Depending on where you are in the world, you may believe in one kind of God or another, or you may not believe in anything. But one thing is for sure, according to a new report, as you get older you're far more likely to veer into God-fearing territory. Why? Because you start to realize that, in fact, you will die someday. (Sorry to be the one to tell you!) Apparently there's nothing like a dose of mortality to make you want to get on the right side of whatever deity you've always suspected might control your fate in the afterlife. Yes, it's true: Even the most atheistic among you might someday find yourselves turning to the sky and saying, "Are you there God? It's me, Margaret [or whatever your name is]."
The report analyzes data from from the General Social Survey by researchers from the University of Chicago and looks at people from 30 different countries who were survey two or more times during 1991 and 2008. The people were asked three main questions about their belief in God. One was about their level of belief (from atheist to strong belief). Another was about how their beliefs had changed during their lifetime, and the final one was about their attitude toward the idea that God is concerned with their personal lives. What, no question about whether God is concerned with the fate of their favorite sports team? I guess that wasn't even necessary, because, duh, obviously He is.
Anyway, what researchers discovered is that as people aged they were more likely to believe in God. Of those surveyed who were 27 and younger, only 23 percent of them were certain that there is a God. But that number grew to 43 percent by the time people were 68 and older. The biggest change in religious belief seems to take place in late middle age. Tom W. Smith, the author of the report, wrote,
Looking at differences across adjoining age groups shows that the largest increases were most often between the 58-67 year olds and those 68+. This suggests that belief in God is especially likely to increase among the oldest groups, perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality.
This makes a certain amount of sense, since as you live longer, you're sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself must become more clear, which naturally leads to religion. And, of course, there's the fact that the prospect of disappearing into a vast, empty nothingness does not sound nearly as appealing as being spirited up into a heaven filled with harps and clouds—though if you're not careful it might be down to a fiery hell filled with reality show stars and Tea Partiers instead.
The report also discussed the geographic distribution of belief, and you might not be surprised to learn that countries that were dominated by Catholicism showed the strongest belief in God. Continuing its grand tradition of exceptionalism, the United States had the highest belief in God among the developed countries, and it turns out about 68 percent of Americans overall believed in a personal God. Meanwhile, atheism has a strong hold on countries in northwest Europe, like Scandinavia and those of the former Eastern Bloc (except Poland).
Interestingly, the overall trend worldwide is a slow erosion of religious belief. Said Tom Smith, "Belief in God has decreased in most countries, but the declines are quite modest, especially when calculated on a per annum basis." Still, that does lead to real change over time. If the current trend continues in the U.S., atheism could become far more widespread, and, who knows, maybe someday we'll even elect an atheist president. Gasp! Though with the baby boomers now firmly into the decade when the largest changes in belief in God are seen, chances are we'll see at least a short-term uptick in religious belief as they contend with their impending death and prepare to hand off their country to the next generation of Godless heathens.
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