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Religion may play more prominent role in America as baby boomers age

Published: Saturday, Dec. 29 2012 11:55 a.m. MST

Updated: Wednesday, Sept. 10 2014 1:49 p.m. MDT

"We are still religious underneath it all, but in different ways," Newport said.

A recent analysis of those unaffiliated with religion — known as the "nones" — by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found them to be diverse in terms of religious beliefs and practices. While few of them (5 percent) attend church, a majority describe themselves as either a religious person (18 percent) or as spiritual but not religious (37 percent).

Newport writes that Americans are more inclined today to say that they don't belong to any religion than they were in past decades, which "reinforces a drift away from organized formal religion into more casual, less formal religion."

This growth in what Gallup calls "unbranded" Christian churches is one of the factors in the shrinking percentage of people who identify as Protestants, Newport said. Other factors include a low birth rates among Protestants and fewer immigrants from Protestant countries.

"America remains a very religious place, but it is also very dynamic, so there is a lot of change going on," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist with an expertise in religious trends. He said Gallup's huge sample of more than 1 million people makes its findings more precise and comprehensive than typical samples of 1,000 or 2,000.

Different generation

Green said there is a counterargument to Newport's hypothesis that the aging of the baby boom generation will mean an even more religious America than exists today.

While the Morgans' return to religion is the norm for their generation, the baby boom generation is starting at a different baseline than their parents, Green said. Most boomers came of age when social activism was bringing about change, authority was distrusted, and war divided rather than united the nation.

He said there is evidence that a generation's religiosity doesn't significantly change over the life cycle. A Pew study in 2010 showed that in terms of religious affiliation, the percentage of people in a particular generation who were unaffiliated in their younger years stayed relatively the same as members of that generation approached their 60s.

"They will be more religious than they are now, but less religious than the previous generation when they age," Green said. "It will be really interesting to see which of those effects wins out because there is strong evidence both ways."

But Newport said the data tell him that becoming more religious is as reliable an outcome of aging as getting gray hair. He said there are additional factors that put pressure on seniors to become more religious. One of those is health and well-being, which Newport said is associated with being religious not just by pollsters, but also by insurance companies.

Larry and Janet Morgan said the welcoming culture of the Mormon congregation in Lincoln City lured them back to church. But getting older and closer to death also weighed on them and caused them to reflect on their religious upbringing and what they were taught about the afterlife.

"Older people worry more than younger people," he said. "And the older you get you realize your time is limited."

Religious advantage

If Newport is right, the implications could be significant. "The degree of religiousness in a society affects its culture," he writes.

But he and other experts can only speculate on what those effects may be. Some of the changes taking place, such as the rise of unaffiliated believers and unbranded churches, could continue and increase.

"This has significant implications for the future of traditional mainline religious groups that are slower to adapt to change," stated a Gallup news release on the latest poll results.

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