Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why Were the Fifty-Somethings the Least Likely to Leave Religion?

The Pew Religion and Public Life project hosted an excellent discussion of what the increase in religious 'nones' (people who profess no religion) means.  One of the tables presented plotted the increase by age from 2008 to 2012.

The main point is that the young are more likely to now say they have no religion than are the old.

What struck me most, though, was the trough right in the middle of this chart: people in their early 50s were the least likely to say they had become less connected to a religious institution in that period.

I am drawn to this table because it has a puzzling anomaly that needs explaining.  I am also drawn to this table because I am in my early 50s, and I have had no inclination in this period to leave the church.

I do not have a good explanation.  I do have one hypothesis to offer, and maybe two.

First, this age group is on the cusp between the Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, between inflated rhetoric and 'just do it.' Being able to partly identify each way, perhaps we are willing to give the church, the land of inflated rhetoric, another chance to just do it in making a better world.

Second, this is exactly the age group of President Obama (b. 1961).  The people most likely to say they had no religion are young Democrats. Perhaps Democrats of the president's cohort are less likely to give up on religion when they see him stay with the mainline church that gave his life direction.


Michael Kruse said...

I think this may be stage of life issue more than a generational issue. When we reach our fifties, we get to be the ones in charge. Church life brings us status in a way it did not earlier or will later. I've heard pastors say that contrary to popular thought, the oldest members are not the most resistant to change. People in their fifties feel like they have paid their dues and are entitled to call the shots. Many older adults have to greater appreciation of their mortality and are less concerned with status and power.

Fifties is when kids are leaving the nest. Parents may have been staying with church for the children. Over time, strong bonds form with the church. There is a slow attrition of parents at earlier ages leaving only the truly committed by the time we get to people in their fifties. Moving to sixties. Children no longer are home. The connectedness that centered on activity related to children is no longer there. Bonds to the church become weaker. We move to be near grand-kids and never find a church home. Just speculating.

I do sense that some of my peers in my church (I'm 54) are in church because of the network of people and those networks were formed around their children. Personal spiritual depth is shallow and weak. Take away the need for the network and the bonds radically weaken.

Anonymous said...

I'm 50. I know the church is a mess. I knew that when I joined up because I was raised in the church. Maybe it's just that people our age are already disillusioned, and so we're harder to disappoint -- even though the church has done it's best. We also know there's no where else to go. No one else does the God business. We watched the boomers try the alternatives, (Esalen, Hare Krishna, Scientology, etc) and prove them to be fatuous. The church may be a mess, but at least it's a safe bet.

Anonymous said...

PS In other words, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." Even if your church is a mess.

Gruntled said...

The church may be full of soup, but it's the only bowl we've got.

Anonymous said...

I'm 47 and the product of private schools that were pretty messed up by Vatican II just before I entered the system. Vatican II, at least as far as the elementary schools went, reduced the teaching of the Catholic Church to a pretty thin soup of guitar masses and lay person involvement. It's not a very solid foundation for faith. My kids are getting much more rigor today at St Mark's and I expect they'll have an easier time hanging in with their faith over time.