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Study Notes

Age and Religious Belief

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 17 Jul 2018

The link between age and belief appears to be particularly significant, but it does differ significantly between religions.

It is often said that older people are more religious, but that is a rather ethnocentric view, as, in the UK, it largely applies to Christianity.

The 2011 UK census revealed some interesting data on this. First, 22% of those who identify as Christian were over 65, compared with only 3.9% of Muslims. Contrastingly 88% of Muslims were under 50. While Christianity has a rapidly aging population, other religions, and notably Islam, have a much younger age profile.

Those people who said they had no religious belief, in the 2011 census, also tended to be young with over a third being under 25. Brierley (2005) found that the average age of church goers increased from 37 to 49 between 1979 and 2005.

While these trends do not apply to all religions, there are a number of key reasons suggested for why older people are more religious and why younger people are less religious:

Older people are often more religious because:

  • more aware of their own mortality; wanting to book a place in the afterlife
  • religious practice was more common when they were young and they were socialised to be religious in a way younger people are not
  • religious organisations offer a social life and support network for people who have become more isolated and disengaged from wider society.

Younger people are often less religious because:

  • Religious institutions (particularly traditional ones) are unattractive or boring
  • Greater competition – both in terms of a spiritual marketplace and in terms of other pursuits and other, secular, sources of inspiration. For example, young people might find some of the functions of religion in subcultures, through sport, celebrity, popular music, etc. Lynch (2008) makes this case. When Durkheim talked of the sacred and profane, he saw the sacred as religious – but for many young people they might hold various secular heroes and symbols sacred.
  • Bruce points to the decline in religious education. Although there was a revival of faith schools in the 1990s and 2000s, there has been a huge decline in Sunday Schools from a situation when over half the children in the UK attended one to the situation today where they may be on the brink of extinction. Bruce predicted that Sunday Schools might die out by 2016, but he was wrong about that.

Many of these ideas were outlined by Voas and Crockett (2005).

Church census findings present a slightly more complex picture with young children being one of the groups with the highest church attendance, falling away in the teens and then building back up to a peak in late middle age. Brierley (2005) found that the age group with lowest church attendance was 15-19. Of course, children may well not have much choice in attending church, either from family or through a church school. It is not necessarily an indication of belief, although it suggests that many parents still consider it important. The reason for the peak in attendance not being in the very oldest age group is presumably because the oldest believers struggle to attend ceremonies because of health or mobility issues or lack of transport.

Outside traditional churches and religions there is a mixed picture in terms of age. Sects often appeal to young adults, for some of the same reasons that they appeal to the working class and to women. They can offer companionship and community, a sense of belonging and indeed might chime with radical or counter-culture ideas that have developed from other aspects of popular culture. The same might also be true of some New Age movements and cults, although these tend to particularly appeal to middle-aged, middle-class women.

Evaluating patterns in age and belief

  • If anything the census data on “no religion” and Christianity is likely to understate the scale of this issue. A small but significant group of young people completing the census opted for various “comedy” religions rather than state that they had no religion. We already mentioned Jedi Knights (which remained popular in 2011, although it fell behind a number of “proper” religions) but they were joined by such religions as “heavy metal”. Furthermore, a number of people (and there is no real way of measuring how many) are likely to have identified as Christian without really having much if any religious belief and without practising the faith. They might identify as Christian more as a label of ethnicity than of religious faith.
  • Of course this might be even more the case for some other religions, specifically associated with certain minority-ethnic groups. The data for Muslims might be just as questionable: religious faith and observance tends to be seen as very important in Muslim families and there may be assumptions about the religious beliefs of family members that would be entered onto the census form without necessarily reflecting people’s private beliefs. This will be considered further in the next section.

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