God and the Elderly

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?

Kathy Schiffer is the wife of a deacon and mother of three grown children. For more than 20 years she has worked in the Catholic world, as a radio producer, conference director, event planner and media relations coordinator.  She lives and writes in Southfield, MI. Visit her website at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/kathyschiffer.
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