tongues and lips and sinful laughter. Nor may I devise and show you any image of the Sacred HARG. Human representations would be insulting because they cannot capture the Sacred HARG’s Infinitely Gerbilly Nature and might even mislead true believers into idolatry. (Of course HE is MALE, how could HE possibly be otherwise?).

J John

If unbelievers  insult the divinity of HARG by drawing images of Him, or  ignore the stern but just Laws  I have carefully derived from the wise teachings (made manifest to me, alone) that I have recorded for the guidance of all mankind in scrupulous commentaries and hadiths….I shall become very, very, very cross indeed!  I shall invoke the power of the Common Law to silence your insults and I shall also, personally, revenge your abuse of the Sacred Harg on your sinful body.  I have no gun and am squeamish of mess. Unlike the present head of my former faith, Pope (“Slugger”) Francis, I will not punch you in the face (he is younger and seems more limber than I am, and has the Swiss Guard to back him up). Like my sainted mentor Sister Scholastica, at the slightest hint of impiety I will hit you with a very heavy and very sharp-angled ruler, as hard and often as I possibly can, on the tender backs of your disgusting heretical legs.

  1. McAndrew and D. Voas (U of Manchester) SQB Topic Overview 4 (Feb 2011).
  2. Matthew Arnold. New Poems, pub 1867.
  3. M. Tezcur*, T. Azadarmaki & M. Bahar (2006). Religious Participation among Muslims: Iranian Exceptionalism Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 15, No. 3, 217–232.


About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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