For many, faith in God rises with age

U. CHICAGO (US) — Belief in God increases with age, even in countries that are largely atheist, according to new research.

International surveys about the depth of people’s belief in God show vast differences among nations, ranging from 94 percent of people in the Philippines who say they always believed in God, to only 13 percent of people in the former East Germany.

Yet the surveys found one constant—belief in God is higher among the elderly, regardless of where they live.

A new report on the international surveys, “Belief About God Across Time and Countries,” was issued by the General Social Survey of the social science research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

The report is based on a comprehensive, international study of belief in God and includes information from the International Social Survey Program, a consortium of the world’s leading opinion survey organizations.

The data comes from 30 countries in which surveys about belief in God have been taken at least twice, in some cases, since 1991. Researchers asked questions to determine people’s range of beliefs, from atheism to strong belief in God; their changing beliefs over their lifetime; and their attitude toward the notion that God is concerned with individuals.

Global beliefs vary

Countries with the strongest belief in God tended to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, such as the Philippines. The people of the United States stood out for their high in belief in God among developed countries with large Protestant populations. Competition among denominations may account for that interest in religion, says study author Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey.

Among the findings:

  • Atheism is strongest in northwest European countries such as Scandinavia and the former Soviet states (except for Poland). The former East Germany has the highest rate of people who say they never believed in God (59 percent); in comparison, 4 percent of Americans had that response.
  • The country with the strongest belief is the Philippines, where 94 percent of those surveyed say they always have believed in God. In the United States, that response came from 81 percent of people surveyed.
  • Although by most measures, belief in God is gradually declining worldwide, it is increasing in Russia, Slovenia, and Israel. In Russia, comparing the difference between those who believe in God but hadn’t previously, and those who don’t believe in God but used to, researchers found a 16 percent change in favor of belief.
  • Support for the concept that God is concerned with people in a personal way ranged from 8 percent in the former East Germany to 82 percent in the Philippines. In the United States, 68 percent of people surveyed hold that view.

“Belief in God has decreased in most countries, but the declines are quite modest especially when calculated on a per annum basis,” Smith says.

The constant

Belief is highest among older adults. On average, 43 percent of those aged 68 and older are certain that God exists, compared with 23 percent of those 27 and younger, according to the report.

“Looking at differences among age groups, the largest increases in belief in God most often occur among those 58 years of age and older. This suggests that belief in God is especially likely to increase among the oldest groups, perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality,” Smith says.

The higher level of belief is not simply a cohort effect, in which people carry forward attitudes shaped in younger years. In the United States, for instance, 54 percent of people younger than 28 say they are certain of God’s existence, compared with 66 percent of the people 68 and older.

In countries with low overall belief in God, the difference in belief between age groups is also strong. In France, for example, 8 percent of younger people say they are certain that God exists, compared with 26 percent of the people 68 and older.

In Austria, 8 percent of the younger generation say they are certain in their belief, while 32 percent of people 68 and older are confident of God’s existence.

The surveys were taken in 1991, 1998, and 2008. Countries included in the survey are: Australia, Austria, Chile, Cyprus, Czech Rep, Denmark, France, Germany (East), Germany (West), Great Britain, Hungary, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Norway, The Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.

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chat12 Comments


  1. Joseph

    This study is interesting but the conclusions are dubious at best. From my vantage point, people 68 years and older grew up in a very different culture from those who are 28 and younger. If you want to conclude that belief in a god comes with age, you need to survey the same subjects throughout their lifetimes. Making this conclusion with such weak data to support it is very unscientific.

  2. ND

    Shows that religion will be dead is 30 years.

  3. abb3w

    …looking at the report, I think someone is not paying close enough to detail.

    In particular on page 5, “A comparison was also carried out of changes across time with cohort. It showed little indication of either aging or cohort effects.” Later on the paragraph, there’s a comparison to two cohorts from the same year (the older being more religious), but claims such interaction “further supports the idea that there is an aging effect in which belief increases as the anticipation of mortality rises” — except, that would only work if they were comparing the same birth cohort in different years. Maybe I’m misreading the report, and they actually are comparing measure in 1998 and 2008 on each birth cohort, but that’s not how the paragraph seems to read.

