Aging populations may put brakes on global secularization trends

Is there an inexorable trend toward secularization in the West as younger generations in nations from the U.S. to Switzerland are less likely to affiliate with organized religion?

Or does longstanding evidence that people become more religious as they age indicate that secularization trends may reverse in rapidly aging societies of high-income countries?

It is a difficult question for social scientists to answer. In many ways it tests whether secular culture will have the same appeal in the face of the existential meaning, social support and other goods that faith has long offered individuals confronting their own mortality.

At least one group of researchers has come up with some preliminary indications.

In what they say is the first systematic attempt to analyze this issue, three Russian researchers found the aging effect was far more dominant in predicting greater religiosity as one gets older than the cohort effect was in predicting less faith in more secular generations as they age. The co-authors of the report were Sergey Shulgin, Julia Zinkina and Andrey Korotayev.

Their study looking at several measures of religiosity in high-income nations found that in all cases individuals were more likely to be significantly more religious as they age.

The findings may have critical implications for rapidly aging societies in more affluent nations.

“It is mainly in the developed countries that global aging may have the most pronounced effect on slowing down the transition from religious to secular values or, possibly, even on some increase in religiosity,” the researchers said in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Why Religion Is Important to Older People

It is not an either-or question.

Studies have found indicators of declining religiosity in successively more secular generations, while research also has continued to find a general pattern of religiosity increasing with age.

Among the reasons religion is so important to older people, researchers note, is that their beliefs and practices allow many to cope with later-life stresses such as the loss of a spouse or debilitating illness and facing death. As they lose a sense of control over their own lives, some also find religion to be reassuring that a compassionate divinity is looking out for them in their time of need.

Religious institutions further offer a source of social support, providing a network of friends to meet their social needs, scholars have pointed out.

In the Russian study, researchers examined data from five waves of the World Values Survey from 1981 to 2014. The researchers measured changing attitudes in mostly 10-year periods, both by age, from 15 to 100, and by generation, from those born in 1890 through to those born in 2000.

They found some evidence of the effect of secularization in that groups of people, or cohorts, raised in more secular periods, showed statistically significant signs that religion and God were less significant in their lives. They also were less likely to attend services and had reduced confidence in churches.

The effect of secularization “should in no way be neglected,” the researchers said.

Aging Is a Stronger Factor than Secularization

But the researchers found the aging effect was much stronger in all nine measurements compared with the secularization effect.

Thus, as they aged, older individuals were even more likely to grow in service attendance, confidence in the church and the importance of religion and God in their lives.

But the aging effect was also strongly tied to other factors such as belief in God, being active members in religious organizations, a perceived lack of freedom of choice and control in their own lives and considering themselves a religious person.

“Our analysis has not revealed either a single religiosity‐related variable for which only the cohort (but not age) effect would be significant, or a single variable for which the cohort effect would be stronger than age effect,” researchers said.

The results suggest the greater religiosity of older people in developed countries is not being offset by the effects of living in more secular cultures.

Does Aging Foreshadow a More Religious Future?

The findings raise important questions about the future of religion in developed countries, which are on the leading edge of an expected explosion over the next 30 years in the percentage of the population ages 60 and older.

In Japan, one of the countries most affected by aging, there are a number of indicators revealing a slowdown of secularization trends and even a resurgence of religiosity, the Russian researchers noted.

But more research needs to be done, nearly everyone would agree.

And there are many factors from immigration and birth rates to dramatic economic, cultural or political movements that can influence demographic projections on religion.

As the colorful legendary New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once advised, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

For Americans, it would be particularly fascinating if Baby Boomers, so long the archetype of a generation known for challenging institutions, play a role in a religious revival.

It is not out of the question.

In summing up their study, the Russian researchers stated their findings imply an important conclusion: Aging populations in wealthier, developed nations “may slow down the transition from religious to secular values … and even lead to some increase in the general level of religiosity.”

Care to learn more?

The July 2, 2019, article in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion is titled Religiosity and Aging: Age and Cohort Effects and Their Implications for the Future of Religious Values in High‐Income Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Countries. Co-authors are Sergey Shulgin, Julia Zinkina and Andrey Korotayev.

Image from National Archives and Records Administration, [Public Domain]
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