No Atheists in Retirement Homes, But Fewer Believers to Come

July 18, 2008

USAToday’s poll-maven Frank Newport has a quick analysis of some Gallup Polling on religious preference in the States, in this case regarding religiosity by age group. In many ways it’s not too surprising. Newport can’t help himself when it comes to repeating, without caveat, the usual slander of “no atheists in foxholes,” but he’s got a new modification that apparently hits closer to the mark: “no atheists in retirement homes.” Sigh. Anyhow:

Beginning at age 30 this “no religion” percent begins to decline. By age 40 it’s down in the lower teens, and by age 62 it’s in the single digits. It keeps getting lower. Of all of those we interviewed over the past six months who were 89 years of age (over 150 of them), only 2% said that they had no religious identity whatsoever.

That is indeed a pretty tiny percentage of atheists (if that’s what it really represents: as we’ve seen in other surveys, there seems to be considerable confusion as to what counts as an atheist, and some atheists do have “religious identity” in that they are still culturally this or that, such as secular Jews who observe some holiday traditions and so on).

Newport doesn’t mention it, but in addition to plausible factors like generational differences (old people today grew up in an era where the instilled traditions and expectations involved at least a cultural belief in nigh universal faith) and perhaps even just a plain old likelihood to run to religious belief in the face of age and death, I think a pretty plausible factor here is free time: empty-nested parents and older retirees often just have the time and the space to actually sit down and think about religious preferences that they’d been too busy to really consider seriously during their working/parenting years. I’ll bet that in many cases, the “no religious preference” folks are generic cultural Christians who simply never bothered to find themselves a church.

Still, any atheists who look at religious preference as a numbers game can’t help but be encouraged by the higher-than-normal rates of non-belief amongst the current younger generations. If it’s true that people become more religious as they age, it’s still the case that having fewer religious people to start with ultimately implies fewer religious retirees than there would have been. For all those who think that the “New Atheism” hasn’t had any cultural impact other than increased obnoxiousness… well, the numbers are telling a different story.

Personally, I expect that the real difference between the old people of today and the old people of the future is going to be the cultural impact of computers. The Wii is creeping into retirement communities already: imagine 40 years from now how different the ultra-connected net-generation is going to be than their forebears. We may all become just as demented and physically slowed down as any generation before us. But we’re going to do it texting, gaming, blogging, and generally supplementing our fading physical and mental fortunes with the communicative freedoms and entertainments web.