    I think the US effect looks more the effect of a logistic curve tendency to decreasing religiosity across cohorts (with a roughly generation-sized time constant and 2007 midpoint), combined with short term ebb and flow (net neutral) cultural tides on each cohort, with the levels of religious/irreligious retaining roughly constant internal levels of god belief/disbelief over time/cohort in the culture.

    Not sure about international.

  4. David T.

    I must be getting younger, because I’ve become less and less of a believer with time. In fact, I became an atheist at age 43 (I’m 48 now) and about a year ago I decided to be more of an activist by forming Hispanic American Freethinkers, which in just a few months now has several hundred members with four chapters opening in other cities. Maybe I’m just weird or the study has a flaw somewhere…

  5. dogger

    It seems to me that the author is trying to suggest that as you get older you are going to get more religious. It also seems he is cherry picking for any and everthing that seems to support this view. For this to even be addressed by this study there would have to had been at least one more question on this survey.

    How have your views on religion altered in the last five. .ten. ..fiften …. twenty years.

    What we are looking at is a cultural shift. ….not people getting religious as they age.

  6. abb3w

    Actually, the issue could be better addressed by asking the question of what someone’s attitude is — with repeated surveys five, ten, and/or twenty years apart. In this case, they do seem to have used seven to ten years (though not for the part I complained about): “The surveys were taken in 1991, 1998, and 2008”. Asking how they’ve changed requires that the changes be enough to actually have been noticeable to a conscious level, and thus is less effective than actually measuring expressed religiosity in the different cohorts at two different times. Of course, that takes longer….

    Also, what they’re looking to measure is the overall net tendency in society, rather than particular individual cases. Either way, some people get more religious over time, and others get less religious. Conversions one way or another tend to peak 16-25 years of age. At this point, the early settle-down of adulthood frequently tends to reduced religiosity from what how one was brought up. Once generational cohorts settle into their adult views, there may still be some drift back and forth from cultural drivers, but the overall trend seems near neutral.

    Of course, even if that’s the tendency, there still can be outliers like David T.
    And the US behavior (which I’m most familiar with the data for) may be an international outlier.

  7. Giridhar Kalidasu

    The study, should have taken the issues raised by Joseph about the cultural background; Dogger about the details of alteration; Abb3w about repeated measures. Then results would have been accurate and acceptable.

  8. aveteran

    The incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s rises with age as well.

  9. Bob

    We are all going to die.. very soon in fact… Turn to JESUS CHRIST NOW by going to a great Christian Church/non denominational one.. The sooner the better… The love, respect, learning you will get is amazing.. Most importantly those whom believe JESUS is LORD and SAVIOR and confess that Fact with their heats and mouths will be Eternally saved… Please do it… GOD Bless all of us…

  10. aveteran

    Maybe you are, Bob, but I’ll be around for quite a while, and I’m certainly not going to waste my remaining time with any Jesus nonsense.

  11. Dianna

    My mother was a Baptist; she died a self declared atheist at the age of 87 – she stated her atheism on hospital information forms and phoned me after some ‘well-meaning’ Christian friends tried to change her mind a few weeks before her death.

    Her breathing was difficult due to the ravages of scleroderma on her lungs, however she told me most emphatically “I am an atheist”.

    In complete lack of respect for my mother, the eulogy delivered by her Christian ‘friend’ stated mum died a Christian.

    Fortunately my insightful cousin advised me that funerals are for the living – thus I treated mum’s Christian friend with more charity than she showed a brilliant woman who never stopped learning and inquiring about the world around her.

  12. Richard Morrison

    Such findings can origin from the fact that principally everyone is afraid of death. Admit or not, but it’s scary. A young student doesn’t think of it, they live their lives, go to parties, study a lot, are always in rush (that’s why they sometimes need or alike) and several live for today. But as they are getting older, they start to think about the end of life and turn to God. Just my opinion.

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